Revisiting the Denver Post’s disgracefully stupid Cory Gardner endorsement

The 2014 Colorado Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and Republican challenger Cory Gardner presented a rare challenge for a Denver Post editorial board that has long made an art form of timid, anchorless, empty-headed centrism. Neither candidate offered the board an easy opportunity to do all of the things it does by default: curry favor with incumbents and frontrunners, fetishize bipartisanship for its own sake and issue tongue-clucking admonishments to the extremes on Both Sides, and attempt to buttress their fair-and-balanced bona fides among movement conservatives who couldn’t be less appeased. Confronted with a tight race between two unremarkable avatars of their respective parties’ mainstreams, for once the Post had a real choice to make.

When it chose Gardner, the board faced a second, far greater challenge: how to string some words together into a passably coherent argument for a vote that would help return control of the Senate to the Republican Party and a conservative agenda to which the paper was nominally largely opposed.

The resulting endorsement was roundly, deservedly ridiculed at the time—“baffling,” “asinine,” “genuinely bizarre,” “the most singularly box-of-rocks dumb rationale I ever read in my life”—but it’s only in light of this year’s healthcare saga that its awe-inspiring daftness can be fully appreciated. As the Senate under a unified Republican federal government hurries to pass—without a single hearing or committee vote, by what will likely be a razor-thin majority—legislation that will impoverish, immiserate, bankrupt, sicken and/or kill tens of millions of Americans, it’s worth revisiting, piece by piece, an artifact of the media’s credulous worship of process and propriety and consensus politics that helped get us here in the first place.

“Congress is hardly functioning these days. It can’t pass legislation that is controversial and it often can’t even pass legislation on which there is broad agreement. Its reputation is abysmal, and even its members rarely dispute the popular indictment.

It needs fresh leadership, energy and ideas, and Cory Gardner can help provide them in the U.S. Senate.”

From its very first words, the endorsement is clear about its priorities: Congress is, in the moral calculus of fish-brained centrists everywhere, to be judged principally on the degree to which it is functioning or not.

It must be of great relief to the editorial board, then, that nearly three years later, the Senate is getting a lot done. It has made it easier for coal companies to dump mining waste into streams, easier for internet providers to sell their customers’ personal data, easier for federal contractors to cover up workplace safety violations, and harder for cities and states to help workers save for retirement. It confirmed a radical champion of school privatization as Education Secretary, a notorious global-warming denier as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a man deemed too racist to be a federal judge thirty years ago as Attorney General. Most consequentially of all, it installed a far-right Supreme Court justice after an unprecedented yearlong obstruction of the previous president’s nominee. Sen. Cory Gardner, fresh and energetic and full of ideas, has voted for all of this and more.

If he gets the chance, he will almost certainly vote for the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, too. In its current form, the bill would strip health coverage from tens of millions of people, impose annual and lifetime limits on tens of millions of those lucky enough to remain insured, directly cause tens of thousands of additional preventable deaths and untold thousands of medical bankruptcies annually, cut Medicaid spending by more than a third, devastate rural hospitals, send premiums for middle-aged workers skyrocketing, eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions, force sick people who miss insurance payments to wait six months to regain coverage—and exempt Congress itself from any of these consequences. But, hey, at least there’s no more gridlock. That’d be awful.

“In every position the Yuma Republican has held over the years — from the state legislature to U.S. House of Representatives — he has quickly become someone to be reckoned with and whose words carry weight. An analysis on ABC News’ website, for example, singled out Gardner a year ago — before he declared for the Senate — as one of the party’s ‘rising stars’ who represented ‘a new generation of talent’ and who had become a ‘go-to’ member of leadership.

And this was about someone who wasn’t elected to Congress until 2010.”

You might assume Gardner became a “rising star” the same way any other youngish Republican who doesn’t look like a Morlock and can go five minutes without defending marital rape or the Confederacy tends to earn that label, but the truth is even more pathetic than that.

The above quotes—originally attributed simply to ABC News, before the Post edited the endorsement without a correction—came from an op-ed by Joe Brettell, then a paid consultant for a conservative PR firm with a host of clients with business before the House Republican majority; Brettell had also previously worked for Marilyn Musgrave, who’d occupied Gardner’s seat in Congress until 2008. His “analysis” was vapid, transactional fluff, which is why neither he nor the Post could name a single thing Gardner had actually accomplished during his tenures in the state legislature and Congress. Even in the broken logic of an endorsement that explicitly regards what government does as less important than whether it Gets Things Done, he had no achievements worth mentioning.

“Udall is a fine man with good intentions, and on some issues our views are closer to his than to Gardner’s. But he is not perceived as a leader in Washington and, with rare exceptions such as wind energy and intelligence gathering, he is not at the center of the issues that count — as his Democratic colleague, Sen. Michael Bennet, always seems to be.”

It’s worth noting, to the extent that you want to buy in to the conceit that the Denver Post editorial board is a coherent entity with values and a worldview, that rarely has the phrase “on some issues” been asked to do so much work. In editorials from before the 2014 campaign and since, the paper has taken positions that diverge from Gardner’s on global warming, healthcare, immigration, tax reform, the Iran nuclear deal, marijuana legalization, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and more.

But politics, you see, is not a struggle between a set of conflicting interests that seek to distribute power and resources in irreconcilable ways; it’s just theater, a Sorkinian drama on the grandest stage of them all, in need of nothing so much as the right leading man. In drama, there are no irreconcilable conflicts—only word problems and logic puzzles waiting to be solved, stirring monologues to be delivered, unlikely outcomes to be achieved through sudden strokes of genius of which only our hero is capable. When you come to see that the federal government is nothing more complicated than a very expensive West Wing LARPing event, as the Post’s editors have, you will understand that the vast difference in material outcomes between a solid Republican vote and a solid Democratic vote in its highest deliberative body is of secondary concern to whether or not viewers are treated to a satisfying character arc.

“If Gardner’s past is any guide, he would very likely match Bennet’s influence in the upper chamber, providing Colorado with a powerful one-two punch and pairing two young, energetic senators with clout on both sides of the aisle.”

And how has this Great Man theory of congressional representation worked out for Colorado voters this year? Gardner was initially reported to be involved in crafting the Senate’s healthcare bill, but upon the release of its first version last month he downplayed his role, briefly producing one of the better Post headlines of the year (before it too was memory-holed). In a March letter, Gardner defended the Medicaid expansion that has provided coverage to nearly half a million of his constituents since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the Post’s Mark K. Matthews wrote in May that “[it]’s the Medicaid piece that Gardner likely will have the most say on.” So, then, what have Coloradans reaped from their junior senator’s “influence” and “clout”? A bill that, in both its current and former versions, would not only roll back the expansion but existentially threaten Medicaid in its entirety through block grants and a devastating per capita growth cap.

The Post wasn’t entirely wrong to suggest that Gardner could become a person of influence in the Senate—just unforgivably naïve in believing he would wield this influence to serve the interests of middle- and working-class Coloradans, instead of his own and those of the vampiric oligarchs who control his party. In two and a half years in the upper chamber Gardner has done well for himself, securing the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a plum gig on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that affords him the opportunity to travel the globe and shake hands with murderous autocrats. And in between canceling appearances to avoid healthcare protesters and watching the police forcibly drag disabled activists out of his Denver office—all while refusing to hold a single town hall—Gardner has had plenty of time to rub elbows with right-wing billionaires at a Koch network retreat in Colorado Springs and a Trump reelection fundraiser in Washington.

“If Gardner wins, of course, it could mean the Senate has flipped to Republicans. However, that doesn’t mean it will simply butt heads with President Obama as the Republican House has done. As The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib recently pointed out, ‘A look back shows that eras of evenly divided power — Congress fully controlled by one party, the presidency by the other — have turned out to be among the most productive’ because both sides temper their policies.

By contrast, we can be sure of what will happen in the next two years on issues such as immigration, tax reform, entitlement reform and military spending if the status quo persists: little to nothing. And yet these issues are critical to the nation’s economic health and a long-awaited boost for middle-class incomes.”

This all seems quaint and academic now that we’ve entered the fresh hell of unified Republican rule, but it’s impossible to overstate the credulousness and inanity of this reasoning. In 2014 the House Republican majority had already thoroughly proven themselves to be radical obstructionists with no interest in anything but running out the clock on the Obama presidency with showy tactics like debt-ceiling brinkmanship and a government shutdown—both of which then-Rep. Cory Gardner had enthusiastically supported—and there was no reason to believe control of the Senate would change that. It didn’t, and indeed it only reinforced Republican intransigence, culminating in the theft of a Supreme Court seat in one of the most despicable subversions of the democratic process in modern American history.

Which brings us to this:

“If Gardner had been a cultural warrior throughout his career, we would hesitate to support him, because we strongly disagree with him on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. But in fact he has emphasized economic and energy issues (and was, for example, an early supporter among Republicans of renewable energy).

For that matter, his past views on same-sex marriage are becoming irrelevant now that the Supreme Court has let appeals court rulings stand and marriage equality appears unstoppable. And contrary to Udall’s tedious refrain, Gardner’s election would pose no threat to abortion rights.”

Finally, the raw carbon of the endorsement’s rambling, scattershot pseudo-argument is superheated and pressurized and condensed down into this glittering diamond of stupidity, a crown jewel for the dunce cap its authors should have to wear for the rest of their lives. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 84 years old and Anthony Kennedy is rumored to be considering retirement, and the power to nominate a replacement for one or both of them will remain in Republican hands for at least the next three and a half years. The ensuing confirmation battle would surely seal the fate of Roe v. Wade, and every single vote would count. That an editorial board charged with providing readers sound judgment and analysis refused to consider this possibility is bad enough; that it was so tersely, condescendingly dismissive of it is rage-inducing.

“Many Coloradans are no doubt sick of the overload of negative ads that have assaulted them from both sides, painting Gardner as an extremist and Udall as a mindless vote for the president’s policies. Neither portrait is fair. But in their irritation with the campaigns, voters should not lose sight of the fact that a great deal is at stake. A dysfunctional Congress calls for action when voters have an attractive option to the gridlocked status quo. And in Colorado, thankfully, they do in Cory Gardner.”

Nearly fifteen percent of Colorado children live in poverty. Between 2013 and 2015, one in eight Colorado households were food-insecure. The state’s lack of affordable housing has reached crisis levels, and after rising by six percent in 2016 its homeless population is the seventh-largest in the country. Wages in all of Colorado’s most populous counties are on the decline. Even after Obamacare’s reforms, around 350,000 Coloradans still lack health coverage. The state has increasingly wed its economic fortunes to a startup-heavy tech sector that offers ample returns for wealthy investors but little in the way of benefits and job security to workers. Oil and gas companies reap billions in profits from the state thanks to special tax carve-outs while they poison the environment, kill workers on the job and people in their homes, and help warm the planet to a point of no return.

All of this was just as true in October 2014 as it is today, but none of it is so much as obliquely alluded to in the Post’s endorsement. Healthcare, the issue on which Gardner’s vote is about to worsen tens of millions of lives, is not mentioned at all. Instead, many of the issues it mentions by name are conservative think-tank hobbyhorses like “tax reform” (massive tax cuts for the rich under the guise of tax-code simplification) and “entitlement reform” (gutting or privatizing Social Security and Medicare on the false pretense that they’re unsustainable). And in its closing paragraph, the editorial board again lays out its vision of politics as a televised abstraction, where the worst thing that can happen is for decorum to be breached by negative ads and the most urgent priority is to break the dam of “dysfunction” and “gridlock,” no matter what comes flooding out when you do. In one of the most consequential statewide races in years, the Denver Post used one of the biggest platforms in Colorado politics to send a message, and that message was… We’ve Got to Do Something.

I’d love for it to be the case that moronic newspaper editorials have no real effect on election outcomes. Unfortunately it’s not; studies have consistently found that media endorsements can substantially affect close congressional races, swinging election results by up to five percentage points. It’s impossible to know for sure whether that’s what happened in Colorado in 2014, but the average of the ten polls conducted before the Post’s endorsement showed a statistical dead heat, while the 15 conducted between the endorsement and election day had Gardner leading by an average of 3.3 points; he ultimately beat Udall by less than two points.

The paper’s insipid gullibility handed Gardner, who’d spent the previous four years marching in lockstep with his fellow Tea Party-era House Republicans, a key piece of ammunition in his efforts to rebrand himself as a moderate fit to represent an increasingly blue state. He’s spent 2017 putting the lie to that makeover; a running analysis from FiveThirtyEight counts him as the single most loyal and valuable footsoldier for the GOP’s agenda in the Senate. With a gubernatorial election and at least one key House race looming in 2018, and Gardner’s reelection bid coming after that, let’s hope the Denver Post has learned from its mistake, because over the next several years Coloradans are going to become all too familiar with its consequences.