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When political candidates campaign, they implicitly ask voters to ignore their past actions—unless they’re proud of them—and explicitly ask us to take them at their word about what they’ll do next.
Senator Cory Gardner beat incumbent Mark Udall in 2014 by running on the slogan that he’s “a new kind of Republican.” By that he apparently meant that he would discard partisan politics in favor of a more aisle-crossing approach, despite his solidly Republican bona fides. His thinly veiled ulterior motive was the hope that purple-tinged Colorado voters would ignore his congressional record—particularly his high approval ratings from pro-life and other conservative-minded groups—and focus instead on his vaguely defined promise to bring something different to his beleaguered party.
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It worked. Although Gardner was helped immeasurably by Udall’s lackluster campaign—which faced repeated accusations that Udall focused too narrowly on Gardner’s opposition to abortion rights, and thus, to women’s issues—Gardner convinced a narrow majority that he was indeed “new” (read: moderate) enough to win the statewide race.
Seven months into Gardner’s tenure, to the surprise of no one who thinks actions say more than words do, the senator has proven to be exactly the type of archconservative legislator he has always been.
The most recent example of this was his vote to defund Planned Parenthood on the heels of a series of inflammatory attack videos produced by pro-life activists. These crusaders posed as buyers of fetal tissue for medical research, met with Planned Parenthood officials (including one in Colorado) to discuss phony deals, and then misleadingly edited the videos to make the national women’s health care provider look like it’s profiting off these sales, which would be illegal.
The pro-lifers have tried to invoke the First Amendment protections for “investigative journalism” as a defense for their actions. Before we circle back to Senator Gardner, one thing must be clarified: Any journalist who doesn’t identify himself as such and then cuts and splices a video to convey a predetermined conclusion is behaving about as unethically as is possible in this profession. These people would have a much stronger First Amendment case if they just identified themselves and their aims in the first place.
But then they wouldn’t have a scandal, because even the edited videos don’t show that Planned Parenthood has done anything illegal. They merely forced people who actually understand how all this works to remind us, once again, that not a single dime of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding pays for abortions, and that the vast majority of the organization’s services provide health care services for lower-income women, which, in turn, have helped prevent things like unwanted pregnancies.
The activists needed the edits to manufacture outrage, and on that goal they can proudly say, mission accomplished. Thanks to the sting operation, the pro-life forces in Congress quickly engineered a defunding vote in the Senate. It technically passed by a vote of 53-46, but in these gridlocked times, you need a filibuster-proof 60 votes to actually pass anything. However, as the GOP winnows down its comically long list of presidential nominees, we can be sure this issue will persist right up through Election Day 2016.
Senator Gardner voted in favor of defunding, because of course he did. The deceptive videos merely gave him political cover for his yes vote. (As inaccurate and unethical as they may be, that’s already beside the point: Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was forced to admit that the videos are “disturbing” before reaffirming her support for the organization. The task of underlining what utter nonsense they are fell to Senator Elizabeth Warren.)
A skilled video editor could make Ronald Reagan look like the grand marshal of the gay pride parade if he was so inclined. That doesn’t make it true, and that certainly doesn’t make it journalism. When the Denver Post endorsed Gardner in 2014—with an explanation one respected liberal political journalist called, “the most singularly box-of-rocks dumb rationale I ever read in my life”—the Post editorial board wrote, “Gardner’s election would pose no threat to abortion rights.”
Anyone capable of Googling Gardner’s record could have figured out back then that this assessment would turn out to be dead wrong. Now we have incontrovertible proof that Gardner’s words were just that, and that his actions will tell the real story of exactly what kind of Republican he intends to be.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.