Are you better off?

(My Denver Post column, May 10) Colorado Democrats are having a lousy year. It’s been a tough 2009 for the party in power, and 2010 may be worse. Which is odd, because 2008 was great for state Dems. They gained a Senate seat, a House seat, and threw a coronation party for Obama, who is now embarked on the most brilliant reign since Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Yet with the legislature done and election year eight months off, there’s a sense that Democrats have worn out their welcome with Coloradans, creating an opportunity for Republicans to reintroduce themselves and get back in the ballgame. Malaise hangs over the Capitol. Will Gov. Bill Ritter do a Jimmy Carter and become a one-termer?

You’ve seen the numbers. Voters disapprove Ritter’s performance by 49% to 41%, according to an April poll. Matched against potential GOP challengers, he trails Scott McInnis and barely leads Josh Penry. His appointee in DC, Sen. Michael Bennett, is disapproved by 41% to 34% and trails Republican Bob Beauprez. They’re a pathetic pair.

Camelot magic is gone from the Dem ascendancy that began in 2004 when Ken Salazar was elected senator and Andrew Romanoff stormed the statehouse. We’re now slogging through a recession that Ritter recklessly failed to prepare for, his legislative allies are split and ineffectual, and Susan Greene commiserates on “what a bummer it can be to be a Democrat in Colorado.”

Despite commanding majorities of 37-28 in the House and 21-14 in the Senate, Democrats this session failed on a number of cherished goals, including a tuition break for illegal aliens, easing sentences and ending the death penalty, quitting the Electoral College, and nanny-state rules for cellphones and seatbelts.

The majority party found itself well to the left of common-sense opinion on those issues, hence unable to ram through its liberal agenda when vulnerable members balked. Centrists from Colorado Springs, Adams County, and the Western Slope made the difference on last week’s capital punishment vote, for example. Senate minority leader Penry brokered the deal.

Governing is no picnic. Leading the Senate during the last budget crisis, back in 2004, I agonized through some of the same no-win choices President Peter Groff and Speaker Terrance Carroll have faced this year. You manage your diehards as best you can. You resort to ugly fiscal solutions and wince, knowing the out party will slam you for it in the campaign. In power, it’s hard to do otherwise.

This is the beauty of our two-party system. It pushes policy toward the center and curbs the ideologues. As a conservative Republican, I naturally believe our side has better answers. I also concede our sins and imperfections. For Colorado’s benefit at present, however, that’s beside the point. What’s great is how a feisty opposition from right OR left produces wiser lawmaking as well as livelier elections.

Lively indeed is the prospect for election 2010. Four Republicans are vying to take on the little-known Sen. Bennet, along with two each who are targeting Gov. Ritter, State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and Secretary of State Bernie Buescher. With Obama likely to suffer off-year erosion, Democrat congressmen Betsy Markey, Ed Perlmutter, and John Salazar sit uneasily in districts the GOP used to own.

Democrats might also forfeit legislative control in retribution for mismanaging the budget, gutting taxpayer protections, and saddling families with a billion dollars in new taxes and fees during economic hard times. And if the Tea Party rebellion continues, four activist justices could get voted off the state Supreme Court.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Not really, Coloradans are likely to answer if asked the famous Reagan question in 2010. On kitchen-table issues like jobs and roads, the incumbents have little to boast of. Change is now OUR issue.

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