Mike Castle and Bob Bennett: Tea Party Victims Support Group

Republicans Mike Castle and Bob Bennett, ousted by Tea Party challengers, gathered with defeated Democrats to commiserate in a panel discussion Thursday. Benjamin Sarlin talked to them about the polarized politics that took them down—and whether there’s any hope for Congress to change.

There was plenty of gallows humor to find among Washington's Walking Dead on Thursday morning, as ousted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, serving out their final days in Congress, gathered for a breakfast discussion to lament their losses.

The participants often took on the tone of a support group, silently nodding their heads as they went over the many common factors they believed contributed to their defeats and the public's record-breaking resentment of Congress in the polls.

"As I look at this panel, I think there's a new definition of bipartisanship in Washington," Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX), who lost his reelection bid this year after nearly 20 years in office. "It's called 'former member.'"

Edwards may have been on to something. The event was hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded by former Democratic and Republican Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Tom Daschle, and populated with an array of gray-haired ex-lawmakers tasked with reaching consensus on policy.

Lamenting the lack of cooperation between the two parties, Departing Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) complained that the overwhelming number of safe seats in Congress forced lawmakers to extremes in order to fend off primary challengers.

"If you have a completely safe seat, your exposure is really at the fringe of your party," he said.

"I thought I had safe seat!" replied Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT), the three-term Utah senator, knocked out by a Tea Party challenge at the state's nominating convention, drawing laughs from the audience.

The Tea Party’s most famous Republican victim, Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), sat two seats to Bennett’s left, rounding out the team of electoral losers. The veteran lawmaker’s frontrunner Senate campaign was cut short in by a primary loss to Christine O’Donnell in September.

"I was taken out in a primary by a woman who was not a witch," he deadpanned. "It was very unexpected—she had no real background in Delaware. It was a Tea Party movement, and they came in and energized a certain percentage of the Republican Party."

Castle told the audience that he worries about the House's ability to function under the incoming GOP majority.

"You have a new group coming in, in a month or so, who are going to be quite more conservative than even the group that is there right at this point," he said. "I worry about that leading to the division of partisanship in the House and in the Senate."

Aside from having all lost to Republicans, the assembled lawmakers were joined by their politically disastrous yes votes on TARP, a move that many economists say saved the country from financial ruin. The group was unanimous and defiant in their continued support for the rescue package, which Bennett said was "Congress' finest moment" and Edwards called "one of the proudest votes I ever cast."

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“I was taken out in a primary by a woman who was not a witch,” he deadpanned. “It was very unexpected.”

Bennett blamed the media for inadequately explaining how the program worked, saying that many of his constituents were unaware that the federal government was buying assets from banks that it would eventually sell back at a profit instead of simply handing over cash with no strings attached. The final cost of TARP is estimated at $25 billion and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has suggested it will come down further.

Cable news and blogs ("the pseudo-press" as Castle put it) came under frequent fire from Democratic and Republican panelists alike, who blamed Fox and MSNBC for polarizing viewers with ideologically driven coverage. Edwards went after the press for filling the news hole with a glut of sound bites from outrageous political figures.

"I bet Michele Bachmann and Alan Grayson have gotten more national TV coverage the last two years than the four of us combined in our nearly 80 years of service," Edwards said. "No wonder our approval rating is at 11 percent. That's all it is the American people see."

The gathering took place as the White House and Republican leaders neared final passage of a compromise on the Bush tax cuts, a rare moment of bipartisanship. Panelists were divided as to whether the compromise was a sign that the partisan sniping crippling Congress might subside. Bennett said he thought that the tax deal could provide a blueprint for more good-faith negotiations between the White House and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Others saw a fluke convergence of interests that would not be duplicated in the near future.

"I think that was sort of an exception," Castle said of the tax deal. He said that he expected the president to reach out more to the GOP, but that the conservative wing of the party would be wary of anything that boosts the Obama's reelection chances. "I'm not sure they want to give many victories to this president."

Edwards added that it was easier for both sides to cut taxes than work together to confront the long-term deficit, a larger problem with no easy or politically popular solutions.

Still, all hope was not lost. Both Castle and Bennett told reporters after the debate that they thought the responsibilities of governing in the majority might help moderate Tea Partiers' rigid politics.

"They've been elected for strong ideological reasons," Castle told The Daily Beast. "When they get here, they have to run things. They have to run a government." Said Bennett: "In almost every instance, responsibility to govern brings about change in attitude."

He also noted that previous populist uprisings, for example Ross Perot's deficit-focused presidential campaigns in the 1990s, often proved to be short-lived.

"One of the reasons the movement disappeared is the economy got better," he said. "If the economy gets better, and the people feel that the government is under some control, the Tea Party movement could very easily go the way of the Perot movement."

He paused as his former Republican colleague, Pete Domenici, slowly made his way across the room to greet him. "Pedro!" Bennett shouted. The two exchanged pleasantries and Domenici said he was glad to see his friend spending more time at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where Domenici is working to solve the deficit crisis with a blue-ribbon commission of former lawmakers, ex-labor leaders, and officials from administrations past. In a few days, he'll have all the time in the world.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.