There at the crossroads of history stands Cory Gardner, like bluesman Robert Johnson in the Delta.
The unflappable farm boy from Yuma was flapped. His hair seemed grayer than it has ever seemed before. Donald Trump can do that to a U.S. senator in a state where president has never been very popular, for a time, even among Republicans.
“Do you think it’s appropriate for the president of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, yes or no?” KDVR-Fox31’s Joe St. George asked Gardner after the senator spoke Oct. 10 at a Colorado Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Denver.
The question could not have caught Gardner off-guard. People -- yes, Coloradans who will vote on whether to re-elect him next year -- have been waiting on his answer.
Gardner, the one who once called Trump a “buffoon” and the one who must convince moderates and independents he’s not The Donald in farm boots, had to deliver an answer that would tell us what kind of political race we’re looking at next year.
“This is what we’re going to get into,” he said, no yes or no in sight. “The Senate Intelligence Committee is having an investigation, a bipartisan investigation. Unfortunately, though, what we’ve seen is a very political process take over.”
He meandered on to talk about a congressman from Texas named Al Green saying Trump should be impeached.
“That’s about politics,” Gardner said. “That’s not what a serious investigation should be about.”
But politics is what Gardner’s answer was about. It was a non-answer. Pressed, Gardner drew uncharacteristically testy, a side of him most Coloradans have never seen, so the moment thundered, locking it in voters' minds as it was played on a viral loop throughout the day on national outlets such as The Washington Post and CNN began to play the clip seemingly on a loop.
My conservative hero George Will wrote that same day about “vegetative Republicans.”
“Joe, I’ve answered your question,” Gardner said after not answering Joe’s question, turning to another reporter who asked Gardner the same question.
His answer, Gardner said, “is the answer you get from a very serious investigation.”
Distract, deflect and dodge. We’ve seen a lot of that lately, so Gardner scored no points for originality when he met the press that day in Denver.
St. George’s tweet with the video of Gardner’s exchange got a “like” from the president.
Besides terse words with Fox31, Gardner apparently had a tiff with 9News’ Anusha Roy. She asked him about a tweet he put out the day before blaming layoffs on legislation passed by Colorado Democrats, who passed a raft of regulatory bills last session. Missing from his post, however, was that Halliburton laid off workers 650 workers in four states, cutting 178 jobs in Grand Junction.
Anchor Kyle Clark tweeted that Gardner responded to Roy’s question by asking, “Where are you from?”
She told him 9News.
“So you must have your own opinion on it,” he said, then walked away, according to Clark.
It’s hard to imagine this is how Gardner wants to campaign. He’s too skilled a politician not to have a better plan, but as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Trump is throwing haymakers. And much of what is Trump’s in Colorado has become Gardner’s. To vote with his party, Gardner must vote with Trump.
After the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, protests, and Trump seemed to think "very fine people" marched with white supremacists, Gardner admonished Trump in a tweet to "call evil by its name." Yet to say Gardner routinely stands up to the president isn’t fair, either. He’s somewhere in between, somewhere that probably won’t land him in the history books but also might not land him in a second term.
Without the help of Democratic self-sabotage, Gardner is probably a goner next year. I don’t at all discount the possibility of the Democrats overplaying their hand, however. It's as predictable as a Trump tall tale. Skilled and battle-tested Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a sure thing in '16 against a first-time candidate with the grace of a moose in stilettos. How did that turn out?
But, if Gardner prevails as Trump falls, then the reckoning for Democrats has begun.
If a promise-keeping liberal Democrat holds the White House in 2022, when the party members who won office in 2018 are up for re-election in Colorado, the backlash from the state’s presumed moderate middle would shake up the political Etch A Sketch we see before us today.
The history of Cory Gardner, however, will ultimately be written by Cory Gardner in the months ahead, after a very serious investigation and after he decides whether he continues to stand with Trump.
“This should, but will not, cause congressional Republicans to value their own and their institution’s dignity and exercise its powers more vigorously than they profess fealty to Trump,” George Will wrote.