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Bennett: 'We're on the threshold of real problems'

By NBC's Carrie Dann and Ken Strickland
He’s known as a soft-spoken legislator, but since Utah’s Bob Bennett became the first Senate incumbent to lose his job at the hands of his own party this year, he has not been shy about voicing some unease about the Tea Party’s influence on the Republican Party.

In his exit interview with NBC News, Bennett predicted a Republican takeover of the House – adding that the Senate could “easily” flip as well - and cautioned that what he calls the GOP’s drought of ideas could lead to “real problems.”

“I think the party is on the threshold of what everybody in the press will call a historic victory,” he said. “And we’re on the threshold of real problems if we don’t have a governing philosophy.”

His comments echo past critiques of his party. In a May op-ed in the Washington Post, Bennett chastised the Tea Party for engaging in a “frenzy of despair” and warned that the movement “could be reduced to a "wave that crashes on the beach and then recedes back into the ocean, leaving nothing behind but empty sand.” And in a June address to the GOP-affiliated Ripon Society, he said “As I look out at the political landscape now, I find plenty of slogans on the Republican side, but not very many ideas.

Speaking to NBC's Ken Strickland, Bennett said that the public fundamentally misunderstands the way the Senate works. "They have no understanding of what we do," he said. "They expect that we spend most of our time on the Senate floor debating. The image of Webster and Calhoun and Clay changing the course of the Republic with a brilliant speech is still in their minds. [But] particularly since the advent of television in the chamber, Senate speeches are more and more irrelevant."

He added that the White House underestimates the political power of the powerful slogans presented by the Republican Party – even if the policy proposals that underpin those catchphrases are inadequate.

“They don’t seem to understand how powerful those slogans are,” he said. “They think, ‘Oh, that's just Glenn Beck,’ … But there’s a very powerful political movement forming up and if the polls are right, I think it’s going to win back the House and could easily win back the Senate."

Bennett also took aim at the Republican who defeated him in the Utah primary, Mike Lee, for suggesting that Social Security should be phased out. “That’s not an idea, that’s a slogan. That's not a viable idea that has been thought through,” he said.

“If Mike Lee had run against me in what you might consider a more normal circumstance, he wouldn’t have gotten 15 percent of the vote in the convention," Bennett lamented. "But in this year, his timing was perfect; his message is exactly right for this atmosphere. And my message is wrong.”

The small-government message of candidates like Lee neglects the role that presidents and Congress have played in seminal issues like civil rights, he added. “As a Republican believing in free markets, I nonetheless concede that there is a role for government. There are too many people in the Republican Party who don’t, who say there is no role for government.”

The Utah Republican acknowledged that he has sometimes been perceived as being “too direct” with his critiques of the Tea Party and the GOP generally, but he said he stands by his statements. “My attitude is ‘free at last, free at last!’ I can say and do whatever I want because I’ll never have my name on a ballot again,” he quipped.

You can learn more about The Exit Interviews series here. Read the first installment here.