In an upcoming HBO documentary, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck paints a bleak picture not only of Congress but also of his own political party and the conservative movement in this era of President Donald Trump, before suggesting he will retire soon.
“The problem with the Republican Party now is that we have such a fresh history of violating the Constitution, of violating fiscal responsibility, of violating personal accountability, that we don’t have a high ground to stand (on) and say, ‘You guys are doing the wrong thing,’ ” says Buck, a Windsor Republican and chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, in a documentary called “The Swamp.”
The movie, which debuts 7 p.m. Tuesday, follows three Republican congressmen — Buck, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Thomas Massie of Kentucky — through 2019 as they reveal their frustrations with the influence of lobbyists, the power of congressional leadership and a lack of legislative progress. In the film, which The Denver Post screened, Buck often appears exasperated and cynical.
“As you see from our movie, Ken is sad,” said Morgan Pehme, one of the film’s directors, in an interview. “Ken is beaten down by the system. I feel sad for Ken sometimes because you go in there, you think you’re going to make a difference, you’re a member of Congress, you have the pin on, and then you realize you’re just another vote in the pocket of (congressional) leadership.”
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, center, walks alongside Rep. Matt Gaetz, left, and Rep. Thomas Massie, right, in a scene from HBO’s “The Swamp.” Photo provided by HBO.
During one scene late in the film, a camera pans over a framed Post article from Buck’s first congressional election victory in 2014, which hangs in Buck’s office near the U.S. Capitol. Then he offers a dark assessment of his tenure.
“I have to tell you, I think this place has drained me of a certain amount of life. After having been here for five years, I have no illusion that what I say, anybody cares about. I have thought about leaving and I don’t know whether this is my last term or whether I’ll run for one more term. I do know that a lot of the folks at home will not understand the long-term implications of what’s happening here in D.C.”
Buck did ultimately decide to run for re-election in 2020 and is favored to win over Democratic challenger Ike McCorkle on Nov. 3 in the safely Republican 4th Congressional District of eastern Colorado. McCorkle said it’s disingenuous for Buck to distance himself from a corrupt political establishment the congressman is a prominent part of.
“He hasn’t done anything for Colorado and even admits so himself,” McCorkle said of Buck’s remarks. “Coloradans need real fighters in Congress who will represent their interests. I’ll be that fighter, because as a veteran and Purple Heart recipient, I always have been. If Ken Buck isn’t up to the job, he needs to step down.”
Reached for comment, Buck’s spokeswoman, Lindsey Curnutte, said he remains focused on serving his constituents in the 4th District and hasn’t discussed any retirement plans with his staff.
If Buck retires before the 2022 election, there will likely be a crowded Republican primary to succeed him. The 4th District currently includes Douglas County, home to several Republican state legislators and ambitious politicians. That may change when congressional districts are redrawn following the 2020 Census, however.
Buck was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, which formed in 2015 to act as an ultra-conservative voice and quickly proved willing to criticize Republican leadership for being insufficiently conservative, especially on fiscal matters. But the caucus’s influence has dwindled in recent years and its members have rarely criticized Trump, despite his disinterest in fiscal conservatism.
“This president has presented budgets that are huge,” Buck says in the film. “Typically, the Freedom Caucus would be leading the charge to criticize an executive branch proposal that costs that much money. Now that’s just not the case and it’s not the case because when the Freedom Caucus members look at their political base, they realize that so much of their base are Trump lovers (and) nothing this president does can possibly be wrong, so they can’t criticize the president.”
The congressman expands on this train of thought in the film’s closing minutes, telling an interviewer, “Taking on President Trump is unwise and President Trump has no problem doing a touchdown dance every time a Republican critic loses, and so he reinforces the idea that it is a bad idea to take him on.”
The documentary was partly inspired by Buck’s 2017 book “Drain the Swamp,” according to Pehme and co-director Daniel DiMauro. The directors describe themselves as liberals who were surprised to discover how many government reform ideas they share with a hardline conservative like Buck. The Coloradan was the first member of Congress who agreed to take part in the documentary.
Pehme and DiMauro believe the film is an opportunity to bring Americans of all ideologies together in agreement that Congress has been made impotent by infighting and made corrupt by corporate lobbying and almost constant fundraising.
“Although ideologically we disagree with (Buck) on so many things, the fact is we agree with him on two fundamental things that we think are so critical for the future of our country, which is the corruption of the Congress and the issue with never-ending wars around the world,” DiMauro said in an interview.
Pehme said Buck, a 61-year-old who has battled cancer and survived a heart attack, wrestled throughout 2019 with whether to run for re-election in 2020 or retire from Congress, before ultimately deciding on the former route.
“There was an opportunity with this movie,” Pehme said, “for Ken to be a Gary Cooper-type figure who just walks out of the town as the sheriff, hangs up the sheriff’s badge and walks off into the sunset.”