The mild-mannered, wonkish Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) can get really steamed. His anger these days often is directed at the Republican Party, which he doesn’t hesitate to say has become “demented.” Republicans are blocking progress on issues for which there is 70 percent or more consensus — as there is on immigration, climate change and a host of other issues. “It is pathetic and unacceptable and ridiculous, but we have to salvage this exercise in self-government,” he told me during an interview on Friday near the Capitol.
Bennet was a relatively late entry to the Democratic presidential race, largely because of his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. “I feel great,” he said. (The lanky, freckle-faced senator looks younger than 54.) “I’ve spent the last couple of years writing this book about the state of our broken politics.”
Bennet said no other candidate is quite saying what he is or has the same analysis. “I believe that we have been tyrannized for the last ten years by the Freedom Caucus in this country. . . . They immobilized the Republican Party. They immobilized the Democratic Party. They immobilized this exercise in self-government.” He added, “We will not make progress unless we overcome them.” He also said that this isn’t a permanent state of affairs. “Part of the element of overcoming these guys is promoting an agenda that will be popular with the broad majority of Americans.”
To accomplish this, Bennet said, “we have to end political gerrymandering in this country. We have to end it. And [Americans] have to understand what it has cost them to have politicians who get to choose their voters instead of voters getting to choose politicians.” He argued that the ethos in Washington has to change, and that voters look at politicians and think they “have perfected the act of doing nothing and blaming the other side.”
In particular, Bennet argued, Democrats “have to run and win in red states.” He pointed to the Democratic senators who lost reelection bids in 2018 — Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. They were the sort of senators we’d want to have in government. “And we lost them!” he said with obvious frustration. Rather than dismantle the filibuster to fix the Senate, Bennet said that Democrats have to be competitive in those states. The way Democrats do that, Bennet argued, is to “give them something to be for.”
His agenda centers on what he thinks is the core economic dilemma. “The fundamental problem in America now is that we’ve had no economic mobility for 40 years. Ninety percent of Americans have not seen a pay increase, or a meaningful pay increase, over 40 years. And all of the economic growth has gone to the wealthiest people.” For Bennet, the fundamental question is: “How do we create shared prosperity in this country, so when the country grows everybody benefits?”
Bennet doesn’t lack for solutions to economic stagnation and immobility, but he cautioned that, “It is not one thing — it’s a million things.” On his list are anti-trust enforcement, infrastructure spending, reviving unions, redoing the tax code, transitioning to a digital economy, improving worker training and leading a coalition of nations to push back on China’s mercantilism and effort to create surveillance states. “We’re doing none of that [now],” he said.
Bennet points to the 2013 immigration-reform bill that got 68 votes in the Senate as a model of good lawmaking, complete with full hearings and open amendments in the Judiciary Committee and on the floor. It was good policy and still polls better than anything President Trump has come up with, he pointed out, adding, “There is no reason we cannot do that on lots of other issues. We’ve done that on no other issues.”
His center-left politics is not as widely represented in the presidential field, though it matches the sentiments of a good chunk of the Democratic electorate. He’s one of the most experienced candidates — having served as the Denver schools superintendent, as chief of staff to former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (who is also running for the Democratic nomination), and in the Senate since he was appointed in 2009 to the seat held by Ken Salazar, who left to serve as interior secretary in the Obama administration. At the local level, Bennet says people understand that we’re “engaged in an exercise of pluralism." In state and local government, Bennet argues that, “People have to contend with opposing points of view but with an electorate that says, ‘You’ve got to get something done.’”
That experience convinced him that what passes for business-as-usual inside the Beltway would never be tolerated in local or state government. He likes to quote Mayor John Hamilton of Bloomington, Ind., who wrote a Post op-ed in opposition to the 2017 Republican tax cuts, “If I asked the city council to approve tripling our local debt to give hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to a few hundred of our most prosperous residents, they would ask me what I was smoking. Preposterous, they would say.” Nevertheless, Bennet observed, that’s exactly what we did at the federal level.
The Colorado senator remains optimistic about our ability to fix out politics. He predicts there will be a reaction to Trump and to celebrity politics. “I don’t accept the world in which his kind of politics is the politics we deliver to the American people.”
We are acting like a weak country, Bennet maintains, as though we are too weak to respond to a refugee problem, too weak to compete with China, too weak to invest in the next generation. Bennet said emphatically, “We are strong country with weak leadership.”
On foreign policy, Bennet observed that while China’s economy has been expanding at a furious rate, it has been expanding its influence around the world with it’s Belt and Road Initiative. “They are supporting a surveillance state.” Our best option, he said, is for us to “forge strong alliances with people all over the world” and to offer an alternative to China’s mercantilist trade practices and China’s surveillance state model.
He also pointed to the crisis at our border. “We could be working with all of Latin America to help restore the rule of law and to help create thriving democracies that can support the kind of economies that can overcome the violence.” On the Middle East, he argued that we have been doing things to make matters worse. The Iraq war he says was “one of the worst mistakes America ever made.” Not only did we upset the balance of power, but the volatility that was created allowed Iran to exploit the violence, he argued.
He recalls that his vote in favor of the Iran nuclear deal it was a tough one politically, because he would have benefited from distancing himself from President Barack Obama. In the end, he said, he felt it was the right thing to do, but wasn’t sure that the deal, for example, could move the timeline for an Iranian nuclear breakout from 2-3 months to a year. By the time Trump came along, Iran’s breakout time had, as Bennet had hoped, been extended to a year. In other words the deal made even more sense, yet Trump chose to “blow it up” and had no discernible strategy for containing Iran.
Bennet can be passionate when discussing the damage done to American politics recently and is equally optimistic about our ability to recover. He brings substance, sincerity and seriousness. He’s not, however, a celebrity politician, and will find it challenging to fight through a field of about two dozen candidates. That in and of itself describes the dilemma of our political times: The more sober and experienced the candidate, the harder time he will have breaking through. Perhaps we get the politics we deserve.