Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) speaks during a rally with young voters on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. (David Zalubowski/AP)
Opinion writer

Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) is a wonkish moderate, far from a celebrity candidate. He very possibly might miss the first debate, which would be a shame. But he deserves credit as the only Democrat able and willing to confront the Medicare-for-all fetish that has gripped some Democrats.

Look at this exchange from Bennet’s CNN town hall on Thursday night:

DANA BASH: A number of your opponents, as you well know, support Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan, which essentially eliminates private insurance. Why are they wrong? ...

BENNET: Here — I think you asked the question well, Dana. I think they are wrong. I think what we would be much better off doing in order to get to universal health care quickly is to finish the job we started with the Affordable Care Act and have a true public option. In my case —

(APPLAUSE)

BENNET: In the one — the one that I have designed, it would be administered by Medicare, and it would give all of you the chance to choose what’s right for you or your family. If you want a public option, then you can have it. Basically, it’s Medicare-for-all if you want it. But if you want to keep the insurance you have, which many people do, you’d be able to do that as well.

I don't know if you guys remember when we were passing the Affordable Care Act, the whole thing if you like your insurance you can keep it. Do you remember that? And a few people lost their insurance and all hell broke loose.

And now, Bernie is proposing if you like your insurance, we’re going to take it away from you, from 180 million people who get it from their employer, 80 percent of them say they like it. Every single labor union in America that’s negotiated a benefits package for their workers, for their members, would have to give it under Medicare-for-all. I just don’t think they’re going to give it up.

And that’s why I think Bernie is wrong to propose it. I think what we should do is give the American people

That’s a simple but devastating critique. He not only is right on policy but also zeroed in on Medicare-for-all’s unpopularity once people learn that they don’t get to keep their plans. He’s also right to bring back the “if you like your doctor [or plan]” debacle in which President Barack Obama overpromised, then created a firestorm when it turned out that not everyone’s current doctors were on the plans offered through the ACA exchanges. And Bennet is right to point out that making perfection the enemy of the good does little good for those who desperately need help now. (“I think that’s essential because people in my state and people in Georgia and people all over this country don’t need insurance 10 years from now or 20 years from now. They need insurance now. And we haven’t been able to give it to them for the last 10 years. We can’t afford to do this for another 10 years, in my view.”)

Sanders and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) need to have a good answer for that. Harris has said she’s aware of the union issue but has not promised a carve-out. And if union members have gotten better contracts by trading wages for generous health care, what about nonunionized employees who have been effectively doing the same for decades? (It is noteworthy that while Sen. Elizabeth Warren favors Medicare-for-all, she is willing to consider intermediate steps, such as a public option.)

Bennet went on to touch on two more health-care issues, showing an awareness that one size doesn’t fit all. He tied disparities in health care between African Americans and whites to the health-care challenges that rural Americans (many of whom are African American) face:

IRENE WILKERSON, REGISTERED NURSE: Good evening.

As you may be aware the racial gap in mortality is increasing in the U.S. Currently, black women are dying four times the rate as white women from pregnancy related complications. And this statistic is driving the overall rate of maternal death in America up, and has led to the U.S. being the most dangerous developed country to give birth in.

If elected, how do you plan to address this issue and keep black mothers alive?

BENNET: Thank you for the question and thank you for being a neonatal nurse, that’s an important job. ... Everything that’s wrong with our health care system — and, by the way, if you are white and middle class there are many people in this country who hate our health care system because it doesn’t work well for them. Everything that’s wrong with it for them is far times worse for people of color and especially for African American women, and especially for poor people in this country, and especially for poor children of color in this country.

And I think what we have to do is increase access for everybody in the United States of America and be willing to pay for it. And we haven’t been willing to pay for it. There are rural communities and urban communities, and many of them African Americans in the South, some not African American in others in parts of country, where there are — where there is no primary care or maternity care at all.

And that's why people are dying in our country, and that's why our life expectancy is actually going down in the United States of America instead of what's happening in all these other countries of the world.

I think that it is time for us to have universal health care in the country. We’ve got to reduce the cost of health care in the United States because we’re spending twice as much as any other industrialized country in the world, but we’re not covering people as you say for the most basic parts of health care that are expected as a right in other countries. They should be a right in the United States of America no matter what color you are, and especially if you are living in one of our less privileged communities.

Rural health care gets short shrift from urban progressives, but Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) know that health-care access is one of the top issues, if not the top issue, in rural America.

Moreover, Bennet shows the false choice between appealing to rural white Americans in red states and urban nonwhite Americans. He dispels the idea that moderates are squishy middle-of-the-roaders. The policies that Democrats propose need to work for both rural whites and urban nonwhites — and they need to work in the real world within a reasonable period of time.

Do Democrats want to go with Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist who rigidly adheres to a plan that lacks even unified Democratic support in the Senate and will draw the opposition of every Republican, or do they want something that has wider geographic appeal and might do something for voters in a realistic framework?

Bennet might not be the flashiest candidate, but he is willing to articulate the reasons — policy-wise and politically — that going for the far left’s Medicare-for-all would be a mistake. That’s a discussion that should take place in the debates. If not Bennet, then someone else in the Democratic center-left needs to carry that message. The fate of the party and the country might rest with Democrats’ ability to understand the power of Bennet’s arguments.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Do two newcomers into the Democratic primary matter?

Jennifer Rubin: Michael Bennet knows what’s wrong with America

Joe Scarborough: Michael Bennet could be the answer to the question every Democrat is asking