Democratic Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado came to The Post on Thursday to talk about why he is running for president and what he hopes to accomplish if elected. Here is the full transcript and audio recording of our conversation, which lasted a little more than an hour. We hope to host other candidates in the coming weeks and months. — Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page Editor
Fred Hiatt: [00:02:36] So, thank you for coming. … Maybe I could start by asking what you thought yesterday and where that leaves us in terms of the issues that were in the Mueller report.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet: [00:03:15] I don’t think it made a lot of news. It confirmed obviously that the Russian attack was real and serious. I’ve been collecting the slides from that Russian propaganda, from that attack. I’ve got them compiled on my desk — I meant to bring them with me, but I’ll sent over to you later today. I think the American people still don’t understand what happened to us in 2016, and they’re going to try again in 2020. They’re trying to do it throughout the Western democracies, and we need to be vigilant about that. I think that’s a very important piece of this.Second —
Hiatt: [00:03:55] If you were president, what more would we be doing to prepare?
Bennet: [00:04:01] To prepare — I am on the Intelligence Committee and I can't talk about the intel, but I will say that I have a lot of confidence that our agencies are trying to withstand this attack in 2020, even if the president still won't push back on Putin, and has not pushed back on Putin, which I think a president should do. And I think we should be pushing back. Our allies in Europe want us to push back, as well, because their democracies are under threat for the same reason. I mean, the Russian support of these right-wing totalitarian parties in Europe I think is something we need to worry about. And we need to make clear that we're going to fight back against it, including sanctioning Russia for it, if that’s what we need to do.
[00:04:57] But I think we are in a much more aggressive position today than we were in 2016. In 2016, this Russian propaganda was part of our daily discourse for over a year. And we couldn't distinguish it from our own political discourse. And even today, people still send stuff around the country — I was in a senior citizens center in New Hampshire last weekend, and a guy who was probably 85 or 90 years old, at the end of it, said to me, “I just think we should stop. We keep taking money from veterans and giving it to immigrants.” Do remember that? Have you heard of that or seen that? That is Russian propaganda. That's from Russian propaganda. And that is infecting our political conversation, and nobody recognized it as Russian propaganda. That's where that comes from, that whole meme about [Barack] Obama —
Hiatt: [00:06:01] So how are we better prepared now?
Bennet: [00:06:05] Well, I think what we have to do is make sure, this is why I'm doing my part to put this sort of compilation of stuff together, so I can at least alert the people I work for that this is what you need to look for. And you need to recognize it for what it is. It's hard to have a president who's denying that an adversary is doing this kind of stuff.
Hiatt: [00:06:32] We'll probably come back to that, but you since you talked about New Hampshire, let's step back a little. Tell us, you've been running for a few months now; what surprised you and what do voters want to talk about most?
Bennet: [00:06:47] I've been in the race I think for 80 days, and I got in a little late because I had some health issues that I had to deal with, which are fine now, but it slowed me down a little bit. We've used the 80 days well, I think. And what voters are talking about doesn't surprise me at all, because what the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Democratic folks that are showing up to these town halls, or in New Hampshire, the independents as well, are entirely consistent with what I hear from Democrats in Colorado. They’re worried about an economy that grows only for the wealthiest people in the country. They want to have universal health care, but they don't think the path to universal health care is taking it away from 180 million people that get it from their employer in private insurance. They don't understand why we would do that. I met with some carpenters in Iowa the other day who said, “Let me get this straight. You guys are saying Trump is trying to take away health care from the American people and that you're trying to give it to the American people, but from our perspective, you're the ones that are coming for our health care, not Donald Trump.” This is a big problem for Democrats, in my opinion.
They’re deeply concerned about climate and the fact that we have a climate denier in the White House. And the younger they are, the more concerned they are about that. And I would say their overarching concern is beating Donald Trump, which I think creates an opportunity to unite Democrats. I think that people are not as divided on the policy issues as one might imagine from reading the social media feeds that infect the capital.
Ruth Marcus: [00:08:42] The candidates seem pretty divided on the policy issues. It seems —
Bennet: [00:08:45] I think they are. I think they are. I think that we're in a place where there are people in this race who are responding to the Twitter base of the Democratic Party and not to the actual base of the Democratic Party. And they are distinct things.
Marcus: [00:09:00] So you think that the Twitter base, as you call it, of the Democratic Party [has] been over-amplified or over-attended to? Or is there a real divide in the Democratic Party and a significant amount of energy on the left? What’s your analysis?
Bennet: [00:09:15] Well, I think among the people that I've talked to in these states, the desire to get rid of or the desire to beat Donald Trump is a far more animating factor than some dramatic move to the left. I think we will nominate somebody to the left of President Obama. And I think we should. But that doesn’t mean we need —
Hiatt: [00:09:44] Are you to the left of President Obama?
Bennet: [00:09:46] I would put myself to the left of him. My evidence of that is the work that I've done for years with Sherrod Brown on the American Family Act, just to take that as an example, which is a dramatic increase to the child tax [credit]. Here, I brought some slides. I don't know if I want to take your time — do we have copies for these guys? But I wrote a book called “The Land of Flickering Lights,” which is not about me but about the democracy. And at the very end of it, I had a collection of slides about our economy, and I’ll just leave them for you, but let me just tell you what they say, because I think it matters in the context, unless, were you going to say something?
Hiatt: [00:10:30] We do want to talk about the economy, but when you say the desire to beat Trump is more uniting, but there is a division within the party also on what that means. And people on the left would say the way to beat Trump is to nominate somebody on the left who is exciting and gets new voters out, and that you don't represent that hook.
Bennet: [00:10:56] I think that's a political analysis versus an ideological set of concerns.
Hiatt: [00:11:06] And what do you make of that analysis?
Bennet: [00:11:08] I don't agree with it. I think that Donald Trump's base is going to be galvanized, and Donald Trump's base is going to turn out. And I think we need to galvanize our base and bring other voters to the polls for us to win. And we need the 7 million people that voted for Barack Obama twice and voted for Donald Trump to vote for the Democrat who is our nominee, or at least some portion of those people in order to win. That’s what I think.
Jo-Ann Armao: [00:11:39] Well if the animating force is a desire to beat Donald Trump, will that trump policy differences in the end?
Bennet: [00:11:45] I think in the end, it'll bring the party together. But in the meantime, we can't disqualify ourselves on the way to the election.
[00:11:53] I want to go back and just finish the thought and the American Family Act. So that's a dramatic increase the child tax credit. It would reduce childhood poverty in this country by almost 40 percent. It ends $2 a day poverty for kids in America — Princeton has looked at it and that's what they've said. It adds not a federal bureaucrat to the federal government. It is the most, I think, significant proposal that's been made on poverty since Medicaid was passed. That is to the left of Barack Obama, but it is not where Bernie Sanders is. It costs 3 percent of what Medicare-for-all costs, to reduce childhood poverty in America by 40 percent. That feels to me like something we can get done and that would be worthy of us. It's not the kind of thing that gets headlines all the time, but it is the kind of thing we can do. That’s the bill that Sherrod Brown and I have had for years. It's a companion bill to what we're trying to do on the earned income tax credit. But I think that's a good illustration for what Democrats could do that could make a big difference if we weren't completely caught up in this health-care debate.
Hiatt: [00:13:04] In addition to people feeling as though Democrats are coming to take their health care away, are there other things you've heard from your opponents in the last 80 days that you would consider disqualifying on the way?
Bennet: [00:13:16] I think that the idea that we would agree to decriminalize the southern border is one of those things. Our position is, in 2013, we passed a bipartisan bill, which was the Gang of Eight bill. I helped write, I was one of the four Democrats who wrote that bill. That bill created a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people here that were undocumented. It had the most progressive Dream Act that had ever been conceived. It resolved the agricultural issues that are plaguing this country in a way that allowed the farmworkers union and the growers in this country to endorse the bill. That had never happened before with an immigration bill. And it had $46 billion of border security in it. The original bill had something like $18 billion, and then we went to the floor, we ended up with $46 billion. It had 350 miles of border barrier, which the president refers to as steel slats. They've made up that term, I think, but the rest of us would call it a fence; 350 miles of that. We doubled the number of border security agents. We used drone technology and other technology so that you could see every single inch of the border. We had internal security. So we resolved the problem of, 40 percent of the people in the country that are undocumented came lawfully and overstayed their visas. And America has no way of solving that problem. We solved that problem in that bill. And every single Democrat voted for that bill in the Senate. So ever since then, when Donald Trump has said the Democrats are for open borders, that's a lie. It's not true. The border security in that bill is so much more extensive than what he has proposed with his ineffective law, that he's trying to, you know, nickel and dime everybody to get to scrape together his $6 billion to build, since the Mexicans have refused to pay for it. By the way, our bill, that money was paid for not by Mexico or by taxpayers, but by fees that immigrants were paying.
Hiatt: [00:15:30] But decriminalizing, why is that a mistake?
Bennet: [00:15:34] But decriminalizing the border, I mean, [former homeland security secretary] Jeh Johnson wrote an op-ed — I think it was in your newspaper — that said that if what you wanted to do is inspire more and more people to come to the border, that's what you would do. And that every country in the world has the obligation to secure their border. I believe that. I think every country in the world, including the United States, has the obligation to secure their border. We have the obligation to treat refugees humanely. And we have the obligation not to separate children from their parents at the border. And we have the obligation to make sure that people get a speedy determination of their refugee status. But we don't have an obligation to have an open border. And as a political matter, that shouldn't be the position of the Democratic Party either, because Trump has continuously said that we're for open borders. That's not true.
Lee Hockstader: [00:16:24] So, what would you do to revive an immigration deal? If you couldn't revive one, what would you do by executive action? And under what criteria would you deport people?
Bennet: [00:16:34] By executive action, I would do everything I could to protect the dreamers, and I would do that on the first day.
Hockstader: [00:16:44] Which would be what?
Bennet: [00:16:46] I’m not sure what I would do, but I would do everything I could do to get them out of the jeopardy that Donald Trump has put them in. My priority for deporting people would be people that have committed serious felonies in the country and I’d place much less of a priority on people that hadn’t. The basis I think for an agreement is the same bill that we had. We have two distinct issues going on here. One is the refugee crisis, which I think needs to be handled urgently and well and competently. I think the bill that we have in the Senate is a pretty good framework for that. In addition to that, we should be leading a conversation in the hemisphere about what to do with the refugees that are at our southern border but also coming. What can each country do to help with this? Because there are other countries that actually want people that speak Spanish and would like to have the labor that’s represented there. I think we could say that we’re gonna take some number of refugees and have the other countries take others, which would be helpful to lots of people, including the refugees. You can find lower-cost places to live in than the U.S. And obviously, we need to deal with the underlying problems in these countries.
[00:18:14] I've been down to El Salvador and Honduras. I didn’t go to Guatemala. But I went to look after 2014, when the unaccompanied minors came over this border, because I wanted to understand why a parent would place their child in the hands of a drug smuggler, spend a year’s wages on a journey that could end up having them raped or killed or injured. And it took 15 minutes in the backyard of the embassy in San Salvador to understand it, because there is no rule of law. These kids are in constant — they’re being being preyed upon by these gangs. And by the way, it has nothing to do with drugs; that's a common misconception. The drugs go around these countries. This is just poor people that are preying on other poor people. And surely we can help with that. I think we can help with that. By the way, the only place I've ever seen what I saw in San Salvador in America is on the West Side of Chicago, and we should talk about that if people are interested.
Hockstader: [00:19:17] Just one more question on that. What would the Gang of Eight bill or anything like it do about catch and release — by catch and release, we mean as loopholes in the current law.
Bennet: [00:19:26] I can't remember what we did in that bill.
Hockstader: [00:19:29] How would you solve that problem? Because that's the current problem that's inducing a lot of people to come up, because they know that if they come with a child, they can be released in the United States for quite a long period.
Bennet: [00:19:43] I think that we have to consider, our refugee laws were designed for one-off refugee applications, not for the kind of mass migration that we're seeing here — and not migration, but mass movement that we're seeing here. I think we need to think about what the right answer is for that. I think it's fair. We should not be making our immigration laws though based on this refugee crisis we’ve got. I think to answer your first question, I think the Gang of Eight bill still holds up. There’s a lot in there that could form the basis of bipartisan action on immigration.
Hiatt: [00:20:15] Okay. So that raises the question of, is bipartisan action still possible in this country? I mean, in your book you talk about the Gang of Eight and Lindsey Graham is kind of a hero of it. A lot of people would say they don't recognize that Lindsey Graham anymore. But then it went to the House and Boehner went and broke it up, and the Republican Party has changed even since then. And your book talks about you can't have one party, one team ruling and have it be successful. But a lot of Democrats and a lot of Americans look at the Republican Party and say, “How can you think they could be a partner in governing?”
Bennet: [00:21:07] This is really why I’m running. Because —
Hiatt: Then I’m glad I asked.
Bennet: It is, because in writing the book, and thinking about what was in the book and the last 10 years of American history, I'm so angry at the way that the Freedom Caucus and Mitch McConnell have immobilized our exercise in self-government. They have made it impossible for us to govern. They have acted as tyrants, as if they have a monopoly on wisdom. And their view of the world, no matter how it is idiosyncratic it is, no matter how much their version of American history owes its origins to Sarah Palin’s cartoon version of what the Founding Fathers were engaged in, they have not compromised. And they’re hypocrites on top of it, and they need to be beaten. They cannot be negotiated with. They cannot be compromised with, because they’re immune from that. They will not negotiate. They will not compromise. So then the question is, what do you do about that?
[00:22:23] And I think in a democracy, I think the only answer for that is to try to unify the country, or as much of the country as you can, to overcome them, to overcome a broken Washington, D.C. Washington’s not going to fix itself. That’s clear. And you’re not gonna embarrass them into doing it.
[00:22:43] Look at the stuff they’re doing in this budget deal. It's the most pathetic, pitiful, disgraceful — after they call Barack Obama a Bolshevik and a socialist, they're now spending more on domestic discretionary spending than he did. Their increase in overall spending is greater than the increase that Barack Obama was able to spend, including the Recovery Act. And that’s their whole rationale for being here. That was what the tri-corner hats were all about, the runaway spending, and all the signs. That’s the whole purpose of their movement.
[00:23:23] And they have done nothing but drive deficits up and drive government spending up. And if they’re not even going to deal with that, they have no reason to be here. Because the only other things they’re doing is taking away health care from the American people and denying that climate change is real. These people should be beaten on those terms. And I think the way we can do that is by creating a movement that unites enough people around the idea that we can’t accept this degradation of our institutions, and of our exercise in self-government. And I think if we can’t do that, we will be the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity to people coming after us, not more. Ten years from now, we will. Ten years from now, we will. We are on that path today. And it’s hard work. You can’t do that just by going on MSNBC every night. You gotta go out to America and have a conversation with people who today don’t support Democrats but whom you need to entrust themselves on some level to what we’re offering.
Karen Tumulty: [00:24:36] Sort of along those lines, I thought one of the underappreciated moments in the first debate, because Kamala Harris and busing got all the headlines, was when you kind of took the hide off Biden and essentially told him he’d been played for a sucker by Mitch McConnell in the budget deal. Why, if what the party wants more than anything else is somebody to beat Donald Trump, why isn’t Biden that guy?
Bennet: [00:25:04] Well, I think he fundamentally doesn’t — first of all, I think there's a question whether he can beat Trump, based on his prior runs for the presidency. We'll see. But if history is a guide, there's a real question there, in terms of performance, over time during the presidential election. But on this point, I think he has made very clear that he believes that if we can just get rid of Trump, somehow things will go back to normal and we’ll be able to make these bipartisan deals. And nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, they weren’t able to do that during the last six years of the Obama administration, except when they cut terrible deals, like this, which was a terrible deal for America and a terrible deal for the Democratic Party.
Tumulty: [00:25:51] Though Biden was bragging about it.
Bennet: [00:25:52] He still is. That deal, in all respects, it was cut in the middle. First of all, Harry Reid was negotiating that deal and it got taken away from him. And,,and Biden was willing to do things that I don't think Harry would have been willing to do. We had the opportunity there to go over the fiscal cliff.
[00:26:18] That was a rare opportunity during the course of the Obama presidency, because usually what you had on the backside of one of these things was a shutdown. This was not a shutdown. This was going over the cliff and having $4 trillion of tax increases, that then could have been converted into a Democratic proposal, that could have been a real middle-class tax cut and a real assistance to people living in poverty. And President Obama could have kept coming with that, and kept coming with that, that could have been our argument going into 2016.
[00:26:52] Instead, what we had was virtually all of the Bush tax cuts, which you'll remember originally were created by reconciliation. So there is a 10-year window for those tax cuts. We should run against those tax cuts twice, and now we made them permanent. They weren't temporary. They're permanent, forever. Almost all of them. And then the sequester was part of that deal and that went into effect.
Hiatt: [00:27:24] Come back to your theory of change, because when people say to Bernie Sanders, "How are you going to do all this?" He says, "Well, we need a revolution. We need to rise up." Sounds like you're kind of saying the same thing. If you got elected and Mitch McConnell is still majority leader, nothing's going to happen. So we need to have the people rise up and then, what, the Republican Party will transform itself?
Bennet: [00:27:47] I don't know. I can't accept ... People might say that I'm naive for saying this, I think we will make a mistake if we accept the current national Republican Party as a permanent fixture of our democracy. If you are going to accept that if you're going to accept that as a permanent feature of our democracy, and we will be unable to overcome it. If that is what you accept, we're doomed. We are. And we're going to destroy our democracy. I don't accept that as permanent, because I don't believe that that's what the American people want. I live in a state is a third Democratic, a third independent, and third Republican. By the way, that makes it a state that's very different than almost all the people that are running for president. And I know that's not what people there believe. I know it's not what they believe. They don't share Mitch McConnell's view of the world. They don't share the view of the world of people that John Boehner called, "legislative terrorists," which is how he referred to the Freedom Caucus that he couldn't overcome. They don't share that view. They have a different view. They also don't share Trump's view, many of them. And I think it's really critical for us not to accept this as a permanent state of things.
[00:29:19] But we have to do the hard work. You can't put out a proposal that says you're going to take your health insurance away from 180 million people as your opening bid. You can't. You can't. It's disqualifying. If the object is to overcome the Republicans, rather than give Mitch McConnell talking points every single morning on the floor, about why the Democrats are Bolsheviks or socialists. Or why Republicans are trying to protect your health care, and Democrats are trying to take away from you. That's not a matter of, "they're going to say it anyway." That's a matter of playing into their hands. I'll say one more thing, Ruth, and then I'll stop. We have a climate denier in the White House now. It should be disqualifying to deny that climate change is real. I don't mean that on moral terms, although I believe it on moral terms. I mean that on political terms. An American who says, "I want to run for president and I don't believe climate change is real" should lose on political terms. We lost to Donald Trump because he made an economic case that we were going to destroy the economy because we believe that climate change is real. When the reality is, if we don't contend with climate change, we will destroy the economy. We should never have lost that argument, and we shouldn't lose it again.
[00:30:43] But if we're going to go to America and say our proposal on climate is that we have to give everybody Medicare-for-all and paid vacations, we're going to find ourselves losing on that issue again.
[00:31:02] I'll tell you something else, what was not on that list of things that's in the deal, is a high-quality education for every kid in America. Which, which reminds me of why, I always, I bridle when people talk about how progressive they are and they can't remember what's happening to kids in America in our failing school system.
Marcus: [00:31:26] This just goes to Fred's question about the theory of change. Because, yes, I get the point the Democrats shoot themselves in the foot. But we have heard throughout the Obama administration that the next election was going to break the fever.
Bennet: [00:31:41] And it was wrong. That was totally wrong. He said that. President Obama, a lot of admiration for him, and a tremendous amount of respect for what he tried to do and what he did do. But we learned that . . . I'm trying to make your point. We learned something the fever did not break. We learned that Mitch McConnell is here to do two things: Put as many judges on the court as he can, and he, for the moment, has won that battle in ways that we should be very sorry that he did. In other words, he was very strategic about that. We were very non-strategic about that, and he won as a result. He wants to cut taxes for rich people and he's fine letting the Freedom Caucus dismantle the federal government. I'm not sure whether he cares about that or not, but he’s fine allowing that to happen. He's fine degrading the reputation of Washington and the federal government along the way, which is also something that we've got to figure out a way to restore. The fever never broke. It's still here. It's just as strong as it always was, and the cynicism and the hypocrisy is even greater than anybody could have ever anticipated.
[00:33:05] We have to learn from that though. And what we need to learn from that is, we have to do the hard work of going out and organizing America. That's why we have to do, and we have . . . And if we have to die trying. That is the work. It's going to be really, really hard. You can't do it. Look, if you had asked me 10 years ago who's running Washington, D.C., when I first got here, I would have had an answer. It would have been totally wrong. And if you'd asked me when I was chairing the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], who is running Washington, I would have had an answer, I would have been right and a lot of problems with that. Because it was interest groups in Washington, D.C., and to some extent, the Koch brothers. That's who is running to a greater and greater extent, the Koch brothers over that period of time. Now, who's running it is the cable-television channels and people who engage with their politicians on social media. So that's 12 or 13 million people whose equities are very well satisfied by what's going on in D.C. right now. They're extremely well satisfied. They’re extremely well represented. They're never asked to sacrifice anything. And what they get is perpetual partisan warfare that the subject changes every day. Sometimes the subject changes every 15 minutes. And that frenzy is what we're all caught up in here.
[00:34:32] But that's not going to make progress for the kids in the Denver public schools or their parents, ever. It's not going to make progress for people who live in rural communities, whose hospitals are closing. Ever. It won't. That's why I think we have to figure out how to overcome it. And I think we can only overcome it with a Democratic Party that can speak to America convincingly about getting some things done they care [about]. Which is really challenging, because it's not a fair fight. It turns out, it's much easier to create a constituency to break the government and to do nothing, than it is to create a constituency for change. That's really hard in a world of Fox News.
Armao: [00:35:19] You mentioned education, and we wanted to ask you about that, because some of the positions that you've taken in the past are not seen as quote unquote progressive, or popular within the Democratic Party. Charter schools, you closed poor performing schools. Talk about that. And does that put you at a disadvantage?
Bennet: [00:35:37] I don't think so because I think I’m where the base of the Democratic Party is on this issue.
Armao: [00:35:43] The NAACP recently ...
Bennet: [00:35:46] I disagree with their position. I'm sorry that we're on opposite sides of this issue because I obviously have a lot of respect for the organization, but I disagree with that position and I don't think the Democratic Party should be for a moratorium on charter schools. I don't believe the charter schools are the answer at scale. I never have believed that. I believe we've got to transform the system of public education that we have. We've had no economic mobility for 40 years and we've got the greatest income inequality that we've had since 1928.
[00:36:25] And our system of education today is reinforcing that income inequality, not liberating people from it. Because the best predictor of the quality of the education you get is your parent's income. That line is to the point of ruthlessness. That line. Your parents’ income determines your income. Your parents’ income determines your education.
Armao: [00:36:49] So how would you fix it? Because there's arguments that the reform movement: charter schools, No Child Left Behind, all of those things, the metrics, that didn't work, that failed.
Bennet: [00:37:02] We certainly didn't make remotely the progress that we hoped that we would make. And I think across the country, and we've talked about this before, I think across the country, a lot of the efforts were failures because the implementation was so poor. There was a study that came out two weeks ago that Stanford did on the Denver Public Schools. It shows that the kids in Denver are growing so much faster than the rest of the kids in Colorado, that it is as if Denver Public Schools had 60 additional days of school a year for the past three years, compared to the other districts in my state.
[00:37:49] That's progress, I would say. We still have massive achievement gaps in my city that I think about every day. So we have a long, long way to go.
[00:38:04] The system belongs in the 19th century, that we have, and we need a 21st century system of public education in this country. There was a time, in the middle of the last century, when education transformed our economy and was the wind at our back. And today, as I said earlier, it's reinforcing all the inequities that exist in our country.
Hiatt: [00:38:26] So what can a president do?
Bennet: [00:38:28] Well I think a president should convene the leadership across this country, including governors and school superintendents and mayors where that's important, and say," What is it we're going to do to create universal preschool in America?" That's never going to be the federal government's job, but it is our job. We have to do it. If we don't have universal preschool in America, we're going to continue to have this problem. If we have schools, the quality of which are determined exclusively by the by the wealth of the neighborhood that they're in, we're going to continue to have these problems. Kids that go to college should be able to graduate from college debt-free. There's a lot a president can do about that, in terms of trying to incentivize universities to keep their prices low. By the way, this is another example of what's happened to us because our generation has been so unbelievably selfish compared to the next generation. Because what we decided was the easiest way to deal with this issue of rising costs of college and . . . in our failure and lack of responsibility to actually pay for public higher education, was to just let people take out student loans. Instead of doing something about it then, what Bernie proposes is, "let's write off $1.6 trillion of student debt." Doesn't do anything about reducing the cost of college for anybody, talk about regressive, by the way.
[00:39:50] I think my position on public education is progressive. I don't think it's the regressive position. I think when you are offering free college and you're offering debt repayment for wealthy kids in this country, that is regressive. When you are for universal preschool for Americans, that's progressive; when you are for focusing on the 70 percent of kids that don't go to college, that today America can only offer a minimum wage job to, and instead you want to reorganize high school and our community colleges, so that when they graduate from high school, they can earn a living wage. That alone would transform our economy. That's progressive. That's progressive. I'm not going to yield to anybody on that .
Hiatt: [00:40:40] You keep speaking of the debt we're leaving the next generation, I think that's your opening.
Charles Lane: [00:40:47] You've denounced this budget bill that they just came up with.
Bennet: [00:40:50] Have I done that yet? I didn't know.
Lane: [00:40:53] I read in your book some language about the dangers of deficits, but it seems like the reality, politically, in this country now, is that everybody in politics has decided to just pretend the deficit is not a problem.
Bennet: [00:41:08] I agree, I agree.
Lane: [00:41:09] But then again, there are some intelligent people who say, actually, it isn't a problem, and that's catching on in Democratic circles. So explain your view of why it's a problem, and two or three things you would do first to do it.
Bennet: [00:41:22] Well, I think it's a problem because the only reason it doesn't seem like a problem right now is that interest rates are so low and they've stayed so low during these economic challenges that we've had. That's true. It's absolutely true. And if that continues to be true forever, I suppose, that one could say that it's not a problem. Having spent my life, or a part of my life . . . reorganizing distressed companies, I know that that kind of wishful thinking in the end, generally leads to disaster and that disaster is going to be if interest rates start to rise. I don't think you can bet on the interest rates not rising forever. I just think you can't. I think it's too risky and too careless. So that's one point.
[00:42:20] The second point I'd make is, what have we spent the money on? And the answer to that is $5 trillion since 2001 on tax cuts for rich people, largely, tax cuts for rich people. And $5.6 trillion on the Middle East. Trump says it's $7 trillion, so that's $12 or $13 or $14 trillion that has produced the deficits that we have that have contributed to the deficit. From the point of view of the American people, we might as well have lit on fire. None of that money did anything to invest in the next generation of Americans. None of that money did anything to invest in our infrastructure. None of that money did anything to make Social Security solvent.
[00:43:10] You could have fixed every bridge and every road in America, and every airport infrastructure project, every backlog that exists, given Wi-Fi to every rural community in America, made Social Security solvent for my children, and you'd still have money to pay down the deficit.
[00:43:31] That's what we've been doing. So what I would do is stop doing that, for starters. And what I would do would be to reverse the Trump tax bill and do something that looked more like the proposals that I've made and that I'm running on, that were talked about earlier. There would be an actual investment in America, investment in infrastructure, investment in R&D. This year, the Chinese for the first time are actually investing more money in R&D than we are. Their curve looks like this.
Hiatt: [00:44:07] Was all the money spent in Afghanistan the equivalent of lighting it on fire?
Bennet: [00:44:10] The money in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the point of view of driving economic growth in America? Yes.
Hiatt: [00:44:19] From the point of view of national security, shouldn’t any money have been spent in Afghanistan?
Bennet: [00:44:24] I think that some money should have been spent in Afghanistan, but I don’t think we should have fought a 20-year war there. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think we should have. I don’t think the Israelis would have fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan. They would have done what they needed to do. And we should have done what we needed to do, but we shouldn’t have been there for 20 years. And not just because it’s $5.6 trillion, but because we shouldn’t have young people there 20 years later.
Hiatt: [00:44:51] So if you inherit a situation like now, where there's some [10,000], 20,000 troops, and your generals say, "pull them out, the Taliban and ISIS will come back. Keep them, Taliban and ISIS can be kept at bay, but not defeated." What do you do?
Bennet: [00:45:12] I think that we need to draw down as far as we can, and still support the counterterrorism mission that we have there. That's what I think we should do.
Lane: [00:45:24] Back to the economy, if you have that stack of slides there, but I I want to try out a sort of different kind of problem that the Democrats this year, which is the economy is a little too good for you politically. And obviously it'd be a lot easier to beat Trump if things weren't going so well. And I pulled a few statistics. So the [International Monetary Fund] has just raised its growth forecast for the United States for the next two years. Unemployment is down to 3.7 percent. According to the Atlanta Fed, wage growth is now at a 10-year high and returning to pre-recession levels. And I think that may reframe the challenge for your candidacy, in the sense that, maybe it's not about convincing people things are really bad, you've got the answer to them. But that things are going well, not necessarily because of Trump, and here's how I sustain all that. Because I do think going back, to your Carpenter's example, there may be some voters out there who feel like the Democrats will disrupt this good growth economy. So speak to that.
Bennet: [00:46:33] Yes. . . . First of all, that wage growth is good news because we haven't had any for a long time. It's what you'd expect to see in the tenth year of an economic recovery. It's what you'd expect to see much earlier in the economic recovery than we've seen. And you know this is 2009 and this is today. Obviously, the line is effectively a straight line.
[00:47:10] And, yes, Donald Trump's been president for these two years and that's what the line has looked like that and that's what we've continued to do. It's true. And this was a period of time that Donald Trump described as, "American carnage." That's what he described this period of time.
[00:47:32] The idea that this period is somehow all of a sudden not American carnage and this was, to me, doesn't hold up. You're right about the political argument that he'll make. And substantively, it doesn't support his argument that all of a sudden we should be euphoric about where this is. I think that's one point. Second, I live in a state with one of the best economies on the planet. and the vast majority of people I represent cannot afford housing. They cannot afford health care. They cannot afford higher education. They cannot afford early-childhood education. They cannot afford a middle-class life. That's not some people.
Lane: [00:48:16] Excuse me, the vast majority?
Bennet: [00:48:19] The vast majority. I pick my words carefully. A combination of housing, health care, higher education, early childhood. A combination of those things. And the people that don't come to my town halls, because they're working two and three jobs to try to get their family out of poverty feel like there's no escape from poverty no matter what they do.
[00:48:43] And I know, this people not from my town hall, but from working for them when I was superintendent of Denver public schools. Now, just like I can't give Donald Trump, all the credit here. I can't give him all the blame for that, either. That's 40 years of America not responding to an economy that has benefited the people at the very top and nobody else. If you look at the slides that are in here, that's what you'll see. And that has continued under President Trump. And so we have to change that. We've got to invest in the economy in ways that will allow us to begin to grow for everybody again. And some people look at it, and say, well this is just what happens when you've got a worldwide market for labor. And when technology does what technology does. And there's been a rise in China. I think the American people look at Washington perpetually giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in the country, and spending all this money in the Middle East, and they say, "it doesn't look like you've tried very hard." And they're right about that. And that's on both Democrats and Republicans.
Stephen Stromberg: [00:49:54] So on health care, you keep describing Medicare-for-all as taking health care away from 180 million people. Of course, Bernie Sanders have come back and say, "we're not taking it away, we're giving them a plan that has less bureaucracy, that's more generous, has no co-pays, and isn't, more importantly, driven by a profit motive." Which, I think, he would say incentivizes treating people in a way that they would not want to be treated in health-care situations. So, how do you respond to that argument?
Bennet: [00:50:33] First of all I think Bernie, unlike some other candidates, have been completely honest about what his plan does. And I give him credit for that, and I believe his ideological commitment to Medicare-for-all is consistent with everything that he has believed since 1973.
[00:51:01] I also know that they passed a version of his bill in Vermont, and they could not get it done because Vermonters looked at what the taxes would be, that they would have to pay, which Bernie has at least been honest about saying it would be big taxes on the middle class as a part of his plan, and they rejected it. And there are many reasons why Vermont, I think I've read on the pages of this newspaper, there are many reasons why Vermont is actually the ideal place to have a single-payer system. And they couldn't get it done. It wasn't sort of rejected, it was completely rejected. Colorado voted 80 to 20 to reject a plan that was similar to it, and it couldn't get done in California.
[00:51:51] So that's what I guess I would say, that, to the extent that Bernie says that all he's doing is swapping out private premiums for a big tax increase on the American people, I don't think that's something that the American people want. So I guess that's point one. Point two, I didn't say that he doesn't say that you ultimately will replace it, but he is taking away the choice that American people to be able to have private insurance if they want it or have a public option, which is what I support. And I think that's an enormous distinction in the approach to the work. And I don't actually accept that my plan is less progressive than Bernie's. No, I don't accept it.
[00:52:39] I think my plan is much more likely to deliver universal health care than Bernie Sanders plan is. I do. And by the way, my plan, at least according to the CBO, when they scored it during the Obamacare debate, my plan doesn't cost $33 trillion. It actually nets out positively to the FISC.
Molly Roberts: [00:53:08] To circle way back to the beginning and all that Russian propaganda. We have that, we have domestic misinformation on social media sites, hate speech. You've expressed some openness to what I think you've called "rules of the road" for these online sites. What would those look like, and how would they mesh with the country's free speech?
Bennet: [00:53:27] I don't think it has anything to do with free speech. These companies are not the government. Or I should say, it doesn't mean any of the First Amendment. And I'm worried about them on a lot of levels.
[00:53:40] This slide is the return on invested capital of publicly traded companies in America. The top slide are the most profitable companies, and then these are different quartiles of companies, and these are the big tech companies and the pharmaceutical companies in America.
Hiatt: [00:54:04] By far the most profitable.
Bennet: [00:54:05] By far. See how these lines are flat lines? That's what you would expect in a capitalist system that work. Because if you start to get an outsize profit, then someone else comes in and competes it down. Well, since about 1994, nobody's been able to come compete that down. So that's one point, I'm deeply worried about the antitrust implications of what's happening here and the distortion that that's causing.
[00:54:35] Which I realize isn't your question, but I wanted to say that, when you got . . . whatever the advantages here, whether it's the fact that they've got more access to a greater amount of data than others, that they have a first-mover advantage that is puts them in a competitive advantage, or they're Amazon is a different example, but as Scott Galloway has said, when you're not expected to earn a profit, and you're out there buying grocery store chains, and everybody's market cap goes down by 20 percent, just because you said you're going to buy Whole Foods, which is the eighth-largest grocery chain in the country. Because grocery stores actually do have to earn a profit to survive and be rewarded in the public markets, we should be looking at this. And I think, they have acted, not Amazon but others, with respect to data, in a way that has to be regulated. I don't know the right way yet to do it. I'm not sure what the right way is. But I think Facebook, until very recently, what they were selling here was the idea that they were just sort of a benign platform misrepresents the effect that they've had our democracy and ignores the insidious nature of what has been trafficked, not just by the Russians, but by white supremacists and others. And I think they have a responsibility to the democracy, to the country that made them possible, to do a hell of a lot better job than they're doing, trying to ensure that my daughters and other kids aren't seeing people's heads chopped off.
Roberts: [00:56:26] Should government be setting rules to make them do that?
Bennet: [00:56:32] I think they should. I think they should. And if they do and it's sufficient, maybe government would — maybe there’s less of a role for government. But to throw up your hands and say, well, you don't want the leadership of Facebook making these judgments, I disagree with that. We were attacked by a foreign government. Our democracy was attacked. Facebook claimed that the Russians weren't on their site. Facebook did nothing to protect America from the Russians. And if they were wrong . . . they were either wrong or they were lying about it. I don't know the answer to that. But it's intolerable. It's intolerable. If the Russians had you know given Walter Cronkite his evening script for a year, we would have done something about it. So, I think it's very serious. And obviously everything in America needs to be balanced and we need to have a vigorous public debate. I'm really worried. I'll invite you over to my office to read my Facebook page and, and as I said right in the book, I take it as part of my job as an elected official to take feedback on Facebook. But I guarantee you this, the vitriol that is on there is gonna do nothing to advance the interests of America. Nothing. And we have to figure out how to have a public conversation in America again. We are not Russia. We are not China. We are a democracy. We are a self-governing enterprise. We have to figure out how to overcome this.
[00:58:30] There is no reason why social media should be an anti-democratic force. There is no reason it should be. I can imagine a world where it could be a powerful force for democratization. I could imagine it being a powerful force for democracy. But in the first two decades that it's been here, it has not. It is supported tyrants in the Middle East, not uprisings in the Middle East, in the end. And it has supported tyrants here that we now can't close over because of the insanity in our political system. So it is a huge, huge challenge that I hope the next generation of Americans are going to help us solve, because I think my generation on this, is fairly hopeless.
Marcus: [00:59:18] Can I circle back to the news of the day, if that’s all right? You’ve said that you wanted to wait to hear from Mueller from now on impeachment, so number one, what’s your thinking about impeachment now? Number two, how should the next Justice Department think about whether to prosecute as Trump as Mueller testified could be done? And number three, should the next Justice Department rethink the OLC opinion on whether presidents can be subject to indictment?
Bennet: [00:59:49] I would say, on the first, I've said that I think that he committed impeachable offenses by obstructing justice. And we'll just have to see what Nancy Pelosi and the House decide to do.
Marcus: [01:00:07] Well, you're running for president, what do you think should be done?
Bennet: [01:00:14] I think that the House should pursue its oversight responsibilities. And I think they should allow that to lead them where they need to be. I don't think he should be impeached tomorrow. And I think that whatever we do, we need to approach this in a manner that makes it less likely, not more likely, that Donald Trump gets reelected. And I don't think that's an abandonment of our legislative responsibilities. I think that is a fundamental responsibility that we have to this democracy, is to make sure he's not reelected, and make sure that's not made easier for him to be reelected. And the answer to the other two questions is yes.
Marcus: [01:00:55] [inaudible] the next Justice Department to think about? Do you think they should prosecute him?
Bennet: [01:01:03] I think they should consider it. And I think that they should look at whether or not . . . I mean Mueller seemed to suggest yesterday that he could be prosecuted for what he's done. I think that it should be examined. I don't believe that we should turn the page on that, and on the last one, I think the OLC opinion should be reconsidered.
Marcus: [01:01:24] Is it wrong?
Bennet: [01:01:24] I don't know but I think it should be reconsidered.
Lane: [01:01:26] I was just going to ask you if you think that AOC and the squad have proven a net plus or minus for your party, and generally how you view this latest episode.
Bennet: [01:01:49] She is an elected representative of her district as are the other members and they are entitled to do what they want to do. It’s not her fault that the Democratic caucus in the Senate, for instance, doesn’t have a climate plan, you know. And that there’s a vacuum about what the Democratic Party stands for when it comes to climate change. That’s not her fault. We should have a climate plan and we’re working to try to develop one now. You know, we should have had one before.
[01:02:28] I think what we've got is a place where nobody in America knows what the national Democratic Party stands for. And that's not acceptable. We need to stand for something that's coherent going into this election, if we're going to beat Donald Trump.
Hiatt: [01:02:50] Can I just propose that we do climate, since you've been generous with your time? I'd like to let Steve do climate and we'd like as one District of Columbia related question, maybe a China question [inaudible].
Stromberg: [01:03:12] Well what would you do on climate change?
Bennet: [01:03:15] I would make sure that we did not lose the economic argument again to a climate denier. I'd make sure that we weren't beaten by a climate denier.
[01:03:24] And my proposal is to spend a trillion dollars on climate technology to leverage another $10 trillion of private sector money, to make sure that America is exporting that technology around the world so that we're competing with China and others because I think that's a place where we can really lead. I've said that I think we can create 10 million climate jobs over the next 10 years, cut emissions in half by 2030, and in our buildings and in our transportation sector. And that we can be net neutral by 2050.
[01:04:07] I agree with the findings of the Green New Deal. I agree with their findings and I don't think we should compromise on the science.
Stromberg: [01:04:15] And a carbon tax or what mechanism would you do to drive down emissions?
Bennet: [01:04:19] Well, one other thing that I write about in my plan is, I think we can use conservation to sequester carbon. So I think there's the opportunity for us to use the working lands in the United States, and public lands in the United States, to do that. And that is a way, also, of trying to engage farmers and ranchers in this work because we have to build a broader coalition than we have. You know, one of the things you hear people say all the time is, or climate advocates, is that we have to act urgently. I believe that, too. We have to acknowledge that this is something that I would do with executive orders.
[01:05:08] But but we have to act urgently. But this is another place where if we accept their current political outcomes, we're doomed. Because you can't fix climate two years at a time. If you accept the politics, where this is all about putting in your policies for two years or four years, and having them ripped out by the other party the next two years or four years, you can't address climate change. You can't do it. You have to address it urgently, but you have to do it in a way that's durable.
[01:05:39] You have to do it in a way that will last, like our foreign policy used to, for instance. It's not that it didn't change, but the broad contours of what we were trying to achieve were sustained from one administration to the next administration. It wasn't that long ago when that was true. Doesn't mean we didn't make mistakes, either. We did. But that is what's going to be required on climate. Which means we have to create a constituency in this country to do that. We don't have one today.
[01:06:11] We don't have one that's broad enough yet today. So . . . my small way of trying to make an effort to do that is suggesting that conservation may be a way of doing it. I would support a price on carbon. I don't think that that is something that, in the near term, we could get through the Congress. But I think it's an efficient way to deal with this problem that has to be dealt with.
[01:06:38] But when people say to me, you know, you're naive. I want to be clear about this, I want to be very clear about this: I am not saying that these guys, the Freedom Caucus and McConnell, are susceptible to negotiation. I don't. I do not agree with the vice president's view on that. By the way, we haven't even talked about the structural things that have happened over the last 10 years that were not even in place for 30 years, or whatever it was, that he was here as a senator. The attack on the Voting Rights Act — I shouldn’t say attack, the demolition of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s decision in [Shelby County v.] Holder, and effect of Citizens United, and the effect now of the actual gerrymandering that happened after the 2010 elections. Now, we have the knowledge that the Supreme Court has decided that's a political question that they can't deal with. And our Congress has been immobilized by Citizens United alone, I think. So these are the forces that were contending with on this stuff. And that we're going to have to address. But the point I'm making is, when people say I'm naive about that, what I say is you're naive to believe that if we keep doing what we've been doing for the last ten years, that our kids will have anything to thank us for. We're not going to be able to. I'm just being honest. I'm just being honest. We have to change our politics.
Jackson Diehl: [01:08:24] You've said that Trump is right in putting pressure on China but he's going about it in exactly the wrong way, so I have two quick questions about that. Does that mean you're opposed to putting tariffs on Chinese imports? And you are opposed to the Commerce Department restricting the sales to Huawei?
Bennet: [01:08:43] I think Huawei is a really serious problem for us. I think it's a real serious problem for the world. And I think the fact that Trump has been inconsistent on that, is damaging to us. And I think the fact that he retreated on what he was doing . . .
Diehl: [01:09:00] Would you restrict the sales to Huawei?
Bennet: [01:09:05] I would consider it. I think the biggest problem with Huawei is not the sales of our stuff to their network, but the proliferation of their network around the world. That's a big problem.
[01:09:22] And it is a big problem. And for us to have inconsistent leadership on that, for us to back off on that at the first sign that Xi [Jinping] is upset with what we're doing, sends a terrible message.
Diehl: [01:09:36] You're against tariffs?
Bennet: [01:09:37] I think in general I am against tariffs. I wouldn't say that I would never employ them. But in general, I think they are a tax on our producers, they're a tax on our farmers and ranchers, and I think they're not the way to approach this.
[01:09:56] On the other hand, there is an incredible opportunity here to mobilize the whole world. Because basically the entire world has the same interests that we do, vis a vis China, in terms of trade. I can only think of two exceptions: North Korea and Russia. And that's an amazing opportunity for us to show leadership after this administration is gone.
Armao: [01:10:25] On D.C. statehood, now you and the other candidates support it. How would you achieve it? How big of a priority would it be? Or are there other things short of statehood that need to be done?
Bennet: [01:10:34] What other things do you have in mind?
Armao: [01:10:37] There was a plan several years ago, giving voting representation,a vote in Congress, perhaps one Senate vote, something short of statehood. Or are there other things? We've talked about a presidential commission to look at other aspects.
Bennet: [01:10:52] I haven't studied the question but I think that people in this city should be enfranchised and should have representation in the Congress. I think that the fact that they don't is a legacy of decisions that were made 230 years ago that I think we should change. I as I understand it, I am the only candidate for president who has not said that I would change the filibuster rules to have a vote on D.C. statehood. And that is a position that I am holding. I don't understand that position. Do people think that Mitch McConnell couldn't change the rules tomorrow if he wanted to? If he wanted to give Utah an extra congressional seat? If he wanted to give Nevada an extra congressional seat? Yet, our position is we want to change these rules. We learned nothing from what we just went through on the judges. If you look at the map, it's gonna be very hard for us to win a majority in the Senate.
[01:12:05] It's possible, it's possible . . . and I think it's possible if we're running on universal health care. I think it's impossible if we’re running on Medicare-for-all. I think it's possible, if we're running on a climate change plan that excites America about the economic possibilities of doing that. I think it's impossible if we don't. But there are a lot of people who are saying the reason we should change the rules is because it's going to be very hard for us to have a legitimate majority.
Armao: [01:12:37] So statehood won't happen?
Bennet: [01:12:38] No, but I was making a different point, which is that has become what you're talking about has become a litmus test in the Democratic primary, where it is a litmus test that has nothing to do with the merits of statehood. It has nothing to do with your question, really. I'm sorry, but it just occurred to me. It has become a litmus test that plays into Mitch McConnell’s hands. It's like he's sitting there with a fricking catcher's mitt, saying "Please throw it in here again. Please throw it in here again." I don't know why we would do that.
Hiatt: [01:13:15] Your book seems to suggest that you think if you're president and Mitch McConnell still the majority leader, you would not be able to get a Supreme Court justice approved.
Bennet: [01:13:23] I don't think we would. And that's a tragedy and that — by the way, if people come in here and say to you that this was all inevitable, I totally disagree with that. This is a failure of leadership and a failure of imagination. And it is a failure of this generation of elected officials in Washington. And I've gone to the floor and apologized for my role in it. We've lost something. I went down on the floor to talk to McConnell about this. And to summarize, because I'll spare you the chapter and verse of this story that he told of us playing into his hands over and over and over again in ways that he could not believe. At the end, he said, "But Michael, you shouldn't be so worried about this, because all I've done is put it back the way it was before you guys started to filibuster circuit-court judges in the early [1990s], Miguel Estrada and those others. I've just put it back the way it was because until then, nobody filibustered anybody." And I said, Mitch, that's not true. Because when I was in law school if you were qualified for the Supreme Court, you get 90 votes. You get 95 votes, if you were a circuit court judge. The same thing, and every time we had a vote like that, it reaffirmed the idea that the judiciary was independent of our, hopefully temporary, partisan insanity in the Senate. And we protected that for generations and generations and generations, and this generation of politicians decided not to live up to that. And, as a result, we have infected the courts with that partisanship and that is a loss for the American people. That is a shame. That is a loss for the American people. And it wasn't inevitable. We could have if we had had the stamina to do it, we could have headed it off with another Gang of 14 that said we're just not going to do this. If we give in to this, it's worth spending just a second on this, I think, if we give into this, if we decide that my position is naive and that what we have to do is accept a one-way ratchet-down that destroys our political institutions, that destroys our exercise and self-government, we will not sustain this democracy.
[01:15:57] And that is really what I think is at stake in this election, much more than beating Donald Trump. That's what's really at stake. And for us to have a thriving democracy, we need to have a thriving economy that supports everybody in America, not just the richest people in this country. Not just the top 5 percent. The top 1 percent. And that's what we've known for four years. We can't do it for another 10 years. We're out of time. We are out of time.
[01:16:33] Thank you. Thank you.
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