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Politics and Government

Michael Bennet has a warning for Democrats. But it’s not clear how many are listening.

The U.S. senator from Colorado’s presidential campaign is reaching a pivotal moment with Wednesday's second Democratic debate

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A month before Michael Bennet entered the presidential race, joining a score of Democratic candidates vying to challenge President Donald Trump, he voiced the biggest challenge his eventual campaign would encounter: The tendency in his own party to gravitate toward the end of the ideological spectrum and reach for the easy answer.

“I think that people are going to see in my candidacy somebody who is willing to say it like it is, to not accept every single totem, and to make the argument that it’s not just enough to beat Trump — which is the critical thing — but it’s also figuring out how to govern,” Bennet told me in early April. 

We talked at the dining room table inside a home in Concord, New Hampshire, after he finished an event with local Democratic activists. The visit represented the final test run before announcing his candidacy in May. 

“And governing,” he continued, “is going to mean that it’s not just about substituting one party’s version of one-party rule for another party’s version of one-party rule.”

His view that Washington is broken is a common refrain in the 2020 race. But he’s making a more provocative point, too. It’s a not-so-subtle critique that the Democratic Party — and the candidates who want to lead it — is part of the problem if it aligns with partisan ideas, rather than lasting solutions. 

“That’s not going to be an easy case to make in a Democratic primary, but it is what I believe,” Bennet added. “And people are going to have to make their assessment.”

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So far, the response to Bennet’s voice-of-reason approach is modest, at best. In his campaign’s first three months, Bennet cemented his reputation as a straight-talker not afraid to rebut his more liberal rivals and outlined concrete policy steps to address gridlock on Capitol Hill, economic insecurity and rising health care costs. He won credit from big thinkers, but barely registered in early polling, in part because a self-fulfilling cycle that boosts celebrity candidates who draw the most media attention and in part because his ideas are not energizing Democratic voters.

Now, with the arrival of the second set of debates, Bennet faces a pivotal moment. Whether he likes it or not — and he doesn’t — the Democratic Party is attempting to winnow the large field of candidates in the next month by putting parameters on who can qualify for the third set of debates in September. To make the next stage, the candidates must reach 2% support in four approved national or early-state polls by Aug. 28 and draw 130,000 unique donors, with at least 400 from 20 different states). Right now, Bennet doesn’t meet either benchmark.

His best chance to make a push is at the debates in Detroit. (Bennet appears Wednesday on the far left end of the stage with nine other candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.) Even though he may get 10 minutes or less to collectively make his case, the national airtime is probably the most exposure he will get for the next month.

Back in June, his performance at the first set of debates landed him on pundits’ lists of “winners,” and his campaign reported the highest number of donors since the week it launched. This time he may need to do even better.

“I think Michael just needs to be himself,” said David Kenney, a longtime friend and confidant, who downplayed the significance of the debates. “And the more people get to know him … the better he’ll do.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to voters at jajaBelle’s bakery in Nashua, New Hampshire, on April 6, 2019. He visited New Hampshire in advance of announcing his 2020 presidential bid. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet’s trip to New Hampshire in April is instructive in understanding why he’s running for president and what role he fills in the race. 

The three-day visit, followed by an event in Iowa, came just days after the two-term lawmaker from Denver announced that he had prostate cancer. He made a full recovery, and the scare only reinforced his desire to run. “When I got the diagnosis, it would have been a really good excuse not to run,” he told me. “My emotion was, ‘Boy this seems like a shame not to be able to do it.’ … It was clarifying in that sense.”

I arrived in the Granite State and found him at jajaBelle’s bakery in Nashua, his voice and the smell of fresh baked banana bread drifting onto Main Street through the bakery’s screen door. “I don’t have a philosophical view on that. I have a practical view on that, which is that Congress is completely immobilized,” he said as I entered, a preamble to a four-minute monologue about how Washington was dysfunctional, how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the conservative Freedom Caucus were the problem, how lazy compromises were not the answer and how President Barack Obama’s initiatives were “ripped away like tissue paper” because they weren’t grounded in bipartisan agreement. 

“It’s what I mean when I say we are not going to fix it by just getting rid of Donald Trump,” he concluded. “That is an essential step along the way, but there is a lot more that has to be done.”

He delivered his thoughts in his distinctive voice, a sonorous baritone with a deliberate, John Wayne-styled cadence. (Later in the trip, when he was tired, his voice was prone to sound more like a congested Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.”) The answer didn’t lift people to their feet, but the 30 or so listening managed to nod in agreement.

Bennet took another question from the crowd. A tall white-haired man in the middle of the room recalled how Bennet lambasted Ted Cruz on the floor of the U.S. Senate in January for the Texas senator’s “crocodile tears” about a government shutdown. The video clips of the speech went viral online. And the speech was pretty much all the people in the bakery knew about Bennet before the event.

“We want to thank you for your speech … that was fantastic,” the man said. “Finally, someone came out and emphasized the fact that you shouldn’t be shutting the government down to get your own way.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The crowd responded with echoes of “Yes!” and big applause. The speech represented an emotional break point for Bennet and drew extra attention because he is more reserved than many of his colleagues. A month earlier, The Atlantic magazine labeled him “The Democrat who wants to stop the rage.”

So it’s ironic that his Hulk-like moment made him a part of the national conversation and helped push him into the 2020 campaign. “There is a lot I’m enraged about,” he told me. “I am enraged that we have a climate denier in the White House. I am enraged that only 35% of the fourth graders in this country can read proficiently. I’m enraged that only 40% of them can do math proficiently. I’m enraged that we’ve had no economic mobility for 90% of Americans. … And I’m enraged that we have a class of politicians in Washington, D.C., whose approach to the work is cynical and destructive.”

For his part, Cruz dismissed Bennet’s candidacy, calling it a “Seinfeld” campaign — one “about nothing” — that “typifies the left’s empty rage in 2020.”

The viral nature of his remarks, however, gave Bennet confidence that people wanted to hear his take, a no-nonsense approach from a self-described “pragmatic idealist” that is strategic and durable.

Like other 2020 campaigns, Bennet’s advisers saw an opening in the crowded race for a middle path that appealed to more than just the Democratic Party’s base. Bennet fit the bill. He built a reputation in Colorado as someone who would reach across partisan and geographic boundaries to craft immigration, health care and climate proposals — ideas with support in rural areas, even if they don’t go far enough for the more liberal urban centers. 

His health care plan — dubbed Medicare X — came from a meeting he held in rural Colorado, and now the proposal has emerged as a leading alternative in the discussion about a “Medicare for All” system supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democratic challengers.

Put simply, Bennet’s plan would operate as a public option through the same federal agency that oversees Medicare but with different coverage. (It’s impact is the topic of debate and how much it would cost consumers remains unknown.) The coverage would start in rural areas where few current providers exist and then expand to everyone. Sanders’ plan would guarantee health insurance for every American through a single-payer government system. The main difference between the two: Bennet’s plan would preserve the ability for people to keep private health insurance, such as plans offered by employers, and Sanders’ would force everyone into the government plan.

MORE: What is Medicare-X, Michael Bennet’s big idea to fix the American health insurance market?

The next morning at the home in Concord he explained how it worked. And he made clear that he doesn’t believe Sanders’ plan was politically viable. Bennet knows the potency of health care in politics. In 2010, when he won his first full term to the Senate, Democrats came under fire for the unmet promises that the Affordable Care Act would let people keep their doctor. “It was brutal,” Bennet told the crowd of two dozen Democrats. “Can you imagine if our position as a party was: ‘If you like your insurance, we’re going to take it away from you.’”

The blunt appraisal and political practicality is what makes Bennet stand apart, said Christopher Celeste, a Bennet friend since childhood who traveled with the candidate in New Hampshire. “He doesn’t come in as an ideologue,” Celeste said. “And the race has a contingent of ideologues who are pushing the party toward a more provocative approach than I think even many Democrats are ready for.”

Celeste spent a lifetime near politics as the son of former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, who worked with Bennet’s father at the State Department in India and later served as president of Colorado College. And he sketched Bennet’s course in clear terms, even though he remained unsure of whether it would prevail given the current Democratic political mood. 

It starts, he said, with the “mass majority, silent majority, of Americans who are fed up — the same ones who reacted to his Ted Cruz Senate floor speech — who really have a lot more in common than they have opposed.”

Upon hearing Bennet talk, Celeste wants voters to ask themselves: “Why aren’t we electing somebody who can actually tell me what the problem is and has real legislation and solutions for it? Why aren’t we electing a guy who has dignity and grace and intelligence and curiosity?”

“Maybe, just maybe, in a very counterintuitive way, Michael breaks through,” Celeste concluded. “You know, you never know with these things.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet stands in the kitchen of a home in Concord, New Hampshire, during a meet-and-greet with local Democrats in April. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The script for Bennet’s campaign is written in his 294-page book, “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics.” More treatise than memoir, the book diagnoses the dysfunction in our democracy through five recent policy debates in the Senate, and offers a vision for the future that can seem romantic today.

“It’s not a political book,” Bennet told me at the dining room table in Concord. The subject matter indicated otherwise. But he meant that he didn’t write it as a pretense for a White House bid, like so many other candidates. (Still, publisher Atlantic Monthly Press released the book weeks before its original June publish date to capitalize on his bid.)

Bennet actually began putting his thoughts to paper two years earlier, just months into his second term, back when he says running for president “was the farthest thought from my mind.” It started as an exercise to make sense of the current state of American politics for a series of speeches, and now it’s required reading for all his new campaign aides.

The title is a reference to how he described the United States during the era of repeated government shutdowns. The opening paragraph of the first chapter — about how “politics” doesn’t appear in the 7,591-word U.S. Constitution — mirrored the opening lines of his campaign’s debut video. And it ends with charts and additional reading recommendations.

The fundamental symptom of the current American political morass, the book argues, is “trivial, unprincipled partisanship masquerading as principled disagreement,” a dynamic that allowed McConnell, the Tea Party and like-minded conservatives to demand irrational policies and dissolve confidence in government.

A corollary, Bennet writes, is factionalism — a dynamic that corrodes political discourse into efforts aimed at “slaying the dragons of some demagogue’s invention” rather than the problems facing Americans. The end result, he concludes, “We have forgotten how to actually run the country.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, reads from his book at Tattered Cover Bookstore on East Colfax Avenue on Friday, Jun 16, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The path forward, he suggests, is a fundamental one: A return to self-governance, where citizenship is taken more seriously and tolerance for the current dysfunction ends. “The final basic argument of the book is that: What it means to be a citizen in a democratic republic like ours is you must think of yourself as a founder. That is the level of expectation that is placed on our shoulders. When you think about that, that is a very elevated view about what it means to be a citizen,” he told me, echoing the message delivered moments earlier at the meet-and-greet. “I actually have come to believe what I wrote about in that book — that (elevated citizenship) is a path out of the morass that we are in — it’s a path away from Donald Trump.”

The corrective path he narrates in the book is easily cast as naive. But Bennet pushed back against my reflexive cynicism. “What’s naive is expecting Washington to solve any of our problems continuing to work the way it is. So I don’t accept the terms of that debate,” he replied.

His perspective is carved from 10 years in Washington, first as the “accidental senator,” the Denver Public Schools superintendent picked by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2009 from a field of candidates with greater political ambitions to fill a vacancy created when Sen. Ken Salazar joined the Obama administration.

Kenney, Bennet’s friend and an adviser to Ritter at the time, said what made Bennet different is his deliberative nature and intellectual curiosity. “I think Michael is a fact-driven, progressive pragmatist. I think Gov. Ritter saw that. We knew that he would put citizens of Colorado first. … He has a North Star at a time when I think we need more people who have a North Star.”

The “accidental senator” moniker was bestowed upon him by the state’s Republican Party chairman, but one Bennet came to embrace, a shorthand that allows him to give the impression that he’s different from his colleagues, a step removed from the partisan whirlwind.

But his return to Washington marked a homecoming for Bennet. Born in New Delhi, India, where his father worked for the State Department, Bennet spent his childhood in Washington. His father, Douglas J. Bennet, who traces his family’s lineage to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, held top jobs on Capitol Hill and in Democratic administrations. His mother, who survived the Holocaust along with her parents, both Polish Jews, and emigrated to New York in the 1950s, worked as an elementary school librarian.

Bennet attended Wesleyan University and Yale Law School before returning to Washington to work for a private law firm and then the U.S. Justice Department during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Unsatisfied, he moved to Denver when his wife, Susan Daggett, landed a job as a lawyer with an environmental organization now known as Earthjustice. He took a job with Phil Anschutz, the billionaire businessman and conservative donor, working to turn around struggling companies. He entered public service as chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and later became superintendent, the job he most often identifies with on the campaign trail.

He returned to Washington as a senator with optimism, he recalled in the book, only to see it “dashed by our inability to get almost anything done for our country.” The inaction lingers on his mind, particularly when he thinks about the lack of economic mobility for the vast majority of Americans and the inadequate responses to climate change. Now, Bennet wrote, he feels “haunted by a profound sense of lost opportunity.”

As much as Bennet lamented politics, he became part of it. In 2014, he served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee overseeing campaign efforts in a year in which the party suffered major defeats, including in Colorado. Bennet spent significant time that election cycle raising money, much of it for television advertising that fueled a bitter discourse.

“It’s unfortunate, but the only way forward for those of us who want to bring in a new system is to compete and win in the old, corrupt one,” he told The Washington Post in 2016.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet talks to a civics class on April 10, 2019, at Nashua High School South in New Hampshire during a campaign trip. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

From the start, he made fixing the “broken politics” he described in his book a centerpiece of his campaign. Bennet stressed that it was crucial to making progress on addressing climate change and health care. “I feel like the race is wide open, and I think people are responding to that message that’s in the book. That’s what I’m talking about, the stuff that I wrote there,” Bennet told me soon after his national debut in a CNN town hall in May. 

He recycled an idea from his first campaign — a proposal to impose a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists, which now had support from his nemesis Cruz and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

What he didn’t include in his “political reform” plan: adding more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court or eliminating the ability to filibuster in the Senate — both proposals other Democratic candidates have discussed.

The court expansion idea from South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg represented the 37-year-old’s inexperience in Washington politics, Bennet suggested to Politico. “I think if he had seen it up close, he might have a different approach,” he said. 

Bennet issued warnings like this often in his first months as a candidate: A push to impeach Trump was exactly what the president wanted. A “Medicare for All” health care plan was a political disaster. An embrace of socialistic policies only played into Republicans’ hands. If his party wasn’t careful, he argued, it will help reelect Donald Trump. Most of them went unheeded.

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In the first debate, he blasted Biden — and likewise Obama — for supporting the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal that extended tax cuts put in place by President George W. Bush. “The deal with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the Tea Party,” he said. “We had been running against this for 10 years. We lost that economic argument because that deal extended almost all those Bush tax cuts permanently and put in place the mindless cuts we still are dealing with today that are called the sequester. That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell and a terrible deal for America.”

His moderation put him in the firing line for a progressive group that criticized his support for Trump’s judicial nominees and another that singled him out as one of the only presidential candidates to not support statehood for the District of Columbia. (He does support it but doesn’t want to use the filibuster to make it happen.)

His allies dismiss the criticism. “I refer to the Democratic presidential primary as one of my kid’s soccer games when they were all 4 and 5,” Kenney said. “You watch the scrum and see all the dust from the herd. And it’s kind of policy be damned.” 

Bennet, he added, “is still true to his core values.”

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