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Sen. Michael Bennet walks with two staff members after formally filing Nov. 6, 2019, to be included on New Hampshire's primary ballot. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Michael Bennet is predicating his improbable presidential campaign on the issue of health care — more specifically, the need for a public insurance option and not a “Medicare for All” system.

The Colorado senator has lambasted Medicare for All as a “lousy policy” with no chance for passage and enough political baggage to doom the Democratic Party’s chances up-and-down the ballot in 2020.

His moderate voice struggled to register in a campaign dominated by far-reaching policy ideas, but now as the first early-state caucus approaches, Bennet believes his message is starting to take hold. The problem: So far his big ideal is not translating into more support for his campaign.

The dynamic plaguing the 55-year-old Bennet’s White House bid arrived on his own doorstep Friday in Denver when he hosted a town hall, his first in more than a year. The audience included Democrats who are vocal critics of his public option plan, known as Medicare X, as well as those who don’t think he should be in the presidential race.

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

The town hall turns into a health care debate

The topic of health care became an issue early in the event, when an audience member asked Bennet how his plan differed from that of his rival Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. 

Bennet’s proposal — which he introduced in the U.S. Senate — would create a public option by allowing people to buy government health care coverage, starting with those in areas with limited insurance choices. He supported a public option when he first took office back in 2009 and pushed for it as part of the Affordable Care Act only to see it tossed as too controversial.

But he later drafted the Medicare X plan in consultation with people in conservative areas in Colorado and, citing polls now showing broad support, considers it a plan that can win in purple states. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, gives a book reading and talks to constituents at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on East Colfax Avenue on Friday, Jun 16, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Warren is a supporter of Medicare for All, which would make the government the nation’s single-insurer and eliminate private insurance. But she recently backtracked by saying she would initially prioritize a new public health insurance option.

“It differs from hers because I’ve had the same plan for 10 years, and I haven’t changed it,” Bennet responded, also questioning the cost of Warren’s plan. “It differs from hers because I believe the fastest way to universal health care is my plan.”

Other public option supporters also see a shift in tone in the Democratic presidential debate on the issue. Richard Boxer, a one-time policy adviser to Hillary Clinton and clinical professor at UCLA’s medical school, said voters are looking for a reasonable path toward lowering health care costs, and a government-sponsored plan will do it. And the question about big costs for Medicare for All is tripping up candidates.

“I think that the Democratic population — which the exception of the far left — has come to the conclusion that we have to change it with the public option,” Boxer said in an interview.

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

Bennet is one of the most vocal critics of a Medicare for All system like the one backed by leading Democratic presidential contenders, including Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said most Americans don’t want to give up their private insurance and couldn’t afford the increased taxes to implement such a system. He suggested it’s an untenable proposal that will impede movement on other top political priorities, such as climate change.

“I don’t want to spend the next 10 years fighting a losing battle on Medicare for All when it can’t even pass in Vermont,” he told the audience.

As Bennet continued to make his case, he stopped to address a heckler, Robert Messman, in one of the front rows.  “Why don’t you just go ahead,” Bennet told him. “You’ve been saying, ‘bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.’ It would be more polite for you to just take the microphone.”

The move instigated an impromptu debate in the town hall with Messman, the treasurer of Health Care for All Colorado Foundation, an organization that supports a single-government health insurer system. Messman stood up and began to make his case for Medicare for All, turning around to face the audience and finishing to applause. “Basically there’s a lot of distortion in here,” Messman said about Bennet’s remarks. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, gets into a debate about health care with Robert Messman at a town hall in Denver on Nov. 29. 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet said he would support a pilot Medicare for All system in California, if the state wanted it. “In the meantime, stop making it impossible for people in rural Colorado to have health insurance,” he concluded without drawing applause.

Later in the town hall, Tay Anderson, a newly elected Denver school board member and Democrat, confronted Bennet and suggested he’s not focused enough on his current job as senator. 

“With all due respect Sen. Bennet, I know you’re running for president, they know you’re running for president … but right now I need you to be our senator and not a presidential candidate,” Anderson said to a smattering of applause from the audience of approximately 300 people.

Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, dismissed the 21-year-old Anderson’s remarks and other criticisms about missed votes in Washington. “I continue to represent the state well and that will always be my first priority,” he said after the event.

MORE: Michael Bennet looks to New Hampshire to give his 2020 presidential campaign new life

Bennet defends tough stance against rivals

After the event, Bennet defended his criticism of Democratic rivals who support Medicare for All, saying it was “important for us to litigate these issues before we have a general election against Donald Trump.”

“If we nominate somebody that is for Medicare for All, it’s going to be very challenging to win,” he told reporters, reiterating similar remarks he made about Colorado’s pivotal U.S. Senate race in 2020. “I’m not saying we can’t win under those circumstances, but it’s much harder than if we were running on a public option.”

As evidence of his impact on the national health care debate, Bennet pointed to how Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, along with other candidates, have shifted to embrace the public option. “I don’t understand what her plan is,” he said, referring to Warren, “but I do think it shows movement.”

He added: “I can’t say what influence I’ve had, but I’m the only person who’s written the bill.”

As for his presidential campaign, Bennet said he will need to “do well” in the first two Democratic primary contests. “I really believe that the issues I’ve run on are the most consistent with Democrats in Iowa and Democrats and independents in New Hampshire.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.