2020, Politics

Could Michael Bennet Make Us Sane Again?

He’s a pragmatist who cares about policy, and he wants to fix our political dysfunction.
August 21, 2019
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(Photo by Matt McClain/Getty Images)

Center-left Democrats have a smorgasbord of worries: America is too polarized to govern. Joe Biden is too brittle to last. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are wrenching the party too far left—or just can’t win. The debates are a frenetic form of speed dating that subordinate sound strategy to shallow showmanship. Or, even worse, an ersatz Lord of the Flies in which the contestants, ravenous for attention, consume each other.

Want more? Kamala Harris elevates style over substance. Mayor Pete is too boyish and buttoned up. Litmus tests like single-payer and open borders will saddle Democrats with an ersatz George McGovern. The party base, blue-collar whites, and suburban swing voters will never coalesce. Bereft of conscience or constraint, Donald Trump will exploit the party’s fatal fissures, converting its terminal haplessness into another electoral college victory.

Feeling hopeless? Michael Bennet wants to talk you off the ledge. 

In a season awash in stridency, soundbites, and extravagant proposals, the smart and affable senator from Colorado stands out for his vision of—get this—radical normality. Tweeted Bennet:

Imagine that: a president too focused on his job to be obsessed with hijacking our collective consciousness. Bennet is reminding us of the way in which Trump’s radical abnormality—the ineradicable need for our attention, which is the one organizing principle for his chaotic behavior—distorts our civic life. He proposes to restore our sense of national balance, in which politics is a means of solving our problems, not provoking mass distemper. 

His resume suggests a breadth of competence, curiosity, and experience that equip him for the task: as a Justice Department lawyer; aide to the governor of Ohio; the managing director of a complex business; superintendent of the Denver Public Schools; and a senator who won two tough races in a purple state with a significant minority population. Despite his somewhat WASPy affect, he’s the grandson of a Holocaust survivor,  attuned to the importance of America as a refuge from violence and oppression. His default mode is reason, not showmanship.

To be sure, he is capable of ire—his 25-minute evisceration of Ted Cruz over another mindless government shutdown is a minor Internet classic. But most notable is what provoked him—the partisan nihilism that keeps government from doing its job. “The business of politics revs up … sociopathic qualities” Bennet said to Ezra Klein. “You can make a career out of going on cable television at night and shooting your mouth off about the other side, and never accomplishing anything while the country drifts.” 

That’s Bennet’s theory of America’s case: We must combat polarization by seeking common ground. In his view, most Americans aren’t ideologues—they’re united by frustration with governmental paralysis. “I don’t think the country is anywhere nearly as divided as Washington D.C. is,” Bennett has said.” I think [it] is sick and tired of Washington yapping at stuff and not actually doing anything.”

Replicating Trump’s divisive style only exacerbates the problem. “We will never beat Trump by playing his game, “Bennet told me. “We have to reintroduce the American political system to the American people.” 

While Biden suggests that the cure for our paralysis is simply expelling Trump, Bennet’s diagnosis goes deeper. Trump is a symptom: the persistent agents of stasis are interest groups, plutocrats like the Koch brothers, and the provocateurs of cable news and social media who roil a noisy minority of Americans. The result, he told the Washington Post, is “perpetual partisan warfare” wherein “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.” 

To counter this, Bennet believes that Democrats “need to galvanize our base and bring other voters to the polls for us to win,” including some of the 7 million people who voted for Obama and then Trump. “You can’t do that just by going on MSNBC every night,” he says. “You [must] have a conversation with people who today don’t support Democrats…” In Bennet’s formulation, it is misguided to dismiss Republican voters as irredeemably wedded to Trump and Mitch McConnell. 

This belief separates Bennet from his more ideological competitors. “It is possible to write policy proposals that have no basis in reality,” he told the Atlantic. “You might as well call them candy. … I don’t think people believe that stuff. I think they want to see a serious approach to politics and a serious approach to policy.”

Instead, Bennet insists, Democrats need an agenda that the middle of the country can support—otherwise our deepening political dysfunction will become cyclical, with one party passing legislation the other will repeal.

Here, Bennett distinguishes between the “Twitter base” and “the actual base” of the Democratic Party. For most Democrats, he told the Post, beating Trump “is a far more animating factor than some dramatic move to the left.” 

Ideologically, Bennet places himself to the left of Obama—but to the right of, say, Elizabeth Warren. After 40 years of income inequality, Bennet says,” we’re out of time.” The imperative, he told me, is to “make sure we have a society defined by opportunity” in education, health care, and jobs.

So what, specifically, does Bennet propose? 

Characteristically, his boldest idea now draws broad support across his party—he and Sherrod Brown propose the American Family, Act, a plan to dramatically expand the Child Tax Credit to help middle-class families  while cutting child poverty by 40 percent. Vox calls it “the single most important bill of the 116th Congress for the country’s poorest residents” and claims it “would slash child poverty in the United States by over 1/3 in a single stroke.”

It would pay $3,600 per year, or $300 per month, per child from ages 0 to 5; and $3,000 per year for kids from 6 to 16, with a phaseout beginning at $130,000 for single-parent families and $180,000 for two-parent families. The benefits would be distributed monthly, in advance, so families could realize an immediate boost. As a result, Vox reports, “poverty among children would fall from 14.8% to 9.5%, meaning 4 million kids could escape poverty.” Middle-class families would receive a large increase in monthly income, enabling them to better provide for their kids and, if needed, secure adequate childcare.

Politically, Vox argues, “Bennet and Brown deserve a lot of credit for their initial bill, which had no other cosponsors for about a year.” Pointedly, Bennet says that the proposal “costs 3% of what Medicare–for–all costs”… ” a good illustration for [how] Democrats … could make a big difference if we weren’t completely caught up in this health–care debate.” 

In that debate, Bennet’s position is straightforward: “You can’t put out a proposal that says you’re going to take health insurance away from 180 million people as your opening bid.” Single-payer, he points out, was defeated in purple Colorado and bright blue California and Vermont.

Instead, Bennet proposes Medicare X—a public option that allows individuals to keep private health insurance plans or enroll in Medicare. Further, he would empower the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare and Medicare X. Here, as elsewhere, he disdains the ideological for the flexible, affordable, and achievable. 

Similarly, he rejects the Sanders and Warren proposals for free college and comprehensive student debt relief. Both, he says, are regressive: They needlessly make college free for those who can afford it, and forgive indebtedness incurred by borrowers like future professionals who can comfortably repay. 

Worse, he argues, our entire approach to paying for college is selfish and misguided—instead of controlling costs, the government has turbocharged spiraling tuition by encouraging massive borrowing by America’s young people. “Student loans are toxic,” he told me. 

Bennet’s view of our educational problems is comprehensive: By failing students from beginning to end, we have exacerbated income inequality.  His solution starts with universal pre-k and he would craft incentives to strengthen K- 12 schools and increase teacher pay. Critically, he would push high schools and community colleges to prepare those whose education ends there—70 percent of Americans—for well-paying jobs instead of insecure employment at the minimum wage. “That alone,” he says, “would transform our economy.”

To make college more accessible, he would push public universities to control costs. Further, he would expand Pell grants to minimize reliance on borrowing, and alleviate existing student debt by reducing the percentage of income subject to repayment, and granting debt relief to those who serve the public interest, teachers or nurses in rural areas, for example. 

Bennet’s aversion to the utopian extends to the Green New Deal. Embracing climate denial, he told me, “should disqualify anyone from being in the White House, morally or economically.” But in 2016, he continued, Trump won the economic argument by equating contempt for climate science with protecting millions of jobs.

 In 2020, Bennet contends, Democrats must argue that combating climate change is a moral imperative – but also persuade voters that staving off  climatic catastrophe is essential to our economy; and that developing green technologies will fuel job creation and economic growth. “We have to create a constituency in this country to do that,” he says. “We don’t have one today.”

 This means fusing moral clarity with political salability, which the Green New Deal lacks  He told the Post, “if we’re going to… 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.” 

Like other Democrats, Bennet proposes to “achieve 100% clean, net—zero omissions no later than 2050.” His nuts and bolts strategy for creating a “durable” climate policy include sequestering carbon— politically challenging all by itself, but the centerpiece of most serious scientific proposals. Further, he would require every private and government- owned power provider to offer consumers the option to purchase zero mission electricity at low cost; give tax credits to manufacturers who sell zero–emission vehicles; spend $1 trillion on climate technology to leverage another $10 trillion of private-sector investment; export green technology around the world; and create 10 million climate–related jobs over the next decade. 

His proposals for raising revenues suits the Democratic mainstream. The wealth tax, he told me flatly, “will never pass.” Instead he would reverse Trump’s tax cuts; raise the capital gains rate to that for ordinary income; boost the estate tax; and eliminate the stepped-up basis for taxing investments upon death. 

What makes Bennet distinctive among Democrats is his consistent concern for deficits and fiscal responsibility. He voted against the last three budget deals, and balances his plans for spending by identifying new revenues or set-offs. He denounces profligate tax cuts for the rich—$5 trillion since 2001—which squandered money better spent on priorities like rebuilding infrastructure.  At a time when rising deficits jeopardize needed programs while threatening to saddle young Americans with crippling debt, Bennet is one of the few senators from either party who calls out our bipartisan fiscal hypocrisy.

With respect to immigration, Bennet reaffirms our humanitarian values while rejecting his competitors’ lemming-like embrace of decriminalizing the border. He would pass the Dream Ac, grant legal status to immigrants who serve in the military or pursue higher education, provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and end child separation. But he insists, quite sensibly, “that every country in the world has the obligation to secure their border.” 

As to the refugee crisis, he told me that “we need to be acting like a rich and humane country.” For Bennet, that includes trying to alleviate the conditions in Central America that create such desperation, and fairly processing the applications of those reach our borders.

More broadly, Bennet would restore America’s global leadership, both morally and practically. On trade, he believes that Trump was right to call out China—for too long, we deluded ourselves that admitting China to the global trade community would change its behavior. 

But he sees tariffs as a self-defeating instrument that hurts American farmers. Instead, Bennet would confront China’s drive to make its own rules—stealing intellectual property, unfairly subsidizing Chinese enterprises, or exporting its surveillance through Huawei.

The next president, Bennet stresses, must mobilize the world to support these demands. Overall, we need to re-engage—renewing our alliances, confronting Chinese aggression, combating Russian interference, standing up for human rights and protecting refugees from violence and oppression. 

As to defending our democracy at home, he supports amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United – a political longshot – and a lifetime lobbying ban for members of Congress. On voting rights, he also wants to reverse the damage done to  Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court; register every eligible citizen to vote; establish online voter registration; and prohibit partisan gerrymandering. 

None of this surprises. Most notable is that Bennet obviously cares about these proposals—and about policy in general. 

One of our most animated exchanges concerned his most recent book. Instead of the typical anodyne campaign memoir, complete with a flattering cover photograph, Bennett wrote Dividing America“—a detailed analysis of how Russia used propaganda to fracture the electorate by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or simply frighten or dishearten voters. Flipping its pages, he pointed out specifics which particularly incensed him-  here, as throughout our conversation, his immersion in substance transcended perishable political positioning. 

Still, Bennet is a practical politician—he’s not doing this because he craves attention, loves listening to himself, or seeks refuge from friends and family. So how, I asked him, can an underdog win his party’s nomination, and then beat Trump?

He began by noting that he’s the only candidate who has won two national elections in a purple state. That, he argued, encourages discipline, consistency, and a broad vision which appeals to majority of voters. A successful candidate can’t pander or traffic in unrealistic promises; in the end, he believes, people detect that, and reward politicians who don’t.

As for the general election, he said something obviously true— in substance and leadership style, he is the antithesis of Trump. In 2020, Bennet believes, voters will be looking for a president who restores balance and confidence in the body politic. 

No doubt those seeking tectonic answers to 40 years of growing income inequality will turn to Elizabeth Warren for systemic change. But those desiring a thoughtful advocate for the progressive but more immediately practicable could look to Michael Bennet. 

Plainly, Bennet’s candidacy is endangered. He is flagging in the polls, and the DNC’s skewed and Darwinian debate criteria may result, God help us, in a debate stage that precludes Bennett in favor of the underqualified moneybags Tom Steyer – who clearly believes, despite the evidence of Trump, that the presidency is an entry-level job for self-regarding rich guys.  So it is time to ask how the obviously qualified Bennet compares to the acknowledged frontrunner, Joe Biden.

Biden’s strengths cannot be dismissed. He’s a user-friendly politician, Middle Class Joe—who appeal to labor and older black voters—a potent combination. He’s familiar, widely experienced, and almost impossible to hate. His avuncular style might prove a good counterpoint to Trump.

But Biden has twice failed to mount anything close to a strong presidential campaign. He’s better positioned now, but also older—whether his frequent gaffes are any worse than they were three decades ago, they raise fears that he’s lost a step. If he stumbles, some voters may mistake Trump’s blustering egomania for leadership. And unlike Bennett or Warren, Biden has never been a cutting-edge policy thinker.

For center-left Democrats, the ultimate risk is that Biden will eclipse other contenders in his ideological space, only to sink the party by losing its nomination to a candidate whose appeal is too narrow, or by winning it before fatally flagging in the general election. Either outcome is all too easy to imagine.

True, Bennet lacks one of Biden’s chief assets—an almost ostentatious accessibility that contrasts with Bennet’s more low-key style. Does anyone doubt for a moment that Biden would have milked being descended from a Holocaust survivor for all it’s worth?

But Bennet is smart and steady: One doubts that he will never falter, or lose track of what he believes. His political identity proceeds from a settled theory of how Americans should be addressed: as pragmatists, not ideologues, who want a president to do what’s needed to move the country forward. 

So let’s suppose that a President Bennet accomplished something close to his principal proposals: Making life easier for American families. Dramatically reducing child poverty. Providing near-universal health care coverage while preserving individual choice. Protecting Dreamers and refugees. Affording undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. Moving seriously to address climate change in a politically sustainable way.

Does anyone question that most Americans would be grateful, not to mention deeply relieved? Imagine, further, that the president was a sane and steady presence who inspired enough confidence that his persona was not a national obsession.

That presidency could feel like something we need more than anything: a calming agency of broad national purpose that lowers our collective temperature.

Center-left Democrats—and, more generally, Americans looking for a unifying voice—must ask themselves whether Biden is the man for this political moment. Those who wonder should give Michael Bennet a longer look before, in our current fitful, fretful politics, his own moment passes.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative, a bipartisan group dedicated to defending the principles of liberal democracy at home and abroad.