Opinion: Michael Bennet on why Joe Biden’s promise to make America ‘normal’ again is delusional
The following is a transcript of Michael Bennet’s meeting with the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board.
Nicholas Goldberg (editor of the editorial pages): Why don’t you just give us a short overview if you want, of five minutes or so.
Michael Bennet: Great, or I’m happy to just answer your questions.
Goldberg: Why don’t you give us a short overview.
Bennet: So what I would say is that I was reading, on the way in here, some of Gavin Newsom’s stuff during his campaign, and was struck by how similar his observations were to what I think the national crisis is that we are facing. We’ve had 40 years of no economic mobility for the bottom 90% of Americans.
We’re spending a lot of time the last few days talking about busing 50 years ago. But we have a system of public education today that is reinforcing the income inequality that we have. We lack universal healthcare. We’re not doing anything about climate. And I think that there is a real opportunity to make some fundamental changes to the way our economy works, to change the trajectory that we’ve had, so that when the economy grows, everybody benefits from it.
If I had to sum up my last 10 years of town halls, it would be that people in Colorado who are working really hard in an economy that’s doing really well, compared to most other economies around the country and around the world, what they’re saying to me is they can’t afford some combination of housing, healthcare, higher education and early childhood education. And that’s because their wages have basically been flat. And the cost of those things has gone like this [points up] over quite a long period of time. And therefore they can’t afford a middle-class life, and they’re worried about that. And I think that’s really creating a lot of stress on the democracy.
I’ll come back to that in a second.
The people that aren’t coming to my town halls, who are the parents and kids that I used to work for when I was superintendent at the Denver public schools, are finding it impossible to escape poverty in America. And that’s been true for a long time. I think that the American people in the last election understood this. The Democrats were left without much of an economic case. Donald Trump saw that stagnation and ran on it. And in part that’s why the American people voted for him. I think they also voted for him because they believe that Washington was working on a whole set of priorities that had nothing to do with them. And having been there the last 10 years, I would have to concede that fact.
I think that we were broken before Donald Trump got there, and he’s made matters much worse than they were before he got there. But we were paralyzed. And we were paralyzed and immobilized by a tyranny that we haven’t seen in a long time in America, this one brought on by the Freedom Caucus and by Citizens United and the effect of the Koch brothers’ money on our electoral process.
So I think we have a bunch of things we need to do to reform the way the democracy works, before we’re going to be able to deliver a meaningful change on healthcare, on housing, on climate. But I think we can do it. I’m optimistic that we can. The time that I’ve been there has been enough time to see how to get things done in Washington, but also to understand why we don’t actually address the really big things that we need to do.
And watching Donald Trump either distract us for seven months on $6 billion for his wall, while the Chinese are building 3,500 miles of fiber-optic cable connecting Africa to Latin America to China, or watching him stumble around at North Korea this weekend, gives such a sense of the opportunity cost of having somebody in this job who’s not competent to do it, at a moment in world history when I think American leadership is needed more than it’s ever been before.
And the waste of time has been catastrophic from the point of view of the middle class in this country. But from the vantage point of the kids that I worked for in Denver, it’s much more than a waste of time. It’s a question whether they are going to be able to contribute to the democracy and contribute to this economy during their lifetimes. So that’s why I decided to run.
Norman Pearlstine (executive editor): You didn’t think that his presence in the DMZ was ”legendary”?
Michael Bennet: It was a legendarily bad way to negotiate, is the way I would put it. The guy’s already conceding on sanctions this morning in the newspaper. It’s stunning. It’s staggering.
Mariel Garza (editorial writer): How would you handle it? How would you handle North Korea and Iran?
Bennet: Well, on North Korea, I wouldn’t meet with Kim Jong Un until there was a predicate to have a real discussion. And that would require much lower level discussions over a much longer period of time. I wouldn’t go there and put my arm around him and say, we were in love. I wouldn’t write letters. This is a fairly low standard, but this is what we’ve been reduced to. I think that it is a profound threat.
What you’re seeing in Donald Trump is a reaction to a conversation he had with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, as Barack Obama was kindly turning the keys over to Donald Trump and saying, [North Korea] is the biggest threat that the world faces. Donald Trump was using that as an opportunity to become a showman in his three-ring circus. And he is compelled to try to fix this, because this will show that Barack Obama was a failure, and that’s something that he is compelled by.
When he flew back from that last summit in Singapore, he tweeted out to America: You can sleep tonight. There’s no need to worry. That’s what he said. And North Korea hasn’t relented at all on its nuclear program. The intelligence is very clear on that. I’m not saying anything that I know from being on the intelligence committee, but the public reporting is very clear on that. And him stumbling through the DMZ isn’t going to help our negotiation.
So we need to engage China obviously in this discussion — and South Korea and Japan. And, I think in the end, it’s going to be very hard to get [the North Koreans] to actually give up their nuclear weapons. But we’ve got to make sure that we constrain their development and their ability to locomote them from where they are to here or Japan or any other place.
As for Iran, I was up for election in 2016 when we voted for the Iran deal, and I voted for it after spending six months thinking about it, and meeting with people and having discussions. There were things that I wished that we’d done a better job of negotiating, like the term of the deal. It also would have been great to been able to do something about Iran’s ballistic missile program in that negotiation. I think the Obama administration would say that if we had put that on the table, the Iranians would’ve wanted other stuff on the table, which makes sense to me. I wasn’t at the negotiating table. But those are some things that I would have liked to have seen changed.
When I voted for it and then ran for reelection in a swing state, it was, by the way, the one thing that I couldn’t recover from. I write about this in my book. The polling showed that if I voted for the Iran deal and they were able to attack me on that score, I couldn’t come back from that. As it turned out, Iran complied with the deal. That’s what the intelligence agencies all said. That’s what the Israelis said. That’s what our agency said. The Chinese and the Russians said the same thing. And a bunch of stuff that was unknowable when I voted for it was now knowable by the time Donald Trump blew the deal up.
And what it all adds up to is, instead of being two to three months away from breaking out to a nuclear weapon, Iran was then a year away from breaking out to a nuclear weapon. Which matters a lot, because that gives an American president the time, if they decide they are going to break out, to try to coalesce our allies in a response. And we no longer have that time because of what Donald Trump has done. And getting out of the Iran deal because you didn’t like it is a little bit like getting out of a lifeboat when there’s no other lifeboat in sight. Now he’s flailing around.
Goldberg: So he’s flailing around on the foreign policy stage, and he is alienating a lot of allies in the process. What would you do as president to begin to restore the United States’ stature, gravitas, and the relationships that have been damaged?
Bennet: Well, first of all, this deal is key to that. Maybe there’s an opportunity to craft a deal with Iran that’s better for the U.S., and that might turn out to be a deal that’s better for Iran too. And the allies are a key to that because of the way that the Obama administration mobilized the Europeans and even China and Russia and India, in the context of that deal, that would be a very fertile place for us to start — or restart — with our allies.
Second, I’d say that everybody in the world takes seriously what Russia is trying to do to Western democracies, including the United States and Europe, except for Donald Trump, as far as I can tell. And the Republican Party, which has now become Trump’s party, also is now in this mindset that somehow the Russians are better allies to us than Democrats. Somehow we have to overcome that. That’s a Fox News problem too. But the fragility of Western democracy, and the intensity with which the Russians are trying to attack us, presents us an opportunity to once again lead this Western alliance, this transatlantic alliance. When we were asked the other night at the debates what we thought our biggest national security threat was, I said Russia, and I believe that. Because our democracies are becoming less stable than they were, and [the Russians] are trying to take advantage of it.
I have a document that I’ve collected of the Russian propaganda that for a year was suffused inside of our own political vocabulary. And we couldn’t distinguish between that propaganda as Russian propaganda and our own political discourse. That raises a whole question about our political discourse in my mind. But it also raised a question about our vulnerabilities to Russia. So I think that’s another place where the Europeans are looking for us to lead, and we can lead. And it will be welcome to have a president who’s not badgering Europe all the time. As if NATO doesn’t provide us national security, that we don’t benefit from it, which is what Trump is basically arguing.
And third, I think another opportunity is with China because that’s one where I think Trump was right to call the question. Because China had so abused the world’s trading environment ever since they’ve gotten into the World Trade Organization. And we really hadn’t pushed back on that, in terms of intellectual property theft and state-sponsored industries and sectors, and ownership requirements, those kinds of things. All of which are a real problem. And I think that presents America with an amazing opportunity to lead, not just with the usual allies, but other people as well. Because there’s virtually no country in the world that has an interest in China being able to perpetuate and perpetrate the trading practices that they’re engaged in. Really the only ones I can come up with are North Korea and Russia.
Europe has exactly the same equities we have. The African and Latin American countries I think have equities in this deal as well. And the Asian countries have no interest living in a unipolar world that’s dominated by China. They don’t want to live in a unipolar world that’s dominated by us, but they know that’s not what the world’s going to be. The question is, will there be a multi-polar world or a bipolar world where they benefit from that. So I think there’s a lot of interest among Asian countries to engage in a coalition here that pushes back.
Jon Healey (deputy editorial page editor): If I can jump on another point. Did you support the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Bennet: I didn’t support TPP. It was at the end of the 2016 election, and I was carrying the Iran deal around with me, just be honest about it. And I think that we have to resuscitate the negotiations around TPP and the American people. We need the American people to know that the countries that were part of that agreement went ahead without us. And I think, as I was just saying, I think we’ve got obviously really serious geopolitical interest in that part of the world, that we need to make sure we protect.
Healey: President Xi [of China] has held himself out as the defender of globalism and multilateralism.
Healey: President Trump is not a believer in multilateral trade agreements. Nevertheless, there is a lot of support for China’s notion of globalism, if not for the idea of having to compete with China’s subsidized, state-owned industries. So how do you reinsert the United States in the global trade conversation, when we have been saying for the past three and a half years that we don’t believe in these deals?
Bennet: Right. I think we need a president who believes in that. I believe in that. And I think that humanity has a big stake in this. It’s not just us, it’s humanity. These guys are running a surveillance state in China. And they’re looking to perfect it and export it by expanding that surveillance state, which is what this Huawei stuff is all about. You go to Africa, and China’s everywhere. You get elected to office in Africa, and by the time you get back from your election celebration party, there is a plane ticket sitting on your desk waiting for you to go to Beijing. And [the United States is ] nowhere, we’re literally nowhere. And I think it’s not acceptable.
Pearlstine: Did you ever find anyone who actually understood TPP in your state?
Bennet: No. Actually, that’s not true. The farmers and ranchers in my state understood it.
Pearlstine: Did they know that China’s not a part of it? I was on the floor in Philadelphia and I went around to everybody I saw with the sign that said “No TPP.” And I asked, what’s TPP? And I never did get an answer from anyone carrying the sign there.
Bennet: I did vote for TPA [Trade Promotion Authority], by the way, but not TPP.
Goldberg: Clearly there’s something of a war on for the soul of the Democratic Party. You have, for lack of a better word, moderate candidates and you have progressive candidates; you have people talking about incremental change and you have people talking about radical, transformative change. Where do you put yourself on that spectrum? Why is that an important battle to be had? And where do you come down?
Bennet: I think the Democratic Party needs to stand for opportunity. I believe this country needs transformational change. I think we need universal healthcare in this country. I think we need an education system that actually gives kids hope that they’re going to be able to participate in this country’s democracy and in our economy. It doesn’t today. I think we have to be aggressive on climate.
But I believe that we need to do this by creating a politics that unifies the country, that can overcome the division that Trump represents. And overcome the division that the tea party and the Freedom Caucus represent.
Just to take one example: We have a climate denier in the White House. Being a climate denier should be disqualifying to be president. Politically. The majority of people believe climate change is real. The majority of the people believe it’s an urgent problem that has to be fixed. The majority of people believe that humans are contributing to it. But we have a climate denier in the White House because Democrats lost the economic opportunity to Donald Trump. That should never have happened. And I don’t want it to happen again. We should be able to win that argument. And it’s so blatantly absurd considering what’s happening in California or in Colorado or Florida.
The consequences of not dealing with climate change are so devastating to our economy that this ought to be a relatively easy case for us to make.
I believe that Democrats need to be much more strategic than we’ve been when it comes to climate, when it comes to judges, when it comes to our economic proposals. And I think that if you can figure out who’s moderate and who’s progressive in this field, I think that would be an interesting service. Because I’m hearing people who are proposing regressive strategies like loan forgiveness for everybody in America, instead of anything to do with kids that are marooned in the Los Angeles Unified School District or the Denver public schools. Or for the 70% of kids that graduate from high school and don’t go to college but can’t earn anything more than minimum wage, because we have no system in America to give people skills and knowledge that they need. That would be transformational in our economy, in the way that in World War II, or right before World War II, we started making people go to high school.
We passed the GI Bill, and women and people of color began to access higher education in a way that they had never done before. We could transform our economy again. It transformed our economy then. So I don’t know where I consider myself on that spectrum. I read a newspaper headline that described me as a “pragmatic idealist,” and I said I’ll take that. And I think if you’re going to be call yourself a progressive, you’d better be able to make some progress.
Goldberg: So you’re saying that the difference between the Democratic candidates is primarily strategic. What’s the nature of your strategy that’s different from that of Bernie Sanders?
Bennet: So let me give you an example. Bernie Sanders believes that the answer to getting to universal healthcare is Medicare for All, and I assume the seven other, six other candidates in this race that have endorsed that legislation have read it. The legislation takes insurance away from 180 million people in America who get it from their employer. Many of whom like their insurance. The legislation takes away Medicare Advantage from 20 million Americans that have it and that love it. The legislation takes insurance away from every single labor union in America that’s negotiated healthcare benefits.The legislation ignores the fact that 65% of people on Medicare actually buy private insurance as part of it.
In fairness to Bernie, the reason that he’s done that is that Bernie is saying, “My insurance is better than all the other insurance, and that’s why I’m making [the others] illegal.” And he’s right. It is. That’s a correct statement. It is a Cadillac of health insurance.
But you can’t win a Senate race in Colorado running on that platform. You can’t run a Senate race in Arizona running on that platform. You can’t run a Senate race in North Carolina running on on that platform. The AFL-CIO won’t support that platform. So you don’t even have Democrats unified, much less the rest of the country unified. Whereas I think that if you went out and said, “Here’s a public option that actually creates the opportunity for every family in America who wants to buy a public option instead of their private insurance the opportunity to do that,” that’s something that would be supported broadly, I believe, and is supported broadly in the polling as opposed to Medicare for All.
My version of that is called Medicare for X and it starts in rural counties where there’s one or fewer insurers and then works its way out to everybody over the course of three years. Those rural places are places where 10 years ago, they would’ve said, “We don’t want your Bolshevik plan as part of the Affordable Care Act.” Today, they’re saying to me, “Thank you for thinking of us. We really appreciate the fact that you thought of us and the problems that we’re confronting.”
Goldberg: At the end of three years, it rolls out to everybody as an option?
Bennet: As an option for everybody, yeah. By the way, it actually nets out well for the Treasury, according to the Congressional Budget Office when it scored the original public option during the Affordable Care Act discussions. It nets out well because there would be fewer people getting subsidies for expensive private insurance on the exchange, and because people pay in premiums to pay for Medicare. As opposed to Medicare for All which costs $33 trillion over a 10-year period.
Jon Healey: That’s predicated on the assumption that employers don’t drop their insurance coverage.
Bennet: Who’s this?
Healey: The CBO. It costs you money if more people come into the program from employer plans.
Bennet: That’s possible. I’d have to go back and look at that. That’s possible. I don’t think it would be a bad thing for America, though. The bigger pool, the bigger the public pool, the better for a lot of reasons.
But you raise a very important point about healthcare which has not been raised much in this debate, which is that getting hold of the cost is still as significant as it was when we passed the Affordable Care Act, both for families and for our nation, who are spending twice as much as any other industrialized country in the world.
I’ll give you another example. I’ve got a bill called the American Family Act that would dramatically increase the child tax credit and would pay it out on a monthly basis so families would get $300, $250 a kid. It’s fully refundable, so all the millions of people that don’t benefit from it today would have the benefit of it. Professors who looked at it from Columbia said that bill alone would reduce childhood poverty in America by 40%. It would end $2 a day childhood poverty in America. It would cost 3% of the $33 trillion that Medicare For All costs and you wouldn’t have to add a single bureaucrat to the federal government to administer it.
Now, I don’t know whether that’s moderate or not but I think that’s the most significant anti-poverty program that anybody has offered in this country since Medicaid was passed. That’s how I feel about it. I think we’re going to have a good competition of ideas in this primary.
I do think that because of the changing media landscape — the collapse of a lot of printed journalism in this country and the influence of cable TV and social media — there has been the creation of a Twitter base of the party that is very distinct in my mind from the voter base of the Democratic Party. Extremely distinct from the people that I meet in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Colorado.
Robert Greene (editorial writer): How important is it, the Twitter base, as a political force?
Michael Bennet: I think it’s something to be contended with. But I think we need a nominee who’s going to be able to resist it. The thing about it is that every single day, the subject is something new. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. We need to be thinking about where we want to be because the number one thing the Democrats want to do, and the number one thing I want to do, is beat Donald Trump. That is the number one thing that we need to do. There’s a lot of other stuff I want to do, like put the country in the position to govern itself again which we haven’t been able to do for the last 10 years.
Mariel Garza: On the question of electability, do you think you’re more electable than all the other candidates who are running?
Bennet: I do.
Garza: And why?
Bennet: Well, because I’m the only one that’s won two tough national races in a swing state in the middle of the country. The first race that I ran, there was more outside money spent in my race than on any other race in the country. It was 2010, the rise of the tea party was happening. It was a horrible year for Democrats. We barely held on because I won and Harry Reid won and Patty Murray won and Chris Coons was running against someone who had to say she wasn’t a witch.
We held on to the Democratic majority and by the way, that was after I voted for the Affordable Care Act and I was running on a platform of making sure that we protected women’s reproductive choice in this country. It wasn’t an issue I was hiding from. And then again in 2016, having voted for the Iran deal and some other things, I was able to stand and win. It’s never pretty; it’s always tough. But no one else in this race can say that. I think my work in the private sector and my work in being superintendent of Denver Public Schools gives me a different perspective on what the country is facing, the challenges that we’re facing than other candidates in the field have. And I’ve got a record too in the Senate of bipartisan accomplishments that I think will wear well in the course of the campaign.
Hall: Are you saying that you think you can get Republicans, moderate Republicans, to vote for you as well as Democrats?
Bennet: I’m saying first of all that I actually think I’m where the base of the Democratic Party is. I’m not where the Twitter base of the Democratic Party is. I confess that. I do think I have the opportunity to peel off independents and then Republicans to beat Trump, which is what we have to do. I mean, his base is going to be completely galvanized.
Goldberg: Can you talk a little bit about this paralysis in Washington that’s been so devastating? Nothing’s gotten done except for Obamacare and the tax cuts in eight or 12 years. How would you be different? How would you get things moving again? How would you make the kind of meaningful and transformative change you’re talking about?
Bennet: First of all, everything you said is literally right. I would add, I guess, one addendum which is that we passed Dodd-Frank, which wasn’t nothing. And President Obama saved the economy with some of the things he did, with no help at all from the Freedom Caucus who were calling him a Bolshevik and a socialist and all the rest.
It turns out they’re the Bolsheviks and the socialists, but I’ll come to that in a minute.
Look, first of all, we have to recognize that we have this challenge to begin with. The idea that the vice president says, “If we just get rid of Trump, then it will all go back to normal” or the way it was, that doesn’t even reflect the history of the Obama administration. The last six years of that administration, we were paralyzed. We were immobilized.
And who was paralyzing and immobilizing us? It was Mitch McConnell and the Freedom Caucus. Those guys appeared as the tea party in 2010, a reactionary force against the election of Barack Obama. I think most Americans didn’t see that coming. I did not see it coming, I did not see the election of Donald Trump coming either. We thought we were immune. I don’t think anybody was having any explicit conversations but I think implicitly, we thought we were immune from those sorts of forces of reaction, which are something you’ve seen in Latin America or you’ve seen in Europe but we really haven’t seen here in recent eras.
Their platform had many different components. Not paying taxes was one, [undoing] the Affordable Care Act was another, budget deficits allegedly were a concern that they had. But really what it was about, in my mind, was destroying the federal government, immobilizing the federal government and they had adopted.
They had essentially adopted lock, stock, and barrel Sarah Palin’s cartoon version of what the founding fathers were engaged in. In their mind, they were engaged in dismantling a country, not building a country or creating a country. Their ideological commitments, which were far outside the mainstream of conventional American political thought, including conventional Republican thought, led them to pursue a legislative tyranny that made it impossible for the Obama administration to get done what it needed to get done. But even worse than that, they drove the American people’s confidence down and down and down in our exercise in self-government.
We’re now at a 9% approval rating. I have spent, in the 10 years that I’ve been in the Senate, 40% of the time we’ve been in a continuing resolution. We haven’t even had a real budget or appropriations process. And when I walk through the Denver International Airport, which I used to do wanting to put a paper bag over my head because I was so embarrassed about the hijinks that were going on back there and my association with it, I wondered, “Why would anybody want to work in a place that has a 9% approval rating?”
It turns out there’s an answer to that, which is, if you think you’ve been sent there to destroy it, having a 9% approval rating suits you perfectly.
Every time we have a government shutdown, every time the fiscal cliff is going to be gone over, every time you can create mayhem, you do. Then Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t really care about any of that stuff particularly, but he doesn’t care that it’s happening either, looks for the opportunity to find a world where we are putting more right-wing judges on the courts and he’s cutting taxes.
[We] are borrowing $5 trillion from the Chinese and sticking our kids with the bill for the privilege of giving $5 trillion of tax cuts, almost all of which have gone to the wealthiest people in America and exacerbated the income inequality we have.
We spend $5.6 trillion in the Middle East. Trump says it’s $7 trillion. Borrowed it all, sticking them with the debt. We’ve spent $12 or 13 trillion while we’ve been on autopilot or completely immobilized. From the vantage point of the kids in my old school district or anybody in America looking for opportunity or the desire to have an economy that, when it actually grew again, all of America could participate in it, we might as well have lit that money on fire.
So when Joe Biden and I get into an argument the other night about the fiscal cliff, this is what that’s all about. That was a deal, that was a terrible deal for the country, it was a terrible deal for Democrats. It was cut at two in the morning, it was voted on, nobody had read it. I was one of three Democrats who voted against it, one of eight senators who voted against it. This book, which I wrote, is called “The Land of Flickering Lights.” The title is drawn from that night. The title is drawn from that deal. If you want to read about it, it’s in there.
They come in, they surf in with this reactionary reality. They surf in with the immobility. They surf in with the structural impediments that are built into our system to give a minority — a minority if they choose to use the veto — the Hastert rule being the best example, that prevented the comprehensive immigration bill.
I was part of the gang of eight that wrote that bill in 2013, that made it impossible for us to pass comprehensive immigration reform in this country. Not because the country didn’t want it, not because the country didn’t need it, not because the country didn’t support it, but because a minority of a minority in the House were operating under a rule named for a guy who’s in jail for whatever Denny Hastert is in jail for.
And they were basically able to bring down Boehner and they were able to make Paul Ryan’s life an abject misery. While this is all happening, we have these profound structural challenges to our democracy.
The Supreme Court is deciding Citizens United in 2010, the same year that the tea party is rising. That gives the fossil fuel industry, particularly the Koch brothers, an advantage that nobody in modern American history has enjoyed to distort our politics and to create what I describe as a corruption of inaction in Washington.
The Supreme Court was completely obsessed by this idea that what we’re supposed to defend against in our campaign finance system is a world of quid pro quo corruption, where you give me $5,000 and I go write a bill that benefits you. And they said, “Well, that’s a problem. We’re going to have to allow Congress to govern that.”
And they said, “You know what, even the appearance is a problem. You give me five grand and I go write a bill that’s good for you, even if it’s quid pro quo, but it’s the appearance, we should regulate that. But if it’s an independent expenditure by billionaires into a committee that’s run by the staff of a senator who’s running for president, that’s okay with us.”
That happened simultaneously with the rise of the tea party. I think they simultaneously occurred and that’s what has created so much — when I say corruption of inaction, the best example of that is: How do you get a Republican Party to go from Richard Nixon with the EPA, Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, Ronald Reagan closing the hole in the ozone layer, both Bushes supporting the idea that we had to do something about climate change and actually providing leadership at the White House, John McCain running his president campaign on climate change, to a world where everybody in Washington who’s [an] elected Republican has signed a pledge that says climate change isn’t real and we can’t do anything about it?
On top of that, you got the attack on voting rights, best represented by Shelby vs. Holder. And now the courts saying we can’t do anything about political gerrymandering. In the wake of all that, or at the same time this was all happening, we had that incredible gerrymandering in 2010.
A long way of saying that’s what we’re contending with. And, to me, the only way you’re going to overcome it is by building a broad coalition of Americans that are unified against a broken Washington and insist that this exercise in self-government belongs to us. It doesn’t belong to MSNBC and Fox, doesn’t belong to Twitter, it doesn’t belong to the special interests or to the Koch brothers. It belongs to us and we have a fundamental responsibility as citizens to rise to this challenge, to save our democracy the way other generations of Americans have risen in their own time.
The case I argue in the book is that when you think about what the founders accomplished, they did two really incredible things. They liberated us through an armed insurrection against a colonial power. They drafted a constitution which enshrined a set of eternal rights and mechanisms for us to resolve our disputes, and that’s pretty amazing. They also perpetuated human slavery which was devastating. But other Americans over time fulfilled their responsibility.
And I think somebody like Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and helped transform the abolitionist movement by arguing that the Constitution was actually an anti-slavery document, not a pro-slavery document, was able to grab the power of those ideas for his movement. In my mind, he’s a founder as well and that has led me to conclude that that’s what’s required of us. That being a citizen in this democratic republic, one needs to think of oneself as a founder.
You guys know that better than anybody else. I mean, the significance of the role you play in this moment in American history and what it should be forcing everybody who’s in the news media to ask themselves about whether they’re doing everything they can do, just like everybody who’s in my job should be asking, “Are we doing everything we can do to save American democracy?”
This is a massive test that we’re facing.
Healey: So do you think the fix is legislative? Constitutional?
Bennet: I think the fix is a little bit of everything. It is a Democratic Party that stands for unifying the country, that stands for creating opportunity. And it is not making policy proposals that can’t even unify Democrats, much less the rest of the country. We should be able to do that because the guy in the White House has pursued a policy agenda that is the dream of the Freedom Caucus. This isn’t even Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party anymore. This is Trump’s party and on all these dimensions he’s so far outside the mainstream that you’d think we could actually overcome his ideas with our ideas.
Don’t know whether we will, but we might. It’s constitutional. Let’s overturn Citizens United. That would be a worthy political exercise to organize the American people and the states to do it. It would take a long time to do it.
Goldberg: To pass a constitutional amendment?
Bennet: Yeah. It would take a long time to do it. Well, I roll my eyes on ending the electoral college but not on Citizens United. I think the opportunity there is for people to see that they’re more important than money in politics and they can have a role to play here.
As I say, it’s going to take a long time. It’s statutory. Ending political gerrymandering, I’ve had that bill in the Senate for years. It’s a version of the bill that Nancy Pelosi passed as part of her package. We could pass a statute tomorrow and end political gerrymandering in America.
Carla Hall (editorial writer): Do you think the electoral college is OK?
Bennet: No, I would prefer not to have it there but I’ve got other priorities, like ending political gerrymandering.
Goldberg: Didn’t Barack Obama do his best to create a central coalition to work across the aisle to talk to his adversaries and find himself totally stymied?
Bennet: Yeah. I want to be very clear about this. You can’t negotiate with Mitch McConnell and you can’t negotiate with the Freedom Caucus, unless you’re negotiating with Mitch McConnell from a position of strength. I saw McConnell when I was putting out the book and I said to him, and I don’t have much of a relationship with him, I said, “It’s pretty tough on you,” and he said, “Oh, that’s OK. You’re running for president and I’m sure that’s why you did it,” and I said, “Come to think of it, you’re probably the only guy in the Senate who will like the book because I say things like, ‘Mitch McConnell is impervious to give and take, unless he’s taking everything, which is almost always the case.’”
And so, let’s take the fiscal cliff deal. That was a deal where we decided to extend almost all the Bush tax cuts. We put in place the sequester. That’s what that deal accomplished. That deal stripped from the Democrats an economic argument that said, “We have a different approach to this than George Bush did,” and we ran against this. Barack Obama ran against this twice.
And we were left going to 2016 with no argument. In this case, we have arguments. We’ve got the arguments that I’m making on the child tax credit. You got the arguments that Sherrod Brown and I are making on the earned income tax credit. You got arguments for paid family leave. You’ve got arguments for raising the minimum wage. We’ve got coherent arguments that I think are, frankly, to the left of where President Obama was in terms of his arguments when he was running. And I think that’s right, and that’s where we should be. And we should have a coherent set of arguments that Hillary Clinton did not advance during her campaign.
I think Barack Obama believed that when he was reelected president the fever would break, that’s what he said. And that’s what he said before the election, that’s what we said after the election. We now know that’s not the case, the fever didn’t break. My hope is, the best way of doing this, would be to dislodge Mitch McConnell by creating a Democratic majority in the Senate.
If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need to attend to that in this race. In other words we’re going to need somebody at the top of the ticket that can talk to the states that give us that majority, and we’re going to need candidates in those states running on a Democratic agenda where we can be convincing in those states. That’s the most important thing we could do to overcome the logjam that we have. If we fail to do that, and Mitch McConnell is still in the majority when we’re doing stuff like repealing the Trump tax bill, I think a president needs to be out in America when he’s doing that, showing the American people in rural parts of the state what the math looks like.
Because the math of Trump’s bill is so atrocious, that the math of a replacement bill is clearly better for other people. You’re never going to get Fox News to report that, but you are going to be able to go do it yourself with the bully pulpit. I don’t think the Obama administration did much of that.
I, by the way, have a very, very high personal regard for Barack Obama. Until it was too late, I think none of us had an appreciation for how willing these people were going to be to dismantle our exercise in self-government. Now we know. Now we’ve got some history and we’re going to have to construct a politics that overcomes it.
And the American people are going to have to understand what the cost is, to our children and to our role in the world and to our democracy if we don’t do it. And I don’t think that’s well understood today by the American people. I hope that’s something that we’ll be able to talk about during this presidential election.
Greene: What do you do about all those Democrats? I don’t think they’re all in the Twitter base but maybe, who say, “Well so, if you win, and you get both Houses, then don’t reach across the aisles. Scorched-earth, absolutely, what the Republicans have done to us.” I think you’re articulating a different approach, but you’ve got so many Democrats who say, “No, no, no.”
Bennet: I don’t think you can sustain this. If what we think we can do is just replace their version of one-party rule with a preferred version of one-party rule, I think that that’s the beginning of the end of our democracy.
Scott Martelle (editorial writer): Well, it’s already over, isn’t it?
Martelle: It’s already over, isn’t it? You mentioned this —
Bennet: I refuse to accept —
Martelle: — you mention that the tea party surfed in. They got elected and got reelected and got reelected, in an electorate where even in the most competitive presidential races, north of 40% of the voting eligible people don’t even come out.
Bennet: You might be right that it’s over. I don’t accept that it’s over. But think about what helped them get elected and reelected and reelected. Gerrymandering that should never have been the law of our land but is the law of our land. The ability of the Koch brothers to threaten, just by rattling the coins in their pocket, it’s no more than that.
And when you look at what happened, Mike Lee beating Bob Bennett in Utah on a Saturday morning at a barely-attended convention, and Rand Paul beating whoever it was he beat in Kentucky. And you go down the list of people under these circumstances, I guess what I would say is, “I expect more of ourselves than that. I expect us to be able to beat that.” Not Democrats, I mean America, to overcome it.
And in my state, which is 1/3 Democratic, 1/3 Republican and 1/3 independent, I don’t think people are accepting that the right answer here is a one-way ratchet into blowing it all up into smithereens. Which is how the Roman Republic ended. It’s how the Roman Empire ended. This is not unknown in American history.
But I think that if you care about climate change then you can’t accept what you just said. Because if you care about climate change, it’s not just a matter of urgently addressing, it’s a matter of creating an enduring policy solution and political solution in a democracy to contend with climate change. You can’t solve it two years at a time. You can’t put in your stuff for two years, then let the next guys come in and rip it out for two years and then do that again. I grant you, or I accept, that that is where our politics is today. I accept it. And I think that is an unacceptable state of our political system. We cannot accept that state of our political system because we will fail. We will fail on climate, we will fail for every single kid in the LAUSD who’s going to a terrible school. We’ll fail for every family in America who feels like they can’t get ahead no matter how hard they’re working. That is a guaranteed failure for us.
And you’re also right that there are people in the party, and there are people running for president who believe that’s the right approach. I totally disagree. I do not believe that makes me a moderate. The worst thing it makes me is an idealist, which is what I said earlier in answer to your question. And I believe in this exercise in self-government. I think that people in America have faced far worse challenges than we’re facing today. We’re not sitting at our radios today, listening to Roosevelt tell us that we have to fight yet another world war someplace else. That’s just one example, and we’re giving up because we’re living in the land of cable television hosts and social media, and politicians who can’t weather a tweet storm. I think we have to do better than that. To me, that is an outrage that we would accept it. I’m not saying you accept it. I don’t accept it.
Pearlstine: If you made voting mandatory, would you have a more moderate electorate role? I’m just thinking in terms of the ways in which the extremes seem to get so much attention, are the ones who actually show up. We had a school bond issue a couple of weeks ago where, was it 10% of the electorate voted?
Bennet: Yeah, these school board elections, I think I read once, have 3% of the people vote. Yeah, I don’t think America is prepared for mandatory voting, but I think we would—It would be a much more representative view. I do think automatic registration of people when they turn 18, and same day voter registration. By the way, those are all things we could pass in Congress, if we wanted to pass those things in Congress.
Bennet: I do think this gets to the heart of why my political theory is different from a lot of people that are in this race. I may be naive. I think people could criticize me for being naive, I suppose. I think what’s really naive is accepting the current state of affairs as something that’s inevitable. And that somehow while we’re doing that we can also solve the problems that we face. I think that is horrendously naive.
Greene: Now, the question is, can you win with this approach?
Bennet: I don’t know. We’ll see. I think there’s a market for it.
Healey: You mentioned early on that, you started to say something along the lines of: You think that we can close the inequality problem. And then you said, going forward, we can make sure that the profits are distributed more equitably. Can you talk a little bit more about that, because it almost sounded like you were saying you’re not a fan of wealth taxes but you do see a way to address income —
Bennet: Well, I think in general, more focus on taxing capital and less focus on taxing work would be a good thing. The fact that GM, even though they’ve got many fewer employees today than they once had, they still have a ton of employees, and they’re paying a ton at payroll tax. Amazon doesn’t have a ton of employees, they never will. And they’re not paying any tax. That seems upside-down.
I think on the economy, there’re not obviously any silver bullets, but if you were imagining trying to at least look like you were trying, as opposed to what we have been doing, you would massively invest in infrastructure, you’d massively invest in R&D, you’d massively in an education system that you were transforming for the 21st century as you were doing it. And in early childhood education your priority would look more like that than it would look like Bernie’s priorities there.
I think if you reverse the Trump tax cuts and do a version of my bill that I mentioned earlier on the child tax credit, the EITC, paid family leave and raising the minimum wage for $15 in places where that could be afforded, and probably less than that in rural places where it couldn’t, that would be a lot better than what we have today, as a country, and provide us some hope that we can at least, when the economy grows, everybody benefits from it.
I think on the other take in the Capital Gains tax, up to where ordinary income is, taxing intergenerational wealth, we’re now at a point where we’re not taxing peoples’ estates going up to a zillion dollars. And you’ve got the whole problem of stepped-up bases there that you can solve. It’s not there’s nothing we can do. We could spend the next $12 or 13 trillion a lot differently than we’ve spent the last $12 or 13 trillion. And I think that would help America.
Kerry Cavanaugh (editorial writer): Given the inequality that exists, and the voting population that is vastly in the lower tiers, not the 1%, why don’t those ideas of changing the taxation system have much resonance in D.C.? How can that change?
Bennet: I think part of it is that people are so skeptical of the federal government. Look, Ronald Reagan sort of started all of this. The optimist in me says maybe we’re at the end of the Reagan era, I say, in Southern California. And that this kind of completely bastardized version of Reagan in Donald Trump, who shares none of Reagan’s virtues, may be that’s the point where we say, “Hold on, this is not really... This is self-defeating as a country.” But up to this point, they have done an incredibly good job of causing the American people to lose faith in the federal government. They’ve done an incredible job of separating the federal government from the American people. I have huge problems with the federal government. I was a school superintendent. I know the problems that it created there. I was in business, I know problems were created there. And I know how corrupt it is, which is very, most of the legislative branch, and how ossified it is, and how belonging to the last century it is.
But that doesn’t mean we can give up on it any less than we can give up on the politics over here. We have to fix it, because it is our mechanism for deciding things as a nation. And I think we need a president who can help us build confidence in that again, and can show us the mistakes that we’ve made over the last 20 years, and give us hope that there’s another path, and I think there is another path. And that’s where, I think, you’ll begin to try to create some confidence that we can take on things like income inequality.
But if what we’re going to do is accept Mitch McConnell’s terms of the debate, and accept that the Bush tax cuts are going to become permanent, you’re not going to send much of a signal to the American people that there’s something different you can do. If you’re running on the child tax credit for everybody in America who has a kid and an increase in the income, maybe you will catch people’s attention. I don’t know.
Goldberg: We’re running out of time.
Bennet: Sorry. I apologize.
Goldberg: I wanted to ask Mike, who’s on the phone, if he has any questions.
Mike McGough: (senior editorial writer, on telephone): Yeah, it’s sort of a hobbyhorse question but you were talking about judges. If you’re president, do you see you have a role in doing anything about the politicization of, not so much of the court themselves, but the confirmation process? Would you try to choose judges differently? Do you think partisanship is a problem?
Bennet: I have my head in my hands, which you can’t see because — I think politicization is a huge problem. When I was in law school, if you were qualified and you were nominated to go on a circuit court, to say nothing of the district court, but a circuit court or the Supreme Court, you got 90 or 96 votes in the Senate. And every time that happened, we reestablished the importance of having an independent judiciary that was insulated from the hopefully temporary partisan insanity of the legislative branch, or what has become that.
That is what our approach was. And there’s a chapter in the book about this, about the judges. This generation of American politicians has destroyed that. We have turned the Senate’s advise and consent responsibility, which is a constitutional responsibility, into just one more extension of our partisan warfare. I have apologized on the Senate floor for having voted to change the rules, when I did vote to change the rules in 2014. I think that was a terrible, substantive mistake and it was a horrible strategic mistake.
McConnell has been completely strategic the whole way along. The Democrats, I think, we’ve been feckless. Let me use a different word, let me use a different word: I think we’ve been less strategic than McConnell has been, and he won. And what he did on Merrick Garland is the most reprehensible act that any person who’s ever been leader since people were filibustering civil rights, but at least they had the dignity to use the processes that were involved. McConnell just broke our government.
And so, my view is we should never be as malevolent or as cynical as he is, but I do think it’s far past time for us to be as strategic as he is on judges, on climate, on the economy, all this stuff, understanding that the bias in the public is that government is all screwed up, which it is, which is why we sent a reality TV star there. There’s no way, if we didn’t have that degraded a sense of our political institutions, that we would have sent such a person to Washington.
And I think the judges are the best example of why believing that a one-way ratchet of destroying our political institutions is a self-defeating exercise in destroying this exercise in self-government, rather than something that should be cherished by partisan politicians, or people that want to raise money as partisan politicians, which is what it’s been.
And what I would do as president is nominate people that I thought were qualified, nominated people that I thought would uphold Roe vs. Wade, nominate people that were the best lawyers in the country, to be the best judges in the country. The pressure is going to be on whoever’s the next nominee to nominate the most partisan people they can find, just as it is on Trump.
What he’s putting on, it’s a joke, if it weren’t so serious. The quality, these are judges that are... I’ve got lists of them in the book, but these are judges that would never have survived a vet when we had a 60-vote threshold. And now they’re at 51.
Now what some Democrats are saying is, “Let’s pack the court.” There’s not a single person in America that’s had that idea. And so, do we really want to give McConnell and Trump the gift of saying they’re the ones protecting the institutions from the Democrats who want to pack the court? Really? Are we really going to be for the filibuster, or getting rid of the filibuster, when McConnell is the majority leader? He’s the majority leader. And by the way, we have — the likelihood of our winning the majority is not that high. It is doable. We have to do it. We’ve got to do everything we can to do it.
Let me take back “not that high.” We have to do everything we can to do it, but it’s not assured that we’re going to win the majority. So do we really want to set the predicate for him pulling the pin here? Just like we did when we changed the rules for administrative appointments and for lower court judges, when he was able to get away with blowing up the nuclear option on Kavanaugh when literally no one in America was looking?
I was the only Democrat who argued, “We shouldn’t filibuster Kavanaugh. We should save it for the next one,” because the next one was going to be 5-4 on Roe vs. Wade and maybe we could mobilize America under the circumstances. We filibustered, he pulled the pin. It was over. And by the time Kavanaugh showed up, all we were doing was pretending. It didn’t have to be that way. It did not have to be that way.
So I deeply regret that it’s become this partisan exercise. I don’t think it was required. I think it was a failure of leadership and a failure of elected leaders in Washington, including myself as I said. I’ve apologized for this. And I hope over time Caroline’s generation can figure out how to dig us out from this morass of turning what was, until now, through 230 years of history, a pretty honorable process, that now has become just more of the same. It’s going to be hard to fix that.
Goldberg: Thank you so much for coming in.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
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