Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a generally unassuming Democratic figure in Washington outside of the occasional impassioned outburst on the Senate floor, is trying to make the pragmatist’s case for the White House.
After undergoing treatment for prostate cancer earlier this year, Bennet was given a clean bill of health and said he was ready to join the deep roster of Democratic candidates, from big-name Senate colleagues like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Bennet’s close friend and former boss, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Bennet is one of Washington’s more moderate Democrats in the primary. He’s spent his time in the Senate trying to craft ideas that he believes both Republicans and Democrats can sign on to — from a public health care option to comprehensive immigration reform. That goal has made the polarization in Washington a particular point of frustration for him.
“I don’t think the country is anywhere nearly divided as Washington, DC, is,” Bennet said on NBC in February. “I think the country is sick and tired of Washington yapping at stuff and not actually doing anything. My state is a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third independent, and people notice that we have gotten nothing done over the last 10 years other than the Affordable Care Act when the Democrats were in charge, and this terrible tax cut when Donald Trump was in charge. That’s a pretty sorry record when you look at what China is doing.”
Who is Michael Bennet?
Sometimes, Bennet says, people ask if he’s seen the television show House of Cards. He tells them that he finds the show more believable having been in the Senate than he would have had he not been in the job.
“It’s not about murders or any of that kind of stuff,” Bennet told Vox’s The Ezra Klein Show. “But the sociopathic quality of the place at times and some of the folks here: That’s real.”
Bennet and those around him always say he never intended to be a politician. But politics, and the elite world around it, has defined him his whole life.
Bennet’s grandfather was an economic adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, and his father worked for the Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton administrations before going on to be the president of Wesleyan University, which Bennet attended as an undergraduate. Bennet was raised in Washington, DC, went to the elite all-boys prep school St. Albans, and eventually got a law degree from Yale Law School, where he was the editor of the Yale Law Journal.
When he moved to Colorado for his wife’s job — to work for an investment company and seemingly to get away from the world of law — he befriended Hickenlooper, who would go on to become’s Denver’s mayor, Colorado’s governor, and now a fellow 2020 presidential candidate.
In some ways, it was Hickenlooper who put Bennet on the course back to Washington. Two years into becoming Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, Bennet was appointed to be the Denver Schools superintendent, a job he took without any experience in the field, let alone personal experience with public schooling. His track record at the school district has been met with mixed reviews.
Nevertheless, he was appointed to the Senate in 2009, when then-Sen. Ken Salazar was appointed to the Department of the Interior — a seat Bennet has held since. (In an interesting wrinkle, Bennet’s brother James is the editor of the New York Times opinion page and has pledged to recuse himself from election coverage over his familial connection.)
This truncated biography is important, because if there’s one thing that defines Bennet in Washington, it’s that he loves to hate Washington. He’s known for taking the Senate floor and yelling about the evils of partisanship. (You might have seen the time he slammed Sen. Ted Cruz for his “crocodile tears” over Trump’s border wall shutdown.)
Already, Bennet has been compared to Hickenlooper; after all, they’re two moderate Democratic white men from Colorado. But Bennet and those around him don’t see Hickenlooper’s candidacy — or any of the others — as a disqualifying factor. Where Hickenlooper is known for his retail politics, Bennet is known for being angry about broken government.
And while it’s certainly not novel for a politician to rail about the swamp, Bennet’s brand isn’t just for television.
“The business of politics revs up the sociopathic qualities that I’m thinking about,” Bennet said on The Ezra Klein Show. “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.
“It’s a corruption of inaction, not a corruption of action.”
What are Michael Bennet’s policies?
When President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address to make clear the United States will not become a socialist country — in an apparent dig at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — Bennet was among the Democrats who jumped to their feet in applause.
Bennet is wary of radical ideas, and he believes the American people are with him.
“It is possible to write policy proposals that have no basis in reality, and you might as well call them candy,” Bennet said in an interview with the Atlantic. “That’s what people want, as the song said, but I think that’s not where people are. 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.”
In that vein, he thinks that Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan is “a bad opening offer” on health care. He specifically asked for donations to get on the debate stage so he could debate Sanders on single-payer health care.
Interviewed on Meet the Press, Bennet warned, “Remember when President Obama said, ‘If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance.’ And then a few people in America actually lost their insurance because of the way that the plan worked. Now what the Democrats are saying is, ‘If you like your insurance, we’re going to take it away from you.’”
Instead, Bennet has his own proposal: Medicare X. It’s a public option bill co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) that would allow all Americans to buy a public health insurance plan paying doctors what Medicare currently does, with access to the doctors and hospitals that Medicare has in its network. (Vox’s Sarah Kliff has a thorough explainer.)
He’s also a sponsor of the American Family Act, which Vox’s Dylan Matthews has explained would dramatically expand the child tax credit. It’s estimated the plan would reduce poverty among children from 14.8 percent to 9.5 percent — or in other words, lift 4 million kids out of poverty.
On the campaign trail, Bennet will likely be adamant about his record being sensible and of working across the aisle (he was on the failed Gang of Eight immigration bill, the last real bipartisan immigration compromise). Then again, there are a number of presidential candidates banking on a Democratic voter base looking for more moderate, pragmatic ideas. It will be an uphill battle for Bennet. He’s an unknown in a packed field, with former Vice President Joe Biden leading the polls.
Months ago, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican lawmaker turned moderate MSNBC pundit, made the case that Bennet is the answer to Democrats’ 2020 puzzle. But, he wrote for the Washington Post, “you are forgiven if you could not pick him out of a police lineup.”