In the crowded race for the 2020 Democratic nominee for president, you may have a hard time spotting Michael Bennet. The senior US senator from Colorado is near the back of most polls and has been overshadowed by his many competitors.
On the latest episode of Recode Decode With Kara Swisher, he said he’s not worried about that.
“If history is any guide, the people that are leading the race today are not going to be the nominee,” Bennet said. “For me, I look at it and say, ‘Look, there isn’t anybody else in this race who’s won a national race in a swing state.’ I’m the only one that’s done that in Colorado and I’ve done it twice.”
One of the key planks of Bennet’s campaign is economic inequality — that 90 percent of Americans have been in a “never-ending recession” for the past 40 years — which he said puts the whole country at risk. He’s also positioned himself as a pragmatic anti-Trump, someone who understands the reasons people voted for the current president and wants to focus on how to solve their problems.
“We can’t cry and moan about why we got here,” Bennet told Swisher. “We can’t overdo the fact that we’ve got this incompetent guy and build him up into this huge monster. We have to double down, I think, again on our democratic traditions, updated for the 21st century. That’s what we’ve always done.
“... If you have to be a Donald Trump-like figure, I can’t win,” he added. “If we decide that you don’t have to be a Donald Trump-like figure and we want the opposite of Donald Trump, I have a chance of winning. I actually would not have run if I didn’t think I could win. I may be the only person in America who thinks I can win, but I think that I can.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Sen. Bennet.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who would hate to share a debate stage with Kamala Harris, but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
But today in the red chair, we have someone who has been on that stage. It’s Senator Michael Bennet, from Colorado, who’s also running for president of the United States. He announced his candidacy in May and has made no secret of the fact that he thinks many of America’s leaders are corrupt and possibly sociopathic. Senator Bennet, welcome to Recode Decode.
Michael Bennet: It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.
I have to tell one thing. I work for your brother a little bit. I don’t really work for him. I don’t listen to him at all, but James Bennet is ...
That’s what he tells me.
Yes, exactly. He’s the head of the opinion section of the New York Times and I’m a contractor there, so that’s my little disclosure, but I don’t care if I bother him in any way whatsoever.
So let’s talk about you, running for president. You and I met a couple months ago, and I had one of the best conversations I think I’ve had with a politician in a very long time because you were talking very deeply and substantively on issues. We are in the midst of a campaign where it’s very sound-bitey, it’s very twitchy, there’s all kinds of stuff going on. Talk a little bit about your background, because I think it’s really important, some of the topics. I want to talk about education, about tech, about how to essentially fix democracy and what’s going on.
Yeah. Well, first of all, I think that’s what we have to do, and when I say we, I mean all of us. I think you have a job to do. I have a job to do. We have to have a much more elevated expectation of our politicians and our journalists and ourselves as citizens. This is a self-governing enterprise that we’re involved with and this is not one of these things where we’re waiting around for some great leader to come save us or for Donald Trump to say, “I alone can fix it.” Nobody else can fix it but the American people ... and I think tech has a lot to do with that, but we’ll get to that.
My background is sort of weird. It’s kind of a sketchy background. I’ve been in the Senate for 10 years from a purple state, Colorado, which is exactly a third Republican, a third Democratic and a third independent, which has its own challenges and is a fascinating place to represent. But before that, I began as a lawyer, and then was in business for almost seven years turning around distressed companies, and then was superintendent at Denver public schools for five years, which was really the most meaningful job I’ve ever had.
How did you get to that job? So you want to talk about changes in education, because I think ...
So that job, I was working for the mayor of Denver, who’s this guy named John Hickenlooper, who’s also running for president. He was our great governor of Colorado. But then he was becoming mayor and he was a business person and I had helped him with his campaign, went to be his chief of staff, and we assembled an incredible team of people in the city and county. At about the two-year mark, the existing superintendent in Denver decided to leave and the independently-elected school board for the Denver Public Schools hired me to be the superintendent. I think they thought it was important to have somebody who had a sense of the politics of the place we were working in and had turned around failing enterprises. It wasn’t just ...
But you didn’t have a background in education.
No background in education, yeah.
Right. Right. What did you think when you got ahold of something like that? The concept I want to get to is what do we do now about education?
My first thought when they came to see me was there is no way I want to associate myself with the wreckage that exists in urban school districts all across America. But the more I read, the more compelled I was by the mission because the kids have done nothing wrong. The kids have all the intellectual horsepower they need to do the work, to be able to thrive as citizens, to contribute to the democracy, to contribute to the economy, but our obsolete system of public education is not supporting them. That’s not the fault of educators. It’s not the fault of anybody ... If there is any fault to cast, it’s America.
We have treated America’s children like they’re someone else’s children, not like they’re our own children, and that’s why we’re still on an agrarian calendar that belongs to a time when we needed kids to work in the fields. That’s why we don’t have the sense to create opportunities for kids to go to school maybe at night when they could work during the day.
I mean, there are all kinds of things that we should be doing differently, and the more I read about it, the more compelled I was by the mission. I have to say, there was not a day ... It was brutal, often it was hand-to-hand combat. There was not a day when the mission of that school district didn’t animate me and didn’t make me feel like I was actually making a contribution to my community.
Do you feel that it was successful?
I think we were successful but not as successful as I would like to be. We still have massive ... Even though our kids in Denver have grown much more over the last 15 years than — and by the way, that was the work of my successor and a lot of other people — but our kids have grown dramatically in Denver. The graduation rate is much higher. The college-going rate is much higher. The success rate on things like the AP tests are much, much higher. Even with that, we still have incredibly stubborn achievement gaps between Anglo kids and kids of color, between wealthy kids and kids that aren’t wealthy.
But, there was a study that came out last week from Stanford that said that the growth in Denver is now so much stronger than the rest of the districts in Colorado, that it is the equivalent of the kids in Denver having 60 additional days of education each year for the last three years.
Although it doesn’t get to the concept that it’s the wrong kind of education system in general, going forward for jobs.
That’s true. That’s true. That’s true.
So you became a senator. You became a senator. You’ve been there for 10 years. How do you assess your tenure?
I think for the first term ... I’ve now been there for, yeah, 10 years as you said. For the first six years, for me, it was all an exercise about showing that I could work in a bipartisan way and accomplish results, even though Washington was completely broken. I had a machiavellian reason for wanting to do that because I didn’t want people to give up faith in the system and I wanted to get reelected, you know, and I thought in a state like Colorado, which was a third, a third, a third, it was important to show that you could work with people on the other side.
So whether it was being part of the Gang of Eight on immigration reform, which I was, or rewriting No Child Left Behind and putting that out to pasture, which I did with Lamar Alexander, who’s the chair of the Health Committee, or rewriting the way the FDA approves a life-saving medicine with Richard Burr to create what are called breakthrough therapies, which cut the red tape for massive amounts of drug approvals in this country. That was the story of the first six years I was here, which was: dysfunctional system, we can still get things done.
Then I was reelected the year that Trump was elected, which was shocking to me. Shocking. I was running, I was running, and I did not give a moment’s thought to the idea that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States, which is a failure of mine, and since that time, the wheels have come off the bus completely.
How so, from your perspective?
We had a competent president who was trying to do the right thing for the country in Barack Obama and was being immobilized by the Freedom Caucus and by Mitch McConnell. They think they’ve been sent to Washington to dismantle the federal government and they’re really successful at what they’ve been trying to do. I think the American people looked at this mess and they couldn’t assign blame and so what they said was, “We can’t possibly do any worse than this. Let’s select this reality-TV star president and blow the place up.”
If you ask somebody in Colorado, “Why’d you vote for Donald Trump?” They’ll say, “Because we wanted to blow the place up.” And I say to them, “Congratulations, you succeeded. He’s made matters much worse.” We were immobilized before he got here. Matters are much worse right now because he’s completely incompetent and because he’s, I think, a weak leader, domestically and in foreign policy. His own party has no idea what he’s going to say from day to day so they’re worried that ... I don’t know if you ever watched that Ultraman show when you were a kid.
Yes, we did.
But I remember there was always a danger that the monster was going to irradiate you by looking in your direction. That’s the way it is from my Republican colleagues, whether it’s on immigration or it’s on trade or it’s on infrastructure. They have no idea where he’s going be day to day.
So we end up in a world now where — and this has changed a lot from the time that I first got in — where if you asked me today, Kara, who’s running Washington, my answer is completely different than it would have been 10 years ago. My answer today is, it is the folks that watch the cable television at night, which is 9 or 10 million people, and people that engage with their politicians on Twitter. Those folks who are in a never-ending cycle of conflict …
… and outrage and are not being asked to sacrifice anything except the time that they’re consuming focused on that stuff. Those folks are incredibly well represented in Washington. And by the way, I love some of these people. My mom watches that stuff. I watch some of that stuff. I’m one of those 12 million people.
Which one do you watch?
Well, I’ll watch a little bit of all of it. I actually was on Fox last Sunday. But there are 320 million people who are getting up in the morning ...
Doing their jobs.
... doing their jobs, sending their kids to places like the Denver Public Schools, hoping for the best that their kid is going to get an education to drive opportunity for them and for their family, trying to make sure their small business succeeds. That’s what they’re doing all day long, and they at this point have no representation in Washington, DC.
Well, they can. They certainly can. They just abrogated it because, why?
Well, I think it’s been abrogated by the collapse of print media in this country. I think it’s been abrogated by the rise of social media in our politics and special interests and the Koch brothers and gerrymandering. I mean, all of those things have repelled people.
There are two instincts. Three maybe. Let’s say three. One, we’re going to send Trump there to blow the place up, right?
Right. That’ll show them.
Yeah, and in the end that’s a self-defeating thing for the country. Two, we’re going to look away because it’s too painful and guys like me are just a bunch of jokers that are self-interested, that aren’t actually going to move the country forward.
Or, third — and this is what I think we need to do — we need to understand that when you have the great fortune to live in a society that’s organized around self-government and a set of freedoms that are designed to allow you to express your point of view, you can’t opt out. The fact that it’s corrupt, the fact that the campaign finance system doesn’t work, the fact that gerrymandering is there, the fact that the Supreme Court doesn’t understand how our politics work, this needs to be an invitation for America to lean into this problem, not avert their eyes. That’s what I think that enormous opportunity is.
Look, it’s a catastrophe on one level that Donald Trump was elected. On the other hand, it’s an incredible opportunity for us as a country to decide: How do we want this exercise in self government to go forward? What do we really think about immigration? What do we really think about big tech? What do we really think about education, which I hope we’ll have the chance to talk about. And what do we think our role in the democracy needs to be?
This is why you ran, because you think there’s the third option.
Which is, everybody ... It’s a sort of Sheryl Sandberg option. “Everybody lean in to this mess.”
I think of it this way. I’ve written a book called The Land of Flickering Lights. The argument I make is that the founders did two really incredible things at the beginning. They liberated us from a colonial power. They wrote a Constitution that was ratified by the people who would live under it. They did something horrible. They perpetuated human slavery.
Other Americans came along, Frederick Douglass chief among them. Obviously, Abraham Lincoln was a huge part of it. But this guy’s born a slave in America. Born a slave, and he goes up to Massachusetts and he meets with the abolitionists up there in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, I forget where it was, and he says to them, “Look, you guys are arguing that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. That’s exactly the opposite argument we should be making. The argument is it’s an anti-slavery document and we’re not living up to the precepts of that document.”
First of all, huge political power in what he was arguing, and second, because he was arguing that our best traditions are what we were trying to fulfill, rather than that we had to overturn those traditions, we just had to fulfill them. And second, in my view, and this is not just rhetorical for me, Frederick Douglass deserves to be thought of as a founder just as much as the guys who wrote the Constitution because he helped end human slavery in this country.
Well, what I argue in the book is that’s how we have to think of our role as citizens in this country. We are, in effect, founders of the United States of America. We are founders of this republic right now, and as Douglass says, “Our business must be with the present. Our business is with the present.” That’s what we have to deal with. We can’t cry and moan about why we got here. We can’t overdo the fact that we’ve got this incompetent guy and build him up into this huge monster. We have double down, I think, again on our democratic traditions, updated for the 21st century. That’s what we’ve always done.
We’re going to get to that, what those updated things are, because there are all new things impacting it, as you listed quite a few. Why did you suddenly decide to do this? You had thought about this? Because look at you ... This is what I said to somebody the other day. I said, “Look at him. He’s so smart. He’s so substantive.” In any other era, you would have been at the front of the line of presidential candidates. You know what I mean? And it’s really interesting that you have to be a Donald Trump-like figure ...
Well, if you have to be a Donald Trump-like figure, I can’t win. If we decide that you don’t have to be a Donald Trump-like figure and we want the opposite of Donald Trump, I have a chance of winning. I actually would not have run if I didn’t think I could win. I may be the only person in America who thinks I can win, but I think that I can because I think ...
No, there’s others we think can’t win more.
In the end, we really have to live up to the example that these other folks in American history have set. Look, this is not a moment where we are sitting at our radios listening to Franklin Roosevelt tell us that we are about to have to go into a second World War that this generation has already fought. That’s not what we’re doing now. This is not a moment where we have a civil war in America. But we do have really fundamental challenges that the school kids in Denver can’t solve because they’re too busy going to school and they need us to do our work. They need us to do our job. I believe that out of this conflagration, we’re going to put ourselves back together again because that’s what we’ve always done.
Let’s talk about what it takes to win right now in this environment. I know that this is a twitchy time. Everything is sound bites. You had a sound bite, which my son noticed, which was incredible, about being upset at Ted Cruz.
That was a 30-minute sound bite.
I know it was, but he listened to the whole thing. But you know what I mean? He listens. He follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He watches and experiences and he’s going to vote for the first time this year.
In 2020, for president. How do you look at the electorate now, in running for president? I mean, obviously this is your first time you’ve run. But how did you look at the scene? First of all, there’s a lot of you. There’s too much to be said about that. It’s fine.
Well, but let me say one thing about that, which is for a guy like me, that’s what creates the opportunity. If there were two or three people it might be harder, so the fact that there are a lot of people ...
So it’s the “who knows what could happen,” right?
Exactly. And actually on that point, if history is any guide, the people that are leading the race today are not going to be the nominee. I mean, Barack Obama was not yet 30 points behind Hillary Clinton ...
No. Valerie Jarrett pointed that out to me.
Yeah, that was in November, this coming November, when he was behind by 30 points to Hillary Clinton. Joe Lieberman, I think, was leading the race when he was in, and Bill Clinton was at 1 percent. These are early days. Now, we’ve got stuff like the debate stage and all of that and those requirements that may be compressing the time.
But for me, I look at it and say, “Look, there isn’t anybody else in this race who’s won a national race in a swing state.” I’m the only one that’s done that in Colorado and I’ve done it twice. Those are tough races in a state that is hard to win twice. Once, it’s hard to win. Twice, it’s really hard to win. I have won more votes than anybody else in the history of the state of Colorado, so I know something about winning in a swing state.
I think that my experiences are different than anybody else here. I’ve got a longer tenure than any of them in the Senate and a record that’s the one that I described earlier, but also experience in business and running the school district before.
All of which, I think, gives me the chance — if I can do it — to set a deep keel and not get buffeted every single day by what’s going on in the Twitter universe — just to shorthand it. I don’t want to insult anybody, but just to shorthand it — what I think a lot of other folks are genuflecting to that day after day after day. And what I believe based on my time in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina is that the Democratic base, the base of the Democratic Party, is where I think it is and I think that’s where I am. It is not the Twitter base, the Democratic Party, which has a different ...
She did. And I’m not saying that in a way, I don’t mean that to be pejorative, I think everybody should be involved in our politics however they want to be involved in our politics. I’m just saying that the people that don’t show up on Twitter deserve representation as well. That’s all I’m saying.
Well, it’s a reactive kind of ... Politics has become so reactive.
It has become really reactive.
How do you operate as a politician in that environment?
I think that you have to have conviction about what you believe. I asked a guy once who was a principal of a school in Denver, which was one of the best schools in Denver. We were walking down the hallway and this kid was chewing gum who was coming in the other direction, and the principal kind of looked at him crosswise a little bit. The kid took the gum out of his mouth and we kept walking, and the principal said, “I don’t care whether that kid’s chewing gum. What I care about is that the rules in this place are enforced, so people can learn.”
And I said to him, “How do you deal with the parents?” Because so many principals say to me that the parents come in and they take this kid’s side, and they don’t want the discipline from somebody else. And he says, “I visualize the conflict in advance and then I know it will be temporary, and then I can come out on the other side.” That is how I’ve always approached my work, as a superintendent having to make horribly tough decisions for my community to close schools that should have been closed decades before, to give a neighborhood the opportunity to be able to start a new school over again, and that’s how I’ve tried to approach the work as being a Senator, as a presidential candidate.
It may not work, but I believe there is a market for somebody who sounds like they’re telling the truth because they are telling ...
So, how then do you breakthrough? Because it is, whether you like it or not, the media is on Twitter, it’s reactive, there’s such an active ... I wrote a column today because the appeals court decided that Donald Trump can’t block people on Twitter.
Yeah, I saw that.
And I wrote a piece about how now Twitter and Donald Trump are married together. This week he initiated a bunch of presidential orders on Twitter, by tweet, which the people who were receiving them didn’t understand and had to say to a judge, “I don’t know what he means.”
If I had an answer for that, I’d be a billionaire.
What do you do in a governing environment like this?
This is a serious issue. Twitter does not run itself by Twitter. Twitter does not run itself by tweet. Twitter is a business enterprise, and they have a board of directors that makes considered judgments about the continuing improvement of that enterprise. We have that responsibility for America, too, and we just can’t do it based on what’s happening in some social media storm on any given day. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be taking it in as information, and I do take it in as information.
But it is how things are happening now. People say we shouldn’t, but it actually is. Everything is borne out there. How do you switch back the governing to a less, to a much more standardized way?
I’m not sure. But we’re going to have to figure out a way to do that, because we will not be able to govern if we keep doing what we’re doing, because we’ll continue to be immobilized. Look, there did not — it’s not obvious to me, this is not my specialty, it’s yours — not obvious to me why social media ... I wouldn’t say unvarnished, but why it couldn’t be a normative good in our democracy.
Yes, it could.
That is, democratize our country, give more people the chance to participate, have leaders like me be more responsive to what people actually want for their families.
That was the idea.
And that is not where we are. Where we are is in a downward spiral of vitriol and of attack politics and hyperpartisanship that is gratifying, I think, on a lot of levels and people can’t look away from it almost like an automobile accident or something. But that’s not ... We can’t run the country that way.
I want to ask you, there’s been a lot of the candidates, some of the things you’ve been talking about, some of your issues have been varied, but Elizabeth Warren and others have talked about breaking up big tech and reining in big tech. I find big tech to be different than ... It’s Facebook and Google and then everybody else in many ways. How do you look at all that? How do you think about the power of that? Because it has infected, whether it’s the Russians, whether it’s addiction, whether it’s twitchiness, whether it’s the inability to hold a cogent thought for very long or make policy that isn’t impacted by it.
First of all, your observation is an important one, which is these companies aren’t all the same. And we need to understand what each one does. I don’t know whether the right answer is to break them up. I think the FTC and the Justice Department absolutely should be investigating them. I think we should be thinking about whether our antitrust laws still make sense in a world where ... The traditional way of thinking about this is: Is the consumer harmed? Now we’re living in a world where consumers are getting free stuff, or from Amazon getting much, much cheaper stuff.
Or like your pal Scott Galloway talks about, he’s in the position of being able to buy a grocery store and cut the market cap of every other grocer in the country by 20 percent.
Just because Amazon’s never expected to make a profit. Those are all huge issues that we should be looking at.
Then there’s the privacy issues, which are massive. Nobody in ... not nobody. Almost nobody in America thinks they’ve made a trade with the tech companies to give up their data to be monetized for whatever a tech company wants it to do.
The fact that I ... The app that has made the biggest difference in my life is Waze, because I now no longer sweat traffic. I just, I’m in it because I have to be there, but I know that Waze will get me out of it if it can get me out of it. Don’t need to worry about it. But I haven’t made a trade with those guys at Google for my data, and that’s a conversation ...
Well, you have.
Well, it’s a conversation we need to have.
It’s interesting, I was at an event last night, someone was talking about that. And they said, “I like my free this, I like my free that.” And I said, “You’ve made a trade, you know. You’re trading your personal privacy for that,” and I said, “And you’re a cheap date because they’re making a fortune off of you and you’re getting a free map.”
It’s true, it’s true. It’s kind of a trade of adhesion, not a real trade. And I want to mention one other thing that you just said. I was in the Mississippi Delta last week for three or four days and my wife is from Marion, Arkansas, which is the heart of the Mississippi Delta, this is among the poorest parts of America. And I was meeting with some moms in a town called Helena, Arkansas. I have these meetings all over the country, and at home where I ask people about, “Tell me about raising a kid in Helena, Arkansas.” And what they went right to was first they said, “Look, the education system isn’t what it was when we were in school.” These parents are in their early 30s, by the way.
And, they said all the kids in the Delta, they’re just spending all day playing video games on their computers. They don’t read. One of them said nobody goes to the library to check out a book anymore. They have no internet at home because nobody can afford it and nobody’s bothered to build an infrastructure that can take it to their house.
So, what the kids do is they download the games during the day at their school and then they go home and they spend all night playing the games and get no sleep. At Silicon Valley, I guess, there are people sending their kids to camp so they don’t have to use computers and they’re not on iPads, and I don’t want to sound like a Luddite or something, but from the vantage point of somebody in the Delta, that’s how they’re thinking about this stuff.
I think you and I talked about this the last time we were together, as the father of three daughters, I worry a lot about the violence that’s being perpetrated on them, because they’re at home and maybe they didn’t get invited to the party and the party’s all going on while they’re there.
Right, the FOMO.
Yeah. And so then the final point is, you mentioned the Russians, for Christ’s sake. Sorry.
“The Russians, for Christ’s sake” is all right. That’s the name of my new book.
That’s not even, well, I’m actually pulling together a bunch of the ads, because nobody knows what these ads were.
That’s the point.
That’s the point.
And here we had a year at least when we could not detect Russian propaganda from our own political discourse. Facebook was saying this would never have ... I think they said it didn’t happen.
“It didn’t happen,” initially.
Yeah. And we were attacked by a foreign government with a malign interest who’s running not just anti-Hillary ads, but pitting African Americans against police officers and police officers against African Americans. I saw this one this morning of Uncle Sam lying in an alley mainlining oil. This was a Russian ad. And they were saying, “Why are we giving these guys $10 billion of subsidies when we’re not investing in our schools?” This is the Russians. Indistinguishable from our stuff. And of course they have every economic ...
Making a fair point.
True, and I actually agree with the point, they shouldn’t be subsidized. But I believe that because they shouldn’t be subsidized because that’s not good for America. The Russians believe that because they’re trying to get an economic advantage for their petroleum industry and ... which is basically Mother Russia.
And Trump still claims this didn’t happen.
You’re in the Senate. This is something that happened, the Senate was investigating, Senator Warner and Senator Burr were behind that. When you’re facing an election like that where it’s going to come on again, where there’s ... The way I look at it is, the Russians did not win the Cold War, but they’re winning this one. Or the Chinese. This is a way they can win in a way that they couldn’t before, because they didn’t have the military might, they didn’t have the citizenry that was behind them. They didn’t have the money and all kinds of things. And this way they can win in a way that’s much more effective.
They didn’t have the innovation.
Innovation, nothing. But this works, because destruction is easy. Destruction is easy. And this is a very sneaky way to destroy. How do you, running at this time ... Why hasn’t the government, the Congress, pushed back enough on this?
Well, I think the guys that you mentioned, Warner and Burr, are trying to do it. I’m on that committee. And I can’t talk about the intelligence, but what I can say is we have learned a lot from what happened in 2016, that showed up in 2018 and they’re going to be back again in 2020. It’s not going to be the same old stuff. We don’t know what it’s going to be. We have to be prepared for it and the American people have to be informed about what this all looks like so they can recognize when it’s being passed around the internet.
Why does it have to be the American people have to recognize? It should be, how does Congress work with these tech companies to push this?
Well, I think we should be doing that, too. I mean, there’s no ...
But are we doing that?
I proposed last week that we ban foreign governments from buying advertising on these companies for political purposes. I think that the ideas that others have had to ban the hyper-targeting of political advertisements would be a welcome idea as well.
We have to protect the democracy, and I think the big tech guys have to take responsibility for it. When I hear the Facebook guys say, “We’re just a platform,” and I see the damage that they have done to our political discourse, and I know that they’re not the government, there is not a First Amendment — as you’ve said and I’ve said — there’s not a First Amendment issue implicated here with Facebook. There’s a question for Facebook, whether they want to make a benevolent contribution to our society or they want to contribute to a malevolent, something that detracts from our society. And I think they should be focused on that. They’re an American company.
What can you make them do? As politicians?
Well, I think that we can ... First of all, we could break them up if we decided we were going to do that. We could regulate them in other ways to make sure that they did what we need them to do, to not have hate speech on their platforms, to create rules of the road. If they’re not willing to police themselves, it’s certainly within our ability to do that. And we’ve done that with broadcasters, obviously, and these guys have benefited from rules that existed to give them a little bit of help with their launch. They’re now the biggest companies in America and they can surely withstand ...
This is Section 230.
Yeah. They can surely withstand some rules of the road.
Do you think that will happen?
I do think that’ll happen. I think the American people are tired of this. I think they’re tired of their kids feeling like their interaction with the world around them is provoking anxiety among them. I think people are sick and tired of hate speech running rampant on the Internet. And we’ve got competing values here. Obviously there is a balance that you have to strike, but there’s no reason we can’t do that.
One of the things that’s critically important when you think about this is keeping innovation in this country and keeping a citizenry that’s innovative. I think other countries are moving pretty quickly ahead of us in education and keeping innovation, China being one of them. Tech has changed things. AI is going to transform jobs, they’re going to transform robotics, automation, transportation. How do we keep ourselves ahead? Do you think about that? Is that one of the things ...
I do. I think about it a lot. There are tax policies and there are investments that we can make, and basic research and R&D, those kinds of things. But to me, the most important thing is our education system. And it’s not just about innovation, which is really important. It’s also the democratization of innovation and the benefits of innovation. That is, the democratization of the benefits of innovation. And when you have a system of education, as we do in this country today, that is actually reinforcing the income inequality that we have, rather than liberating people from it — and this is Raj Chetty’s data from Stanford — it’s very clear that the best predictor of the quality of your education is your parent’s income. The best predictor of your income is your parent’s income.
That was in your packet of stuff. I’m only halfway through all your charts.
Oh, yeah. That is, you’re right. It is.
Just so you know, Senator Bennet has ...
130 charts. Anybody wants ...
Gave me all these charts.
No, but you’re right.
I was like, “What a wonk!” It’s fantastic.
That’s in there.
It was, that’s right.
And what that means is ...
I read it.
And I’m grateful for that, because you’re probably the first person to actually read it. But what that also means is, the best predictor of whether you’re going to be an innovator is your parent’s income. And that’s not how this should work.
I know you’ve had conversations on the show before about where are we going to get a more diverse group of people, around STEM. And I’ll just give you an example from my perspective on that, because I think this is so critical. When I became superintendent in Denver, I looked at a lot of data, and one of the most startling things was that of the kids who graduated from our school district and then went to college, these were our most successful graduates, 90 percent of them needed remediation in mathematics — 90 percent! — for their first year.
And there are a lot of reasons for that, but one reason was we were requiring only two years of math, and math ... I’m not a big believer in seat time, but math is one of those things that if you don’t practice it, you lose it. You forget it. So we were saying two years of math, unless you pass the algebra exam in the eighth grade, in which case we are saying to our strongest adolescent mathematicians, you now only have to take one year of math before you graduate. We are going to relieve you of the burden of taking math.
Today, to get out of there with a high school degree, you have to take four years of math, and if you pass the algebra exam in the eighth grade — which by the way, you can do nothing with — if you pass the algebra exam in the eighth grade, that means you will take higher-level mathematics, college-level mathematics, before you graduate. It’s a perfect example of how the incentives and disincentives in the system are completely unaligned to the objectives that we want.
We’re going to have to change those incentives and disincentives to get the objectives that we need so that more of America can participate in the innovation economy that you’re talking about. You don’t have to go to college to do it, but for the 70 percent of kids that are graduating from high school, we have no ability right now in America to take them from earning, not a minimum wage, but to earn a wage that they can live on. We can do that. We have to revolutionize our community college system. We’d have to revolutionize high school. But we’ve done stuff like that in the past before, and I think we could do it again.
If you had to pick one of the areas that you think is most important to focus on, what would the first year of a Bennet administration look like?
I think the first year would be ...
Because that’s all you got.
Yeah. Let’s hope not. I think the first year ...
No, I mean the first year is a critical year of any president. Well, unless it’s the roller coaster of Trumpism. You know what I mean.
I think a starting place is to acknowledge the fact that we’ve got 40 years of economic immobility for the bottom 90 percent of Americans. Another way of saying that is that 90 percent of America has not benefited from economic growth. For them, the last 40 years has largely been a never-ending recession. As a result of that, they cannot afford some accommodation of housing, health care, higher education, and early childhood education.
What I think we should do to begin to address that is undo the Trump tax cuts, create a real sizeable middle-class tax cut. My plan is called the American Family Act. It dramatically increases the child tax credit in this country. It’s Bennet Brown, is the name of it. And then Brown Bennet is the name of this big expansion in the earned income tax rate. You take those two things together, you’ve given the middle class a huge shot in the arm, and we’ve reduced childhood poverty in American by 40 percent, just by doing that. We’ve ended $2-a-day poverty for kids in America.
Those would be worthy things to do anyway, and I think while we’re doing that, we have to act from day one forward. I’ve laid out a plan from over a nine-month period to act on climate change, which we have to do.
Isn’t that Hickenlooper’s? No, I’m kidding. It’s Jay Inslee.
No, it’s Jay Inslee.
Right. Do you all each have to have one?
What, on each one of these things?
Elizabeth Warren has all of them.
She’s got a plan for it all. I gave her credit for that.
I was talking to one of the candidates. I was like, “Why don’t you just borrow one of hers? Because she’s got extra.”
Well, she might not notice.
Right, I know.
That’s really possible. I’ll come back to that in one second, but I think that the climate is something that we’ve got to deal with, and I also believe we need to create universal health care in this country. The great thing about this race is every single Democrat believes we need universal health care. We have disagreements about how to get there, but that’s a step in the right direction. I mean, we don’t have universal health care today because there were people in the Democratic Senate who didn’t allow us to do a public option when Barack Obama was president of the United States. We now have a real consensus on that, and I think that would be huge for working families in the country who are struggling, because health care is such an unpredictable commodity for them.
Now when you talk about all these various things, how do you think the chances are of one of you winning in this race? It goes back and forth, and the numbers are funny. The economy’s been great. The economy overall has been great. Jobs are strong. The Fed, it looks like they’re cutting again. The stock market went crazy today. How do you look at that environment in trying to win?
I guess I’d say a couple things. One, I think the economy, on some measures, is doing well, but this age-old problem of inequality and of people not being able to afford a middle-class life, or the people frankly who don’t come to my town halls, who are working two and three jobs and are living in poverty and see no escape from poverty; people that I saw all the time when I was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. As long as you’ve got no economic mobility, massive income inequality, and people feeling like no matter how hard they work, they can’t move their family ahead, the democracy’s at risk.
I don’t mean to downplay the fact that we’re in the 10th year of an economic period of growth. There’s no question that’s true, and Donald Trump managed to catch what will probably be the tail end of that because we’ve been growing essentially the same way since about 2009, when Barack Obama was president, but we’ve got fundamentals in the economy that we’ve got to change.
This goes back to the question about how we’re going to invest for the future. What are we going to do with our antitrust laws? How are we going to think about immigration differently? Will we ever create, again, a system of public education in this country that’s actually the wind at our back? If all we did was give that 70 percent of kids graduating from high school the chance to earn a living wage instead of a minimum wage, it would transform our economy, just that. And we can do more than that.
One thing we should stop doing is cutting taxes for rich people in this country. We’ve been doing that. We’ve cut taxes $5 trillion since 2001, almost all the benefits have gone to the wealthiest people in this country, and it’s exasperating income inequality. We spent $5.6 trillion in the wars in the Middle East. That’s $11 trillion that from the vantage point of Americans, who would like to see an economy that grows for them, not just for the people in the top 10, top 5, top 1 or .1 [percent], we might as well have lit that money on fire. That’s a set of priorities that I think ...
And you ask whether we can win? I think we can win for two reasons. One, we are for universal health care. The president’s taken millions of people’s health care away. We’re for an economy that works better for everybody. His signature accomplishment was cutting taxes for rich people and putting tariffs on the American people that have been a tax increase for working people, and for farmers, and for ranchers in this country.
And I think, importantly, he doesn’t fundamentally believe in the American experiment. He doesn’t believe in America. He doesn’t believe in democracy. He doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He coddles dictators, and he’s made our border a symbol of nativist hostility all the world over. I don’t think that’s what the American people want in their president. I think that gives somebody on my side, I hope it will be me, the opportunity to win. We can’t disqualify ourselves, though, which means we have to stand for policies that the American people will support.
So lastly, how then do you ... You were on that debate stage, which was really interesting. You had a good one.
You had a good one there, but of course Kamala Harris stole the show.
She stole the show.
She stole the show.
I could watch her from where I was standing.
You saw her getting ready.
Just seeing her, and I’m thinking, “You’re stealing the show. You’re stealing the show.”
But did you see her do it? Did you notice?
Yeah. I did.
I mean, we knew that she was going to do it. I was sort of surprised that nobody knew that was coming.
Well, I didn’t know that that was coming, but I could see her as she did her thing, that she was going to end up being the headline.
About the deal that you made. When you’re in those environments, how are you going to stand out? How do you look at it? If you don’t want to be twitchy, if you don’t want to be sound bitey.
The way I look at it is, first of all, while I can’t be sound bitey, I also can’t give 10-minute answers as I’ve been doing here.
That’s okay. I like it. I like 10 minutes.
The reason I like this kind of format is that I like to have the give and take, because I actually think fundamentally, this exercise in pluralism that we’re living in is one that relies on us to disagree with each other.
Right. Well, you know, Hamilton wrote long.
Not agree with each other.
So, don’t worry about it.
Well, I wish I were that guy. So I’ve got to get down to one minute and 30 seconds. It’s not the greatest art form. I’m not the best. But I guess what I’m trying to convey on the debate stage is a sense of confidence about what I believe, confidence about where this country can go after we close this sorry chapter, and a positive sense of that.
And then, I’m going to be honest with the American people. There’s no reason for me to be running ... My daughter Caroline said to me, “Dad” — she’s 19 now. She said, “Dad, if you run and tell the truth and you lose, no one can fault you for it.” I said to her, “That’s good because that’s the only way I can win.”
I think I can win if there’s a market for that sort of truth.
All right. Now I want you to tell me. This is my last question. If it wasn’t you, which of the Democrats would you like to win?
I think I’m not going to answer that question.
Yes, but I want you to.
I’m just not going to answer that question, but I’ll answer this.
Do you have a favorite?
Any one of them over the present occupant of the White House.
Well, that’s easy.
Easily, any one of them. Which is more than Donald ... You may remember, Donald Trump started the debate series last time with the Republicans. They were all standing there. I was watching it for debate prep. He’s standing in the middle because he’s best known. He’s a reality-TV star.
The first question: “If you are not nominated, will you endorse the Republican nominee?” And Trump says, “No.” Nobody knew what to do. From that moment forward, he won. He was the nominee, and now he’s president, and we need to do something about it.
You’re not going to do that.
I will not do that.
All right. Okay. Thank you so much, Senator Bennet.
Thank you for having me.
It’s really interesting. It’s going to be a fascinating campaign, I think. And, I think you’re right ...
I think so, too.
Everything is early game.
We should look at this moment optimistically because that’s how America has contended with these challenges in the past. Why not do it? Trump is a symptom of our problems, much more than he is the cause of our problems. He caused a lot of problems, but we’ve got to overcome them, and then we’ve got to figure out how to govern again. I think if we do, the next generation will have things to thank us for.
Yeah. I think one of the things that the press gets around a lot of politicians is they think he’s an aberration. I don’t think he’s one at all. I think he is America, too. He’s also America, and it’s hard to swallow that about ourselves. You know, the things he’s talking about go back in history.
That’s true. That’s true, but the fact that he’s there, I think, represents our worst traditions, not our best traditions.
And so where we need to be is on our best traditions, and that’s what our kids deserve, and that’s why I think that’s where we’ll end up.
All right. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.