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2020: Michael Bennet on fixing Washington and defeating Mitch McConnell

Dan talks to Colorado Senator Michael Bennet about the threats facing our democracy, what he’ll do to fix Washington, our immigration system, and how he plans to get to universal health care. Plus, his take on fighting back against a partisan judiciary.

Learn more about Michael Bennet here.

Transcription below:

Interview: Dan Pfeiffer and Senator Michael Bennet

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:03:07] Senator Bennet, welcome to Pod Save America. 

Michael Bennet: [00:03:10] Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:03:11] I want to start as we often do these interviews with the question of why you’re running for president. Most people we’ve had at this table. They – it’s their children or the country or Trump’s election. You have offered in previous interviews a more unique reason for why you’re running, a certain senator from Kentucky. 

Michael Bennet: [00:03:30] Well, that’s right. I’m running because – and you saw it up close in the Obama Administration – these guys, McConnell and the Freedom Caucus have successfully immobilized our exercising self-government. We have to overcome that, and I think there are two things we’re going to have to figure out how to do at the same time. One is going directly at them to undo the structural challenges that are facing our democracy. Citizens United being one of those, but political gerrymandering being another, the attack on our on voting rights that Shelby versus Holder represents, and whatever it is we need to do inside the Congress to make it work better. And at the same time, I think we have to build a broad coalition of Americans to overcome that intransigence in D.C. The Freedom Caucus and Mitch McConnell are not going to fix Washington. They’re not going to fix themselves. They need to be overcome. And I think the Democratic party can lead the way in unifying the American people to do it; it’s not going to be easy to do, and I don’t think it’s going to be accomplished in just one election either.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:04:33] And as you looked at this field including a significant percentage of your fellow senators, and you said you said yourself I should be a person who you know, I can uniquely be the person to do this. What is it about you or your experience that made you think that you should take this on? 

Michael Bennet: [00:04:52] I would say in my experience, I’ve been in the Senate for 10 years. You know, and before that I was in business and after that I’d run a school district that was over a billion dollars of budget. It was a major school district in this country. So I come with a, first of all, a different set of experiences, but my work in the Senate has both allowed me to accomplish big bipartisan things. We didn’t finish the Gang of Eight immigration bill thanks to the Hastert Rule, but we’re well on our way to getting it done. We got 68 votes in the Senate. I was part of that. We rewrote and reformed and ended really No Child Left Behind. I was a big part of that. The approval process at the Food and Drug Administration that now has – this was signed by President Obama – it now has more than a 120 drugs that have been approved as a result and there are other things like that. But just as important is what I’ve been able to do. I’ve been able to learn why the place doesn’t work, how it’s broken, how it’s corrupted, why President Obama’s theory of the case which was when he was re-elected president that the fever would break and that somehow we would be able to get back to working together. I know, I think I understand why that didn’t happen. I think I understand what’s going to be required to get us beyond it. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:06:03] Why do you think it didn’t happen? 

Michael Bennet: [00:06:04] I think it didn’t happen because I think that McConnell and the Freedom Caucus had an ideological commitment to destroying our exercise in self-government that we didn’t understand. I don’t and I’m not sure President Obama fully understood. I didn’t fully understand it. It’s equivalent by the way to our lack of comprehension that Donald Trump could ever have been elected president. A lot of us didn’t believe that was possible either because we didn’t see the reactionary forces building in our political system and we didn’t see the ways in which the Freedom Caucus had dismantled our ability to govern ourselves on the one hand. But on the other hand, had successfully eluded blame for having caused all these problems to begin with. Now we have an opportunity to do something different. I believe – and this really is why I’m running for president – I think that if we spend the next 10-years in Washington the way we spent the last 10-years we’re going to be the first generation – I will be part of the first generation – of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to the people coming after us and I think that’s entirely unacceptable. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:07:08] McConnell is not a particularly popular politician nationally, but gets re-elected all the time. These Republicans keep getting elected. Do you believe they are reflecting the will of their voters or are they sort of pulling the wool over their eyes? 

Michael Bennet: [00:07:25] I think they are pulling the wool over their voters. And this is a place where I differ, you know from other people in the field and in the Democratic field, I represent a state that is a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third Independent. The vast majority of Republicans I know don’t subscribe to the views that the Freedom Caucus has. They’re more conventional and more traditional Republicans. These guys and the manifestation of all of it really is in Donald Trump. I mean, you’ve got a Republican Party that’s turned everything on its head. Let me give you a good example: climate change. I don’t think we can solve climate change two years at a time. Other people might disagree with me. I believe it’s a very urgent problem and we need to act urgently, but we also need an enduring solution. We can’t do it even one administration at a time. It’s going to have to last longer than that. And when you look at the issue of climate, the Republicans had a relatively honorable tradition, which is that Richard Nixon put the EPA in place and signed The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act. Ronald Reagan closed the hole in the ozone layer, both Bush’s said we had to deal with climate and led efforts at the UN to do that. McCain ran on climate change. What changed? Citizens United changed. And that completely changed the way the national Republican Party looks at this because they’re being corrupted into inaction by the Koch brothers. Republicans in Colorado are not being corrupted into inaction by the Koch brothers. They are seeing their farms and ranches threatened because of our inability to deal with climate change. So I think there is a big distinction. Obviously, there are people that are watching Fox News all day long who now have come to believe McConnell’s the greatest guy in the world – having hated him by the way for years and years as you know – but I don’t think that’s true of conventional Republicans in my state.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:09:18] If I sort of like dig deep into what you’re saying about climate change in particular, am I right to interpret you’re saying is that your Republican colleagues in the Senate go to work every day and lie about an existential threat to the planet because they want money from the Koch brothers? Or they’re afraid of angering the Koch Brothers?

Michael Bennet: [00:09:40] I think your last… I agree with everything that you said. I think the last point is the most important one because it’s not even about the Koch brothers money. It’s about, all those guys have to do is rattle the change in their pockets and threaten a primary and that’s enough for people to have said well, we’ll move on to some other topic.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:09:58] So you put forward very recently an aggressive electoral reform, democracy reform plan. What’s in that plan?

Michael Bennet: [00:10:07] So there are two parts – is a way of thinking about it broadly – which is taking the money out of politics, and the other part of it is getting people back into politics. There are reforms in Washington, ending political gerrymandering, dealing with Citizens United, banning members of Congress from becoming lobbyists after they leave Washington D.C. I’ve had that bill for 10-years. I noticed last week AOC and Ted Cruz were both saying – 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:10:31] Now, it’s cool. 

Michael Bennet: [00:10:32] Now, it’s cool! And everybody loves it and it’s all on Twitter and I don’t know if that is a reflection of my failure as a politician, but I believe in it because over half the people that leave the Congress and don’t retire become lobbyists in Washington. That sends a terrible signal in the incentives are misaligned. I think this wasn’t including that package, but I’m coming with it later. I also think members of Congress shouldn’t get their healthcare subsidized until we’ve got universal healthcare for the American people. It would be amazing how fast that actually happened if we were having to give it up. That’s one side. The other side is very much focused on how do we improve the opportunity for Americans to be able to vote? You know, so it’s things like same-day registration, automatic registration when people are 18. It’s trying to mop up after the Supreme Court’s anti-voting opinions like the one I mentioned earlier, and I think that’s another place where the national Republican Party and their allies – I guess around the country – have worked really hard over the last 15 or 20 years to deny people the right to vote. And we should be on the side of making it easier for people to vote. And I think that’s where the American people are, too. You know, – let me just – I do think the basic tenant here is that I don’t think Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are for our democracy. I don’t think they’re for a Republic. I think they’re for themselves and the interest groups that they’re serving and I don’t think that represents what Republicans in my state believe. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:12:05] I think that’s right in the sense that we – like, democracy as we know it is under a real threat here. 

Michael Bennet: [00:12:06] No question. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:12:07] And that there’s a whole series of things that have been happening slowly over time, but much more rapidly since Trump got here that put us on a path where we will have essentially minority rule in this country. One of those challenges – their challenges – is the Electoral College. Do you support abolishing the Electoral College? 

Michael Bennet: [00:12:29] I do. I do. I think we’ll be dead by the time we do that, so it’s not high on my list of stuff. Like I had – I would – rather be focused on an amendment to overturn Citizens United and maybe you could do a little of both but for all the reasons that you say, yeah.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:12:47] Do you have higher – granting that the constitution amendment process is very challenging – do you have reason to do – but you picked Citizens United above Electoral College. Do you think that there’s a greater chance we could get that done sooner, like before we die? 

Michael Bennet: [00:13:00] I think there is a greater chance we can get that done sooner because 96% or something of Americans say there’s too much money in our politics and something like 94% say that wealthy people have an outsized influence. So if we can’t make the politics of that work and we can’t use that to overcome McConnell and these guys, I’m not sure what we can do. I mean climate is in the 70s, I think compared to that, so that would be one. Not only do I think we could get it done sooner. It would have the really useful effect of giving people the opportunity – like my daughter who’s here today – who are in the next generation, the opportunity to organize around politics to get their voice in politics and to get money out of politics. That’s why I’ve sort of prioritized that.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:13:45] Another tool to repress the voices of the majority of this country is the filibuster, and as I understand, you’ve opposed getting rid of the filibuster, is that right? 

Michael Bennet: [00:13:54] I have. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:13:55] And why is that? 

Michael Bennet: [00:13:56] So I think first of all the history with the filibuster with the judges is instructive. It’s not dispositive, but it is instructive and that’s a history of Mitch McConnell winning and America losing and Democrats losing. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:14:09] What do you mean by that? 

Michael Bennet: [00:14:10] What I mean by that is that we entered into the preemptive retribution that led to our changing the rules first. So those guys wouldn’t allow President Obama to get any of his, not any, but a lot of his nominees through. He wouldn’t let in particular the DC circuit judges through, you’ll remember that. Chuck Hagel who was the Secretary of Defense nominee for President Obama and was a Republican Senator was filibustered by the Senate and the Secretary of Defense had never been filibustered in the history of America. So we changed rules. I didn’t believe that was the right thing to do at the time and I think the history has shown that it wasn’t because Donald Trump has been able to get more judges on the courts in the first two years than any president in American history. I believed it was wrong for us to filibuster Gorsuch. You know, I took a lot of beatings for that. But the reason why was that I thought we were playing right into Mitch McConnell’s hands because we gave McConnell the ability to blow the nuclear option on Gorsuch instead of holding it for the next one, when obviously he would have tried to do it again, but that was when it was 5-4, Roe v. Wade was at stake. It seemed to me that that’s when we would have wanted to organize the American people around that. And we didn’t do that. We didn’t. McConnell strategically waited and waited until the moment, you know, and we basically played into his hands over and over again, and now he’s getting exactly what he wanted. This is to say nothing of what he did to Merrick Garland, which you know is a totally different thing. So the result of this is we now have reduced what was for 200-years a bipartisan approach to advise and consent in the Senate, that every time we did it reinforced the independence of the judiciary. We’ve now infected the judiciary with the partisanship – that’s supposed to be hopefully temporary – of the legislative branch. So I think the history on this is bad, but beyond that I’ve got another argument, which is Mitch McConnell is the majority leader of the Senate. If we really are going to take the view that we should get rid of the filibuster while he’s the majority leader and again set the precedent for McConnell to change the rules, then we’re going to have to accept the Senate where he can privatize Social Security if he wants, where he can go after reproductive rights, go after voting rights, go after the environmental stuff, all of which they would have done between George Bush – when George Bush the son – was president, that would all be done. And I don’t think we should be sacrificing protections for the most vulnerable people in our country because we think we can’t for some reason make a compelling case to enough Americans to beat these Republicans. Our job should be to win the presidency and win a majority in the Senate, and hold a majority in the House and reset the table here politically. The American people are with us. Not with them. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:17:07] I agree with you to a point. 

Michael Bennet: [00:17:11] Good. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:17:12] I agree with the risk, right? There’s no doubt that if you get rid of the filibuster that there’s going to be a moment in time were Republicans have the House, the Senate and the presidency and they’re going to do terrible things. I see a couple of challenges here, which is there is basically zero path – with current demographic trends – to 60 Democratic Senators again in our lifetime. Just the way things are going, with the very odd time very briefly when Democrats had 60 involved having Senators in the Dakotas, Arkansas, Louisiana everywhere, Alaska, states that we are unlikely to have again soon. And so you’re a progressive and you’re sitting there saying we have to do something about climate change. What is the – say let’s say that we have a President Michael Bennet and Senator Schumer gets rid of the filibuster – you could pass climate change legislation then and we could actually do something, but if we wait, I mean do we have time to wait? 

Michael Bennet: [00:18:08] We don’t have time to wait on climate change. And it’s unlike any other issue that we’re confronting in that respect because you know as much as I wish that kids all over America were going to decent schools – when they’re not going to decent schools – I know that we can try to fix that now or 10 years from now or 20 years from now, we’ll still be fixing it and able to fix it. With climate it’s different. If we don’t act now, it might not be able to be fixed. It probably can’t be fixed. But I think climate makes the point, much less on the filibuster than more broadly on the pitch that I’m trying to make to Democrats and to the American people on what we have to do with our politics, which is: this is much more important than the filibuster in climate as I said, you can’t fix it for two-years. We have to fix it for a generation and we have to sustain it. It doesn’t mean the policy doesn’t change, but if politicians in Washington that are influenced by special interests and money can flip us back and forth on climate, based on 51 votes, you tell me how long it’s going to last – especially – if I take your point that it’s hard for Democrats to get a majority – trying to get a majority. It’s hard to sustain a majority. It’s hard to get 60. That’s true. By the way, I’m not quite as pessimistic as you are, I think that we will in our lifetime be able to get to 60.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:19:33] Do you know of a large group of millennials moving to Wyoming anytime soon?

Michael Bennet: [00:19:36] No, but I do remember Barack Obama standing in Brooklyn urging people to move to Wyoming.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:19:43] Yes. They didn’t follow him, unfortunately. Maybe he should have said Wisconsin.

Michael Bennet: [00:19:44] I think that would have been helpful too, but I think there are changes in the South. Look, we’ve got in the West, Colorado has the chance to have two Democrats, New Mexico, we’ve got two Arizona, we never thought we’d have two and we might have two, Nevada. I think there are southern states that are going to change. So look, I think the much more important point, my point of view is that we need a Democratic party message that’s compelling to enough people that not only can we accomplish what we’re trying to do, but we can sustain what we’re trying to do. And that’s a really tough challenge. I mean that is the fundamental challenge with where we are in this democracy. It’d be a lot easier if we were an autocracy, but we’re not.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:20:30] I’m going to go back to the question of the filibuster for judicial nominees for a sec. I can understand a strategic debate about whether you filibuster Gorsuch or the next person, who at that point may or may not have come down the line. I think that’s a strategic conversation. But you did say that it was a mistake to get rid of the filibuster for appointments, executive and judicial, and I’m just wondering two things about that. One is, what was the alternative in a world, because it wasn’t just Chuck Hagel. At the time Republicans were saying that they were not going to give Barack Obama a Defense Secretary, an EPA administrator and a Labor Secretary all at the same time and we had a bunch of empty seats on the circuit court, D.C. Circuit Court, the second most important court in the land that had been sitting open just waiting, McConnell had been holding them open forever. And so the choice was have no Cabinet, not fill any of those seats, and then theoretically if this would progress down the same path where Trump wins and we lose the Senate, that Trump is filling even more judicial seats.

Michael Bennet: [00:21:38] Well, I don’t think Trump could be feeling any more judicial seats. I mean, because they got rid of the two hour rule, all we do is judges. That’s all. And I think one of the great disappointments of the Obama Administration was that there were more vacancies at the end of the first term than there were at the beginning. There were more at the end of the second term than there were at the beginning, and that’s a huge problem. I think that the short-term gain of getting three people on the D.C. circuit is way overwhelmed by what has happened as a result of the Trump people. I wouldn’t expect you to agree with my position, by the way, most Democrats don’t agree with my position, or most Democrats in Washington don’t agree with my position, but I think that we set the precedent and we set the predicate for McConnell to be able to do his dirty work, which is what he did. You asked what the alternative was? I think the alternative was another Gang of 14 to say we’re going to head this off. We headed it off before, we headed it off even in the same term as when we confronted this, and I think there was a feeling at the time that it was just too late, we had to give in to this, and I wish we hadn’t done it. I don’t think we needed to.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:23:00] You believe that if had Democrats not done this and we get to a world in 2017 where Trump is President, McConnell’s majority leader, and Paul Ryan is Speaker, and Democrats are blocking all of Trump’s judicial nominees with the filibuster, and they’re blocking his Cabinet secretaries from filling whatever whatever other jobs, you think McConnell would not have triggered the nuclear option?

Michael Bennet: [00:23:27] I absolutely believe he would have done it. I absolutely believe he would have done it. There’s no question in my mind, but I believe we should expect more out of our elected officials than we have been delivered on this issue. And so I don’t accept the degradation of our institutions in this way, and I think it’s worth fighting for them to make sure they’re not degraded because the people who win when it’s degraded are the Freedom Caucus. I used to walk around, I would land at Denver International Airport when we were doing some idiotic thing in Washington, and I wished that I had paper bag to put over my head because I was so embarrassed. You know, I would wonder why would anybody would want to work in a place with a nine percent approval rating and there’s an answer to that. If you think you’ve been sent there to dismantle the federal government, having it be at nine percent suits you just fine. If you’re going there to expand opportunity for people, to change the tax law so it actually gives the American people a chance to get out of poverty if they’re in poverty, a chance to make a paycheck pay again, then it makes it much harder for you to do your job. I think that’s the challenge that we confront now, because the degradation of all of this makes it harder for us to do our work, not easier for us to do our work, and the fact that I absolutely believe Mitch McConnell given the opportunity would do the same thing leads me to conclude that we’ve got a job to do to change our politics and restore these institutions. Dan, there’s a reason there’s a guy in the White House who is a reality TV star. You wouldn’t send a person there unless you had such a degraded sense of what we were doing there that it seemed like a suitable thing to do, and I think we need to elevate our view of all them.

Dan Pfieffer: [00:25:07] Well let’s shift to a slightly happier topic, we’ll come back to some unhappy ones, but economic inequality has been a core part of the debate in this election. You have a plan, a piece of legislation that you’ve helped author, called the American Family Act, which has been described as one of the most aggressive anti-poverty initiatives in a long time. Can you tell us what’s in that plan?

Michael Bennet: [00:25:35] I can, yeah, it’s called the American Family Act. It’s a dramatic expansion of the child tax credit, takes it up to $3,600 a year for a kid under the age of six, $3,000 for a kid older than six, and one of the really important parts of it is, instead of having it be an annual payment, it pays out every month. So that’s about $300 a kid, for people that have a kid or two that makes it really material difference. You know, my state has one of the greatest economies on the planet, and if I had to summarize the last 10-years of my town halls, it would be the people come and say because our wages haven’t gone up and because expenses have gone up we can’t afford housing, healthcare, higher education and early childhood education no matter how hard we work. If I think about the people that don’t come to my town halls because they’re so poor that they’re working, working, working. I think about the kids that were in my old school district and their families, it’s that they’d no matter what they do they can’t get out of poverty, and I think the Bennett-Brown bill, which is the American Family Act combined with the Brown-Bennett bill, which is a big increase the Earned Income Tax Credit combined with Paid Family Leave combined with an increase in the minimum wage, could make an enormous difference in this country. Just my bill alone, the American Family Act, the professors that have looked at it say that it would reduce childhood poverty in America by almost 40%. It would end $2 a day poverty in America for America’s poorest children, and all for less than three percent of the cost of Medicare For All.

Dan Pfieffer: [00:27:07] This is probably a dumb and naive question, but is there any world in which there’s any interest from any Republicans who’d work on some version of that with you? 

Michael Bennet: [00:27:14] I believe there is, it’s not a dumb and naive question, there are a lot of Libertarian think-tank type folks who are for this kind of thing because they see it as a way of addressing poverty without adding a bunch of bureaucracy to it. Marco Rubio’s worked on some of this stuff, there are other people that have looked at it, and I think that it’s the kind of proposal that in a rational world we’d be able to work on.

Dan Pfieffer: [00:27:40] Now I’m going to go back to the unhappy topic of Mitch McConnell in the context of this.

Michael Bennet: [00:27:41] I want to go back to that too, because I’ve got one more thing I want to say. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:27:43] So in the first night of the Democratic debates, the one you weren’t in, one of the questions that the moderators asked the candidates on stage was essentially, let’s say you’re elected president, Republicans keep the Senate. What’s your plan to deal with Mitch McConnell? So here you have an aggressive plan, which has some at least conservative-thinker prospects of support, how does a President Michael Bennet deal with a Senate Majority Leader Mitch? 

Michael Bennet: [00:28:13] Well, first of all, he’s not going to do anything without being forced to do it. I mean, he’s not interested in these issues, and I write in my book, which is called The Land of Flickering Lights based on some work we all did together, that Mitch McConnell is impervious to give-and-take unless he’s taking everything, which he almost always is, which is true. And so you have to force him, and I’m assuming for the purpose of this that he’s still there because that’s what you said. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it than to propose solutions that are broadly popular among the American people, a public option for example, versus Medicare For All, that’s one example, but there are many others. Something that’s broadly popular and then go out to the country and fight for it and make sure that the country understands that McConnell is misleading them about what he’s saying, which he is. And at a certain point you either achieve victory that way, highly unlikely, or you change the outcomes of elections so that you can close over these guys. We live in a democracy. I mean, the tyranny of the minority will continue to persist in this country whether you have the filibuster or not if we don’t win elections based on a broad policy agenda that the American people can get behind, and I think that’s what we’re going to have to do. So when I say it’s not just one election, you know, it’s a lot. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:29:43] I think if you look at 2018, right, which is one of the all-time best years for Democrats in the House. In the Senate, we lost elections with some pretty good candidates, and all the states are talking about where you would need to change electoral outcomes to pass policies. Is there something we could do differently as something that would change politics, that would mean that a very moderate person like Joe Donnelly could be re-elected or elected in Indiana, you know, Claire McCaskill, etc.

Michael Bennet: [00:30:16] I think those guys, this isn’t the only reason they lost, but I think they paid a very heavy price because of the Kavanaugh hearings. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:30:24] How they voted? 

Michael Bennet: [00:30:25] Not how they voted, just getting caught up in national politics and looking like it’s the national Democratic Party and it’s not about an opportunity agenda. It’s not about trying to drive economic growth for people, you know, it’s about McConnell and these guys. The Freedom Caucus have so successfully delegitimized the federal government that that’s a huge problem that we got to catch up to, but I take your point, they were really good candidates in those places, but they couldn’t carry that burden.

Dan Pfieffer: [00:30:58] So you brought up Medicare, and you have your own Medicare plan called Medicare X, which is a public option plan. Why substantively and politically, did you go that route instead of either a Bernie Sanders-esque plan or even the Medicare for America plan that some of the other candidates support?

Michael Bennet: [00:31:20] I think it’s simpler than the Medicare for America plan and I think substantively it’s better than Bernie’s plan. I just think Bernie’s wrong on the policy here. I think it’s a lot better to give people an option, I mean my desire here is to get to universal healthcare as fast as we possibly can.That’s what we need to do. There are millions of people in America who are making too much money to be on Medicaid but not enough money to afford private insurance. They desperately need a solution and I think finishing the job on Obamacare with the public option that we should have passed back then is the best way of doing it, because it gives folks a choice and it also allows the public option to compete down the price of private insurance, which I think will help as well. That’s why I think it’s better. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:32:08] So then, in the universal healthcare, at the point at which the Michael Bennett Medicare X plan reaches universal coverage that will be a mix of private insurance and government insurance?

Michael Bennet: [00:32:18] Like many countries, I mean Australia is in many ways is the best example, they’ve got great health outcomes for the people there and they’ve got a mix of public and a mix of private. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:32:22] I listened to you and Ezra Klein debate this topic on Ezra’s podcast a few weeks ago and one of the arguments that you made on the political side about Bernie’s plan is that Republicans want to call Democrats “socialists” when we give them an opportunity to do so, it makes it harder to win elections. Is that right? 

Michael Bennet: [00:32:31] Well, let me make a better argument. I think that it would be very hard for a Democrat to lose Colorado next fall in the Senate race, unless they’re for Medicare For All. 

Dan Pfieffer: [00:32:49] Medicare For All from Bernie, the single-payer version. And why is that?

Michael Bennet: [00:32:51] Because it’s so deeply unpopular. I mean, the polls. Once you understand just the fact that it takes health insurance away from a 180 million people, its support falls into the low 30s. When you add the taxes on that, its support falls into the low 30s, and that’s the way people in Colorado see it. And I’m sure in Arizona and I’m sure in North Carolina. And Bernie, at least, is honest about what’s in his plan. You know, Bernie has been very clear that what his plan does is make private insurance illegal, except for what he calls “cosmetic insurance” which is I guess insurance for cosmetic surgery, plastic surgery. That is the plan and so people that have signed up for that plan that are in this primary have signed up to a plan that Bernie is being honest about. I’m not sure everybody’s being as honest as Bernie is being about it. And it really matters, because it’s the difference between running on a plan that the majority of Americans support and running on a plan that only 33 percent of Americans support.

Dan Pfieffer: [00:34:20] A bunch of your colleagues in the Senate, also on the debate stage, other than Bernie signed up for that co-sponsor that plan. I’m not gonna ask you to name names and attack people, but you were one of the only candidates who spoke up against Bernie Sanders’ plan directly on that debate stage. Do you think some of these candidates are trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes from it comes to Medicare For All.

Michael Bennet: [00:34:41] I’m sure they are and that’s up to them. They’re running their race. My thing is, we’ve just got to beat Donald Trump at the end of the day here. And so we have to have an agenda that is going to appeal to the American people and it’s not just about disqualifying us as socialist, it’s about disqualifying us as people that want to take away a 180 million people’s insurance. I mean, think about it! You remember what the pushback was when Barack Obama said if you like your insurance, you can keep it and a couple million people maybe lost their insurance because they had this plans that didn’t meet the bear minimum, right? You remember that? You remember the politics of that? Imagine a world where our offer is and if you like your insurance, we’re going to take it away from you. I might be for Bernie’s plan if we didn’t have an existing system, because there are a lot of merits to it, but we do have an existing system. And and I think this is an issue we can win on. Think about this: those guys spent years and years threatening to repeal the Affordable Care Act and we were on defense all those years. Barack Obama always said he said there’s going to come a time when you’re not going to be on defense anymore. And he was right. It was when we defeated the repeal attempt in the Senate. The next week Bernie introduced his Medicare For All and these folks signed up to it. And then we’re on defense on that bill instead of being on offense on universal health care, which is where we should be, I think, as a Party. Not just as a Party but for the good of the country.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:39:40] So there’s the question of taking healthcare away from people. But then also another moment in the debate that was quite notable, I think for people who’ve been involved in the politics healthcare for a long time, was the moderators asked would undocumented immigrants be included under your plan? And everyone, including you, raised your hand which I’m curious both substantively, why that’s right thing to do and whether you have political concerns about it along the lines of some of the concerns you have with some of these other men?

Michael Bennet: [00:40:13] I think that substantively the reason that people put their hands up is that people are here and they’re going to need healthcare and the way they get their healthcare today is through the emergency room, which we pay for, which is ridiculously expensive. And as somebody who used to be a school superintendent, I know firsthand that it does no good for kids that are American citizens who have had inoculations to sit in classrooms with kids who haven’t been inoculated. That’s a bad thing. And we should figure out how to deal with that. It is true that that represents change politically. I mean, when we negotiated the Gang of Eight immigration bill, the Republicans insisted that the undocumented people be banned from having healthcare because their argument was we’re never going to be able to convince our colleagues who hate or the Affordable Care Act already that should be available. So we’re going to figure out how that goes. And I do think the politics of this are very complicated, and I think it’s we would be dishonest to say otherwise.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:41:17] Because you know, as you remember, that’s the reason for the famous “You lie” moment and Barack Obama’s joint address on healthcare when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson yelled, “You lie.” It was right after Obama said that undocumented immigrants would not have healthcare.

Michael Bennet: [00:41:30] Right, but now it’s 10-years later. 10-years of paying for emergency room visits, 10-years of classrooms that aren’t safe, 10-years of these guys unwilling to do anything. I think obviously the best thing to do would be to pass comprehensive immigration reform and to deal with the refugee crisis that we had at the border.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:41:49] Let’s get to immigration. Do you have plans that you have put on immigration plan for this interview or do you stand by the original Gang of Eight?

Michael Bennet: [00:42:02] I think we stand by the original Gang of Eight. I think that we have two distinct issues that we need to contend with right now: one is the immigration issues which represent the Gang of Eight, the other is the refugee crisis at the border. I don’t think we should be making immigration law based on the refugee crisis at the border. Trump is acting like we’re this pathetic, weak, country. You know, I mean, he’s not acting like we’re strong, we’re powerful, we’re wealthy and by the way humane. And if we were behaving that way we’d be spending money that’s necessary to create a set of conditions for people at the border, sending lawyers down there, making sure people got the stuff adjudicated. We’d be leading a conversation in the hemisphere with everybody, Canada and Latin America to say, what is it we’re going to do to all carry a share of the refugees that are coming from the northern triangle countries. We certainly would need to take our share, but I think there are other countries that would want to take theirs and over the long haul we need to figure out what we can do so that we don’t have failed states 1,500 miles from our border that are perpetually sending refugees to the southern border. On immigration, I think it would change. There things that have changed since 2013. But in the main, the deal that was struck there which is a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people that are undocumented, the most progressive DREAM Act ever conceived, much less passed in the Senate, the agricultural jobs provision, and $46 billion of border security is probably the deal that could get struck again. I mean Trump’s wall and all this stuff, we had real 21st century security that we were going to put in place that basically would allow us to see every single inch of the border and understand who would come in and overstay their visa and who needed to go back. And we have none of that because of the tyranny of the Freedom Caucus in the House.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:44:04] Would you be willing to, in a world in which we were actually negotiating on immigration now, would you be willing to fund Trump’s wall or some portion of as well in exchange for some of the elements of the – 

Michael Bennet: [00:44:17] I don’t think funding his wall makes any sense. Look we had in the bill that I was just talking about 350 miles of fence which he couldn’t he now calls steel slats. You know, he doesn’t care whether it’s concrete now or steel slats and he goes down there and stands next to two or three steel slats that are left over from what the Obama folks were doing. We could have had 350 miles of steel slats today if we had done the Gang of Eight bill, we doubled the number of border security agents on the border. Lindsey Graham used to say that those guys would be able to hold hands at the border because they’d be standing so close to each other. So when Trump says the Democrats are for open borders, that’s a lie. It’s demonstrably false because every single Democrat who is in the Senate when the when that bill was on the floor voted for it, which is more than I can say for the Republicans. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:45:11] Well, I think yes, it is a lie as most things Trump says is. He has found a new context for that lie after the debate on Thursday night when they asked, once again the 10 candidates on stage yourself included, which of you would support changing or eliminating the part of the law that makes crossing the border illegally a misdemeanor crime. So the proposal is would you turn into a civil offense? Nearly every person on that stage including all the people at the top of the polls raise their hands. You did not. Why?

Michael Bennet: [00:45:48] I did not because I know that Barack Obama was able to enforce that law without separating children from their parents at the border and without giving the American people the sense that we believed in having open borders. And I think we can do that again. it’s Look, Trump has every, every reason to want to conflate the refugee crisis on the border with our immigration issues, and we shouldn’t fall into that trap in my view.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:46:14] Were you surprised to see so many people that raised their hands? 

Michael Bennet: [00:46:17] Yeah. I was actually, I was.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:46:22] Where do you rank it on your list of political concerns?

Michael Bennet: [00:46:24] High. Very high. Every day, they try to disqualify us. And as you were saying earlier, you know that the conversation I had with Ezra, he’s always going to do it and they’re always going to do that. That’s true. I accept that point. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that Franklin Roosevelt never called himself a socialist. He was called a socialist over and over again. But what he was for was American democracy what he was was a Democrat. What he wanted was the survival of this Republic. And what he expressed was the need for us to have what he called Four New Freedoms, or the Four Freedoms. That’s what he was doing. The conditions haven’t changed. The political terrain is the same. I think we just need to be as smart as he is and we need to be not less strategic than McConnell is. And Trump’s no genius in any of this, but he does have a preternatural sense of how to disqualify people based on, you know, a grain of truth or a shred of truth and we shouldn’t give it to him.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:47:30] Trump is going to want to make immigration the subject to this election. It always is, it’s how he thinks he won in 2016. It’s what he credits for keeping the Senate in 2018. The challenge is comprehensive immigration reform is a good issue for Democrats. There is a majority of support including a lot of even a good chunk of Trump’s voters who support a version of comprehensive immigration form that you support and most Democrats support.

The problem often is that we either end up on the defensive about it or we’re talking about immigration reform  and not talking about healthcare of the economy the things that matter to a lot of other voters. If you were the nominee, how do you navigate that terrain with Trump? 

Michael Bennet: [00:48:15] There’s not a defensive bone in my body on immigration. My landing place is the work I did in the 2013 Gang of Eight and I can defend that work in any county in this country. I think Republican or Democratic, people may disagree with it. They may not think it was a good idea, but I’m in no sense worried about being disqualified by it. And actually I think as you said, most people support it. If you if you look at the polling, the elements of the Gang of Eight bill poll much higher than anything else, including Trump’s wall.  

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:48:47] So that bill passed 68 votes including Trump’s golfing buddy, Lindsey Graham, presidential candidate Marco Rubio who has no memory of having worked on that bill, but just like the context of the political context I think for people who are younger or may not have been following politics closely then is the Republicans believe the only way they would ever win the White House again after Barack Obama won in 2012 was to deal with the immigration issue. 

Michael Bennet: [00:49:21] Absolutely.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:49:22] And then you flash fast forward to four years later and Donald Trump as President of the United States having run with the most right-wing inflammatory immigration agenda in history. Did the politics change? Did we misread the politics? 

Michael Bennet: [00:49:37] We misread the politics.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:49:40] In what way? 

Michael Bennet: [00:49:41] And here’s what we did. So Reince Priebus who was the Republican chair, you’ll remember, who did the autopsy and in which he said maybe if we didn’t you weren’t so negative about gay people, maybe if we didn’t hate Latino people we would do better in the polls and we wouldn’t lose to the likes of Barack Obama, remember that? And then, what happened was Ted Cruz shut the government down in 2013. Ted Cruz shut the government down, and his numbers went up. And the Republican party’s numbers went down, and the Freedom Caucus went to Boehner and they said it turns out we don’t need a Big Tent Party. It turns out we don’t need to do rational things. We don’t need to legislate. All we have to do is break the government and we’re going to win and that is their operating theory, and that has been the theory since then. I also think and I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, I certainly don’t. I don’t believe that there was this massive latent anti-immigrant sentiment in America when Donald Trump rode his escalator down from Trump Tower and called Mexicans rapists. I think it’s been created by Trump, Fox News, and vie to their everlasting shame, the Republican National Committee who have been running ads about MS-13 all over America. Jon Tester, who barely won in Montana, tells a story this time about being in a tractor on his farm in Big Sandy Montana and he’s listening to the radio, and the Trumps rolled into town to support his opponent and attack John. And John  is just sitting there completely mystified because he’s talking about MS-13, mystified by that because there hasn’t been an MS-13 person within 1000 miles of Big Sandy, Montana. Now, this is a fact of our political system that we did not have to deal with when we wrote the Gang of Eight bill and we are going to have to deal with going forward, and I don’t think there’s any way to deal with it other than by going straight at these guys.

We got to go straight at the Fox guys. We got to go straight at these Republicans and stand for what the American people want, which is a rational immigration system that supports the rule of law and reflects our history as a nation of immigrants. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:52:06] Do you think the party has moved too far left to win states in the middle the country?

Michael Bennet: [00:52:12] I don’t think the party has and when I say the party, I mean our Democratic base. When I’m in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, they’re the same as the folks in Colorado. You know, they want universal healthcare. They don’t want to take it away from a hundred eighty million people to get there. They want us to act urgently on climate change, you know in a way that really is that will is durable. they want economic opportunity for everybody. That’s what they want. I think there is a social media component here to the Democratic party. Some people have called the Twitter-base of the democratic party that has moved way to the left and you couldn’t elect the Twitter-base in Colorado. You couldn’t elect them in Arizona. And what my argument is, I’m fine with all that, I mean people can do what they want to do, but to go back to the sort of central thesis of this whole discussion, it really would be better if we had a Democratic majority in the Senate. And to get a democratic majority in the Senate, we need to run on an agenda that is appealing to people in the states that you were talking about. They can allow us to win elections at a moment where you’ve got somebody as corrupt as demonstrably incapable of being president of the United States, who doesn’t believe in the rule of law, doesn’t believe in freedom of the press doesn’t believe in the most profound traditions of this country. That’s a guy we should be — who’s a climate denier on top of all of it. That’s somebody who we should be able to beat. And I think we can beat them if we’ve got an agenda that is, that’s unifying for the American people. And to me, to go back to your earlier point, that actually is not about who’s progressive and who’s a moderate. It’s about who’s got an agenda that’s going to appeal.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:53:58] Running for president is, as you’re discovering I’m sure every day, a somewhat absurd process where the quote-unquote “Twitter-base” has a lot of influence, where it’s really about finding ways to get known and noticed in a very strange media environment, where being viral is helpful and all of that, and rewards a lot of things that are different from the things that make one a successful legislator or a successful Governor, or whatever else. Now your time in the Senate, you’ve been there 10-years now. You got there. You have never been someone who in my perspective has tried to make a huge name for yourself. Really I was surprised to even find out you were thinking of running for president because you can kind of smell the people —

Michael Bennet: [00:54:50] Seemed so hopeless? 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:54:51] Well, no, it’s not hopeless! It’s that I often notice that there are two kinds of senators. Those who arrive thinking of the Senate as a way station to a White House run and it’s pretty clear who those people are. You see them on cable news all the time. They’re on the Sunday shows circuit. They do aggressive things. And they’re people who are like, I’m going to be a senator. I’m gonna do the work of being a senator for as long as the people of my state will have me. I always put you in the latter category. And I think the things that made you a very successful senator, I’m just curious how those things have translated to the presidential race for you.

Michael Bennet: [00:55:20] Well, it’s a great question. So first of all, I didn’t spend my whole life thinking I was going to run for president. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:55:26] Or even Senate, right? 

Michael Bennet: [00:55:27] No, or even Senate. I mean, yeah, it hurt my feelings, but the Republican chair, when I was appointed to begin with, the Republican chairman in Colorado called me an “accidental Senator,” but it was true. It was true. I’d been in business and I’d been a school superintendent – by the way, a job that I really loved. And what I thought my job when I got to the Senate was to represent a state that was a third, a third, a third – Republican, Democrat and Independent. And I thought my job was to support what you guys were trying to do, and my job was to show, was to do my part to show the American people that our system wasn’t broken. That it could still work. And I think I held that end of the bargain the whole time that I’ve been in the Senate. It is broken and it doesn’t work, and we can’t spend another 10-years like we did the last 10-years and expect to do our job as Americans. I believe that and that’s why I’m running for President. And if I lose, I’ll go back and run for the Senate again. And I hope that I’ll get reelected and go on to be constructive, play a constructive role for the country. But this is a moment in our country’s history when we need all of us to step up here. The carelessness with which we treated our democracy allowed us to elect Donald Trump President of the United States is something we can never repeat again. And the fact that he got elected once means he can get elected again if we’re not careful. And we need to be, the worst thing we could possibly do is let this guy get elected again. But on the back end of beating him, we also have to figure out a way to govern the country again. I know the people here are going to shoot me that came with me on the judges, but I have to say one more thing about it, which is it’s not okay with me that I grew up in a country where the advice and consent was done by senators in a bipartisan way, establishing the judiciary and now my kid has to endure a judiciary that’s just partisan like the rest of our government because a bunch of politicians in Washington couldn’t figure out how to do something else. It’s not our democracy. It’s their democracy. We’ve got to find a way to preserve it. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:57:43] I’m glad you brought the judges back up. What changed the nature of the process, what changed this from a, you know, putatively independent judiciary to a very partisan judiciary?

Michael Bennet: [00:58:05] Everybody can pick their beginning of this one. I mean you can say that it was, you know, some people say was Robert Bork. Some people say it was when Democrats started filibustering circuit court judges. Some people say it was when Republicans were appointing people that were so odious that they had to be filibustered by Democrats. My point is, so anybody can point the blame in whatever direction they want. My point is that in the end, the people that got sacrificed are the American people who deserve an independent judiciary, who are the same people who are being sacrificed every single day because this country uniquely can’t seem to address our healthcare challenges, can’t seem to address our economic challenges, can’t seem to address climate change. And that’s why I think we need to do better and I don’t accept the idea that we’re on this one-way ratchet down, that we have to accept the Freedom Caucus’ destruction of our governing – now I’m talking much beyond the judges – of our governing institutions, or our governing agenda because to go back to your point on the discussion of climate, I don’t see how a democracy deals with climate under those circumstances. If we have to accept a world where every two-years or four-years the work that’s done on climate is torn out by the other party, we will never be able to address climate in a meaningful way.

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:59:37] But isn’t the fear that the alternative is we never start the work?

Michael Bennet: [00:59:40] That’s the alternative we’re living right now and we’re living that alternative because we frickin elected a climate-denier President the United States, and that should never have happened — 

Dan Pfeiffer: [00:59:55] But that’s the problem with that. Any person, 16 Republicans ran for President 2016. Yes, we got probably the worst one. But if any 16 had won, they would have run the exact same play. They were all climate deniers. They would have done the exact same thing that Trump is doing, like the people embedded in the administration who are denying climate science, like you gave Bush some credit but Bush refused to put his – George W Bush – put us back in the Kyoto Treaty. Climate science was a huge problem in his administration, too. Climate change is a problem that whether we get rid of Trump or not is going to continue to be a problem. So for a lot of Democrats, the view is like yes, it would be terrible if we pass a climate bill and then they undid it two years later. But we also know from the Affordable Care Act that it’s harder to undo something than it is [to] keep us at the status quo of nothing. 

Michael Bennet: [01:00:39] Yeah. I think climate is so much more urgent and so much more grave than that. Accepting that half a loaf is the same thing as not getting anything done. That’s my view. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:00:50] I just can’t see what the path is. 

Michael Bennet: [01:00:52] How can, how can… look, we the majority of people in this country believe that climate change is real and we should be doing something about it, and that it’s an urgent problem. They may have some disagreements about how to deal with. I think we lost the climate argument because we lost the jobs argument. That’s what I believe. I think we lost the economic argument to Donald Trump, preposterously, ridiculously. We didn’t make an affirmative argument on the economy in 2016, and we didn’t make an argument on the economy in the context of climate change. If you’re down in Miami, Florida as we were last week for the debates down there. It’s impossible to argue that not contending with climate is better for the economy, that contending with climate is not better for the economy than not contending with climate. It’s impossible to make that argument in Colorado. It’s impossible to make that argument in California. We did not make that argument in 2016. Donald Trump won a cartoon argument on the economy, and if we are going to continue to lose to that argument then I accept that we’re doomed, but I think we can do better than that. I really do. I mean, I think we have to. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:02:06] Let’s go back to the judges one more time, and I’ll let you go – because you brought it back up. I’ve really struggled to see what the path like, is there a reform that you would propose to the process? 

Michael Bennet: [01:02:22] I think the judges were done. I think the next generation is going to inherit our stupidity and our inability to lead and do what needed to be done. You know the answer to well what would we have done with all these vacancies, the flip side of that is Betsy DeVos wouldn’t be Secretary of Education and Pruitt wouldn’t have been Secretary of whatever it is he was secretary of before they ran him out of town. And we wouldn’t be accepting this degraded view of what it all should look like. I don’t think it can be fixed. I mean if you were in a perfect world what you would say is, look we were insane for a moment. We had this moment of madness. We were overcome by the Koch brothers. We were overcome by cable TV hosts, and we were overcome by social media and we abandoned our best traditions. And as a result, so here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to let everybody loot the same number of district court judges and circuit court judges and Supreme Court Justices. And when we got parody on each of those, we’ll go back to the old rules where we actually had a reason to be bipartisan. Today these judges that are going on this on these courts. I mean my God, they are people who have written, you know racist briefs. And in the old days Republican senators, not the old days – 10-years ago, five years ago – Republican senators would have said I’m not voting for that person. You’re not going to be able to get the Democrats on. Today, it’s become this badge of honor. Do you support Donald Trump or not? You have no excuse for not voting for these people. And that means it’s a whole different quality of person that’s populating these seats. And I don’t, I don’t, I’m sorry, we got stuck on the judges because my instructions are never to talk about the judges, but it goes for the institutions generally. You know, if your view is that it doesn’t matter whether we prepare. I’m not saying your view Dan Pfeiffer, I’m just saying if one’s view is that it doesn’t matter whether we perpetuate these instruments of self-government, which is I think the Freedom Caucus’ view and Trump’s view then it’s none of this matters. You know, the quicker you get to an autocracy, the better off you are. From our point of view, inheriting a legacy about making this country more democratic, more fair, and more free, and wanting to do that again for the next generation. I think that’s too much sacrifice that we’re asking for the country. And it’s not expecting enough leadership from our elected officials, and frankly from all of us. We, there’s a lot we can do here to win, and I guess that’s my argument, is let’s go out and win. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:05:01] I will let you go right after this. 

Michael Bennet: [01:05:03] That’s all right, I have nowhere to go. I got at some point an airplane to catch. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:05:05] I have to get home because I have a one-year-old daughter who will be in her thirties when Brett Kavanaugh is Ruth Bader Ginsburg age, which is why I find this so concerning. Do you, you know within the context of the Republicans in the Senate, right, are there a group of people who you think would be willing to work? You know, like let’s say Mitch McConnell loses in 2020, or a Democratic president, or yourself wins. Are there some Republicans who were sort of chafing under this, within the Senate, who might be part of some sort of either bipartisan Senate reform or something that would – like is there a path other than just beating all of these people and winning red states? 

Michael Bennet: [01:05:50] I think there are, I think there are some still. But there are many fewer than when I got there in 2010 because that was the beginning of the Tea Party assault that basically started with Mike Lee beating Bob Bennett on a Saturday morning in Utah, you know, that then led to Rand Paul, that then led to everything else. That cascading thing that ended up with Bob Corker going away and what’s her name coming back in. You know, the trade has always been more toward the Tea Party side, than on the last 10-years. Still there are some people though that I think would be willing to try to work, particularly if they felt that they were imperiled politically if they didn’t. And I am not going to this deal believing that we can trust that will happen any more than the Iran deal because I thought we could trust what Iran was going to do. We don’t know, we don’t have any idea. The thing we can do is control what we can control. And what we can control is what our agenda looks like, what our message looks like. We can make an effort to really talk to America broadly and I think we would find that if we did that we’re running against a candidate who’s actually really, really weak because he’s so far outside of the ideological mainstream of America that I think he can be beaten. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:07:19] We will end it on that hopeful note.

Michael Bennet: [01:07:20] Let’s do that. 

Dan Pfeiffer: [01:07:21] Senator Michael Bennet, thanks for joining us here on Pod Save America. 

Michael Bennet: [01:07:22] Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

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