2020 Candidate Michael Bennet On Running To Disentangle 'Dysfunction In Our Politics'

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Democratic presidential candidate and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

We're talking with presidential candidates in the runup to the 2020 election. Check out all of our conversations.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado says bipartisanship has been under siege in the U.S. for the last decade, and that his experience working across the aisle in Congress and as a big-city school superintendent makes him uniquely qualified to help a country that's politically at odds.

"The effect of Citizens United, the effect of the gerrymandering that's gone on that members of Congress have accomplished to protect their own seats, the effect of decisions like Shelby v. Holder which has restricted voting rights in this country — these are all forces that have been a one-way ratchet of dysfunction in our politics, and I think we have to overcome them," Bennet (@MichaelBennet) tells Here & Now.

Bennet, who declared his candidacy in early May and is one of now 24 Democrats competing for the party's presidential nomination, admits he has work to do to capture voters' attention. He's set to take part Thursday in the second night of prime-time Democratic debates, alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others.

In addition to untangling tightly wound partisan polarization in Washington, D.C., Bennet says climate change and "reversing Donald Trump's terrible tax bill" would be among his top priorities if he wins the White House.

Bennet was also part of a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight that put forth the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. That bill — which proposed a pathway to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally along with nearly $50 billion in border security funding — passed in the Senate, but failed to win sufficient support in the House.

The legislation could offer a roadmap as the U.S. continues to cope with an immigration "crisis," Bennet says.

"We have a refugee crisis at the border that needs to be addressed," he says. "We don't need to behave like a weak country. We need to address this crisis in a humane way. We need to work with the other countries in the hemisphere so that they also have refugee policies in place so that people have a place to go and can escape the violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala."

Interview Highlights

On how he plans to stand out on the debate stage

"I think my experience is different than anybody else on that stage. I've been in the Senate for 10 years, and for part of that time, had some important successes working with Republicans and Democrats together. More recently it's been very hard to get anything done because of [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and because of Donald Trump. Before I was in the Senate, I was a superintendent of the Denver Public Schools and before that I was in business. I don't think anybody in the field has that set of experiences and I think that could be of use to the American people."

"We can't just go back to some golden day of legislating around this place. We've got to look forward and figure out how to restore these democratic institutions for this century."

Michael Bennet, on partisanship in Washington, D.C.

On his drive to address party-line divisions as president

"Mitch McConnell and the [House] Freedom Caucus have tyrannized the American people. They have immobilized our national government, and we have to overcome them before I think it's possible for us to do the important work around climate and health care and education that we need to do.

"I think we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. But it would be one of the first things that I would tackle."

On whether he considers China a friend or foe of the U.S.

"I would say a competitor of the United States — a ruthless competitor of the United States. And it's one of the reasons why we have to get our act together. They are not inconvenienced by the same form of democratic government that we have, and while we waste six and seven and eight and 10 months arguing over funding for a wall that the president said Mexico was going to pay for, China is building 3,500 miles of fiber optic cable from Africa to Latin America to connect it to China, to continue to expand its surveillance state around the world, which I don't think is great for humanity. We can lead a coalition against China. Virtually every single country in the world has the same interests we have with respect to China when it comes to trade, and instead of putting tariffs on our allies, we could be mobilizing countries in Asia, countries in Europe, countries in Africa and Latin America, to push back on China's mercantilist trade policies and I think that would be a great role for America to play.

"I think that you enforce a set of trading practices, insist that they stop stealing our [intellectual property]. If they don't let us invest in industries there, they shouldn't be able to invest in industries in the West. We need to have them stand down from their state-sponsored version of capitalism. The only way we're gonna be able to achieve that is by having an effective and strong coalition across the world of countries that as I said have the same interests that we have."

On his previous efforts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation

"On immigration in our country, I think we had a solution in 2013. I was part of the Gang of Eight that wrote the comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate. It had a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people that are here that are undocumented, and it had $46 billion of border security [funding]. It died for one of the reasons that we got a fix. It had broad bipartisan support in the country and in the Senate, and then a minority of a minority — the Freedom Caucus in the House — hiding behind something called the Hastert Rule, a rule named for a politician that is in prison, stopped the will of the American people. It's a perfect example of why we can't just go back to some golden day of legislating around this place. We've got to look forward and figure out how to restore these democratic institutions for this century."

On whether there's anything in his Senate career he would have done differently

"I think the worst vote I ever cast was a vote to change the rules to lower the threshold for approval of judicial nominations and executive administration nominations. That was part of a sequence of events that has led to the destruction of the Senate's responsibility to advise and consent on Supreme Court nominations and on other judicial nominations. And largely because of what Mitch McConnell has done, not because of the vote that I cast, but largely because what he's done — but my vote certainly contributed to it and I, unlike anybody else in the Senate, have actually apologized for that vote — we now are putting people on the court who have no business being on our courts, because they're ideologues, because they're inexperienced. And that has been the result of ... a generation of politicians in Washington, who chose to destroy their constitutional responsibility, when what the American people actually want is less partisanship, not more partisanship."

On America's dwindling local newspapers, and the future of local journalism

"We need to figure out a new model. The old model clearly isn't sustainable. But I can tell you having been a school superintendent of one of the larger districts in America that having two daily papers was essential to our making progress in the school district. We could not have done it without having two papers competing with each other to tell, in that case, a story about our efforts to take a urban school district that had been flat on its back like so many across the country and make really tough decisions to move it forward. And if it weren't covered accurately, I think we couldn't have made the progress that we made — which is not the same thing as saying that reporters agreed with what I was doing or the editorial pages agreed with what I was doing. But there was a back and forth, and we have to have a much more elevated expectation of what our politicians in Washington are doing. We are not holding them accountable the way we hold our local officials accountable.

"All of us have an incredibly important job to do to try to preserve this exercise in self-government, this democratic republic. And it doesn't help when you have a president who attacks the leading journalists in this country as 'fake news.' It doesn't help when the United States can't stand up to Saudi Arabia when they murder a journalist in Turkey. And I think that's what's really at stake here: it's the rule of law, it's freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. These are things that are all under stress, and I am optimistic that in the end we will rebound, because we always do. But I don't think we can take it for granted."

Jill Ryan produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 24, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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