Sen. Michael Bennet

Iowa Press | Episode
Sep 27, 2019 | 27 min

Pursuing the democratic presidential nomination in fall 2019 is a difficult task for candidates left off the national debate stage. So for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet Iowa seems to be where he must focus much of his energy. We sit down with Senator Bennet on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 27 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.  

For presidential candidates left off the national television debate stage the next destination often seems to be Iowa. That's where you'll find Colorado Senator Michael Bennet with fresh TV ads on Iowa stations and a busier presence on the campaign trail. Mr. Bennet is a former superintendent of the Denver public schools and has served Colorado in the U.S. Senate since 2009. Senator Bennet joins us now at the Iowa Press table. Senator, welcome.

Bennet: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Yepsen: Good to have you with us. I want our viewers to know we're taping this program on Friday, September 20th to accommodate your schedule and ours, just so they know.

Bennet: Good, thank you.

Yepsen: Journalists joining us across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator, to use a gambling phrase, you're putting all your chips into Iowa it seems. Why?

Bennet: Well, it's the first state and I actually was coming here over and over again before I got kicked off the debate stage so that's not necessarily a response to getting kicked off the debate stage. I think that Iowa and Colorado have a lot of things in common and I feel like I am where Iowa democrats are on the issues so it's a natural fit for me. And I had a decision to make, which with limited resources where was I going to spend my money, and I decided I didn't want to spend it money laundering through Facebook to buy $1 contributions for the cost of $70. I thought it would be better to make the expenditures here in Iowa so I could talk to Iowa voters who I think are only beginning to make the judgment about whom they want to support for President.

Henderson: You entered the race at the beginning of May waiting for some results of a health related test. Do you think that late start harmed you?

Bennet: I do. But I think I probably would be on the debate stage, for example, had I been able to start two months earlier. But I had prostate cancer and I had to deal with that. So I'm not, nobody needs to cry for me, I'm healthy, I had a great diagnosis and I had a great health outcome and now I just have to work harder and that's okay, I'm used to doing that.

Murphy: So, Senator Bennet, speaking of that debate stage --

Bennet: By the way, if you have a prostate go get it checked. If you don't have it get something else checked.

Murphy: Excellent PSA. Speaking of that debate stage, there are a lot of candidates in this race trying to make a name for themselves and I know in talking to some democrats there's concern that maybe the party is moving too far to the left on some policies in order to make themselves stand out in the field. Do you share that concern? Is your party lurching too far to the left?

Bennet: I don't actually think the party is moving to the left, if the party are Iowa democrats, I think Iowa democrats are right where Colorado democrats are, they're right there New Hampshire democrats are and South Carolina democrats. But I do think there are candidates in this race that are lurching way over and I'm not even sure I can describe it as progressive. It's just sort of impractical proposals that may sound good on the Internet or on social media but when they come up to living and breathing human beings just don't make sense as proposals and I am worried about the damage that's doing, just like I'm worried about the damage it's doing when we decide that the requirement for the debate stage should be how many donations you can list by buying those donations. I'm the only candidate in this race that has won two tough national races in a swing state in this country and I think that's an important credential for the conversation we're having because in order to beat Donald Trump we're going to have to win some purple states like mine and like yours and like others around this country. And if we're not aiming for that in the primary, in Colorado it's a third democratic, a third republican and a third independent, and I learned very early on that you don't say one thing in a primary and something else in a general election.

Murphy: And I wanted to ask you about that. What is your level of concern of when this shifts to a general election race what some of the debate that's happening now, whether that could have an impact when your party's candidate is trying to defeat President Trump?

Bennet: I'm deeply worried about that, especially with Medicare for all, which I understand Bernie's ideological commitment to Medicare for all because it's utterly consistent with his ideology. He doesn't call himself a democrat. His ideology is different than what democrats are for. What's more troubling to me are the other candidates in the race who have gotten onto Bernie's plan and then don't seem to describe it as faithfully as Bernie himself described it. Bernie tells the truth about his plan, he wrote the damn plan. And I just don't believe that going into a general election saying we're going to make private insurance illegal in this country except for cosmetic insurance and we're going to raise taxes $31 to $33 trillion on the middle class to pay for it makes a lot of sense, particularly when there are great alternatives like my proposal, which is called Medicare X, I wrote that damn bill and it's the public option and it finishes the job on the Affordable Care Act. I believe we could have universal health care in this country in three years just by auto-enrolling people in Medicaid, auto-enrolling kids in CHIP, the insurance for poor kids, and having a public option.

Henderson: In what ways are Elizabeth Warren and other candidates that you did not mention lying to Iowans about Medicare for all?

Bennet: I think on that one there are some who are saying that it doesn't make private insurance illegal and it clearly does, even Kamala Harris' proposal which allows some version of Medicare Advantage to linger around, there are 22 million Americans on Medicare Advantage, I think there are 120,000 Iowans, still makes the private insurance market illegal other than that. And I'd say on Senator Warren she has just not been clear about how she's going to pay for it. Bernie has been clear about how he'll pay for half of it. But she hasn't been clear, she said that it doesn't require taxes to go up in the middle class, and Bernie is raising taxes on people that are earning $20,000 or so.

Yepsen: Senator, is one of the democrats you're thinking of moving too far to the left Congressman Beto O'Rourke, particularly on gun issues? How does it play in Colorado in a general election when you have a candidate saying we're going to take your guns?

Bennet: A mandatory gun buy back would play very badly in Colorado. Background checks for guns would play very well in Colorado. Limiting the size of magazines would play well in Colorado. And so what I'm worried about here is not left versus right, what I'm worried about is a lack of discipline going into a serious moment in the country's history when we are trying to achieve background checks or pin Mitch McConnell down for his failure to allow there to be a vote on the Senate floor. We should have passed background checks back when Newtown happened and we didn't, we had a confusing message, McConnell hid behind that confusing message and now here we are however many years later not having done it. So I do think that it does send a message that is different from what democrats really stand for and it's important for us to get something done, it's not as important for us, at least it's not as important for me to be on the front page of the newspaper.

Yepsen: Tell us what the prospects are in the Senate for gun legislation.

Bennett: I think it's going to be very tough to get McConnell to do it. I don't think it's impossible and I think between now and November every week we should be raising this issue. We have this amazing current going on in our country with the Moms Demand Action and the Parkland kids and they're making a big difference, they're doing what they're supposed to do. It seems to me our best response to that is let's stick with the background checks that the House has already passed, let's achieve that where if we don't achieve that let's catch Mitch McConnell not putting that on the floor and let's bury them in the next election. 90% of the American people support these background checks.

Murphy: Do you think Congressman O'Rourke's comments has made that deal tougher as some republicans are claiming?

Bennet: They'll look for any excuse not to do it. So I'm not going to blame him for it. I do think that it's challenging in Iowa though for democrats to be running on a position that is for mandatory buy backs.

Murphy: So another issue that you have some disagreement with some of your fellow candidates on along these lines is how to tackle the student debt issue. Tell us why you're not willing to go as far as others are proposing where some have proposed not only canceling entire student debt.

Bennet: We do, I want to say we do have a student debt crisis in this country that is not caused by the people that are borrowing the money but the proposal that Bernie has made is a regressive proposal and as a former urban school superintendent most of whose kids lived in poverty I can tell you that my priorities would be free preschool, not free college. My priorities would be how to get the 70% of school kids that don't go to college in a position to earn a living wage when they graduate from high school instead of just the minimum wage. That would transform the lives of millions of Americans and it would transform the American economy. If you took a focus group in Iowa or in America and asked them where democrats, what is their agenda on education, what you would hear is our agenda is free college. I don't actually think that is where the American people are in the list of priorities. And I would work very hard to make sure we defrayed the burdens that people have so they could pay it off more easily over time. But I think the idea of just canceling it all is a bad mistake for a whole variety of reasons. It's regressive, there are people who just finished paying off their student loans who are saying why is this happening to somebody else, and there are other folks that say why don't you just pay for my mortgage. So I think unfortunately for preschool kids in this country, preschool kids don't have the chance to vote. IF they did we'd have a different agenda.

Henderson: As David mentioned you were the superintendent of public schools in Denver for I believe four and a half years. From that experience what sort of transformation could the federal government make that would actually make a difference in student performance and outcomes?

Bennet: I think the number one thing we could do from the federal level is target this issue that I was just talking about of kids graduating from high school able to earn a living wage and not a minimum wage. And what I have proposed is that we have regional coordination all over the country from the ground up that would apply to the federal government, the federal government would pay the fixed cost of creating alignment among the community colleges in this country with the high schools going all the way back to middle school so that kids know in sixth grade what they're going to have to be able to know how to do by the time they're graduating to earn that living wage and so they're getting the education they need to be able to do that. I'd like to see them get a year's  community college credit or other college credit while they're getting out of high school as well. I think that's a very appropriate role for the federal government to play because nobody at the local level has the incremental fixed cost to do what I just described but most of the money that is spent on education is operating money that is at the state and local level and that is where those decisions ought to be made.

Yepsen: You having run a big, a huge school system, what advice do you have to Iowans who are trying to improve their schools? What can local citizens be doing? Where should they put their emphasis in building a better school system locally?

Bennet: Based on what I've heard from Iowans as I've traveled the state we need to invest better in the Iowa school systems than we are doing. Des Moines has actually a higher poverty rate than Denver public schools does, a higher free and reduced lunch rate, yet they have much less assistance because the way the state legislature has legislated the funding for Des Moines. I think that's really unfair when it comes to poor kids living in this country. And you've got rural districts where people are barely able to hold it together because they can't attract teachers to teach in the schools. We have the same problem you do, we are not, Denver has come a really long way but in Colorado most of our rural districts are now on four day school weeks because we can't hire people for five days, we can't pay them for five days, and like you we're not making the investment that is needed. And the number one investment that we've got to make is paying teachers. We've inherited, it's nobody's fault, but we have inherited a system of paying teachers that was designed when we had a labor market that discriminated against women and said there are two jobs you can have, one is being a teacher and one is being a nurse. And in those days we paid people a ridiculously low salary that no one else in their college class would accept. And then we said 30 years from now you can have a pension that you can retire on and that sounded pretty good because your spouse was probably going to die before you. That's still America’s offer to teachers and it's the reason why we're losing 50% of the people in the profession the first five years. I think having a President who actually understood these issues and could lead a conversation of the 50 Governors and our school superintendents and our mayors to say look, we do need to begin to invest again in our education system in the 21st century, we need to create a 21st century system of education and we cannot accept the world, especially when we've had 40 years of no economic mobility for 90% of the American people, we can't accept a world where education is reinforcing our economic immobility rather than liberating people from it which is the situation we face in Iowa, in Colorado and all across the country.

Henderson: So what's the answer for teacher pay increases? The federal government stepping in and supplementing? Or do you require states and school boards to raise the pay of teachers? How do you do it?

Bennet: No, I don't think you can require that from the federal level. I think that, I hope that we get into a virtuous cycle again like we had in the '90s where states were actually trying to outcompete each other to be the education state. That's not the politics of today or it hasn't been for the last 20 years or so. You see it in the stripping of collective bargaining rights of people in the Midwest. We have had a full on assault to disable both the federal government and our state governments and that now is working its way into our classrooms and our kids are bearing the burden of that, our kids are bearing the burden of that because there are no resources in schools, because the teachers aren't paid and because of the higher education situation that you mentioned earlier. That also is the result of a withdrawal of public support from higher education. This is going to take all of us but I think it would help to have a President who understood the issues and understood how to make very targeted federal investments that could help local communities innovate.

Murphy: Senator Bennet, what is your proposal for rural areas that are struggling to maintain population? You mentioned the struggles of rural schools. They have small businesses in those areas. Broadband Internet is a thing a lot of candidates talk about, how do you get that expanded? What other solutions are there?

Bennet: I think there's a basic decision we have to make which is do we want to have a rural America or not have a rural America? Rural Colorado, rural Iowa, or not? And I've been on the ag committee for the last 10 years and I believe strongly that we need to support rural America and that means some very basic things like making sure that we actually have hospitals and access to health care in rural areas and that we're investing in that, understanding that they're never going to be as efficient as hospitals in more urban places because there are fewer people in rural areas. The same thing is true of schools. We have got, if you do not have a school in a rural area, just like not having a public hospital, a rural area can dry up and blow away just like the Main Streets are in so many of our states. I think beyond that we have to make a commitment in our country to invest our infrastructure. When you think about how we, including broadband but not just broadband, water infrastructure for example, I've worked with Tom Vilsack over the years on water infrastructure as a way of dealing with this. If you look at where we've spent our money since 2001, $5 trillion, we have borrowed $5 trillion from the Chinese to give the wealthiest people in America tax cuts, to make our income inequality even worse We have borrowed another $5.6 trillion to pay for the wars in the Middle East that have gone on for 20 years. That's $11, $12, or $13 trillion, some of which we could have invested in rural America to make sure they had the same broadband speeds as everybody else on the planet. We could invest in rural America so that every bridge and every road and every water system and we just haven't done it.

Murphy: Why not? Why can't we get an infrastructure bill?

Bennet: We can't do it because it's part of this assault on government. Look, I've been in the Senate for 10 years, which is unfortunately, I've been there for 10 years, it's long enough to get some things done but to know why we can't get anything done and the reason we can't get anything done is we have been immobilized. The American people's exercise in self-government has been immobilized by the freedom caucus, by the likes of Steve King, who went there repeating Sarah Palin's cartoon version of what the Founding Fathers were actually trying to do when they founded what is the longest lived democracy and republic in human history and they are destroying it and we have to overcome them. Trump is a symptom of all of that, he's not the essential cause.

Henderson: You as a U.S. Senator were part of a group called the Gang of Eight which came up with an immigration reform plan. It passed the Senate, it was never considered in the U.S. House. As President would you try to prosecute that or do you have a different idea for where this country is now?

Bennet: I would prosecute that because I think where the country is now is right where we were when we passed that in the Senate. 68 votes to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people that are here that are undocumented, the most progressive Dream Act that had ever been conceived and $46 billion of border security, not $6, not $5 for his rinky dink wall, but real 21st century border security that would allow us to see every single inch of the border and do the internal security that is required. The reason it didn't pass is not because it was out of sync with the American people, the reason it didn't pass was that Steve King and the freedom caucus stopped it in the House of Representatives by insisting that the Speaker used that thing called the Hastert Rule which requires a majority of a majority and another way of saying that is it's a tyranny of a minority. That is what we have to overcome in this country, the tyranny of the minority of the freedom caucus.

Yepsen: What does a bill, a new bill look like to you?

Bennet: I think it looks a lot like the 2013 bill.

Murphy: Senator, some ag issues that are having an impact here in Iowa related to trade, tariffs. There's agreement in the Democratic Party that the trade policy via the Trump administration is the wrong way to go. But what is the right way and especially when you have farmers who have said that China has been a bad actor, someone does need to handle this? If this isn't the solution what is?

Bennet: I really believe that Trump was right to call the question on China, I believe that. I just think he did it in exactly the wrong way and there is an amazing opportunity for the United States with a new President to step up and lead, the entire world to push back against China's mercantilist trading policies. We share basically the same equities with everybody except North Korea and Russia and I think that gives America an amazing opportunity to say listen China, we know you're going to grow, and by the way we're glad that you're growing because you are going to be a huge market for our agricultural growth, and we want that growth because we're not getting that growth inside the United States. And by the way, the Pacific Rim as well is going to be an important part of that growth. And so I just wouldn't have put tariffs on the way Trump did. I think what we should have done is push back on the IP theft, make sure that China understood that they can't continue to have these state-sponsored corporations. There's all this unfair stuff that they do that we need to fix.

Henderson: Are you a yes on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement?

Bennet: I have not made a conclusion on that yet.

Henderson: Why not?

Bennet: I just haven't had the chance to study it I think because I'm hanging out in Iowa instead.

Yepsen: Just a few minutes left.

Henderson: You were among the first to release a climate action plan. Why?

Bennet: I think it is a hugely important existential threat that we face. The next generation of Americans has a lot of reason to be mad at my generation from the national debt that we have put on to the student debt that they have to take out. But the thing that is worrying them the most is climate change because their view is if we don't address it there's not going to be an opportunity for them to address it because it will be too late.

Henderson: But a lot of people look at your party having this debate and they think it's going to cost me more, it's going to be too expensive, it's going to throw the economy into chaos.

Bennet: Right and it is shameful that we lost that political debate to Donald Trump. We have a climate denier in the White House because he sold the American people a bill of goods. He wasn't shy about it, he ran on it, and he won the argument that if we contend with climate we're going to destroy our economy. I believe exactly the opposite is true. I believe that if we don't contend with climate we will destroy our economy. And one of the reasons why in my plan I focus so much on conservation and the working lands in the United States, the ability to sequester carbon in our working lands, is a way of trying to build bridges back to people to be able to say look, we're all in this together. Some politicians in Washington working some plan out in a test tube is never going to get climate done. We're going to need every single American to participate in this.

Henderson: You and --

Bennet: And see the economic benefit in doing it.

Henderson: You and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper went to the same college, you were his chief of staff. Did he make the right decision? And what has been his advice to you in regards to staying in the race?

Bennet: Well, he hasn't given me any advice about staying in and I didn't give him any advice about staying out. I think he will be a very strong candidate for Senate in Colorado.

Yepsen: I want to talk to you for just a couple of minutes left about the national debt and the burn rate in this country. What do we do about it? What spending do we cut? What taxes do we raise to get our books in order?

Bennet: We're going to need bipartisan leadership in Washington on this issue to get anything done. This is one of my biggest disappointments in the last 10 years that I've been there. Democrats in Washington say they don't care about this issue. Republicans in Washington say they care about it and they're lying about it. There isn't anybody in America that has put more debt on the balance sheet of this county than Mitch McConnell and at some point we're going to have to cut through all of this nonsense and actually come to a bipartisan agreement that does both things. We are collecting only 16% of our GDP in revenue, taxes. We are spending more than 22% of it. And by the way, it's also not just about that imbalance, it's what are we spending the money on? Tax cuts to rich people, 20 years of wars in the Middle East. We've got to invest again in this country. At the interest rates we've had the last 10 years we should have been building every piece of infrastructure we could have found.

Yepsen: Senator, the country is out of money and I'm out of time. Thank you very much for being here.

Bennet: Thanks for having me.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.