WASHINGTON — The guy likes books. That is the inescapable impression one receives in the Capitol Hill office of Michael F. Bennet, the Democratic senator from Colorado and long-shot Democratic presidential candidate. Books lie in stacks on a coffee table. Books crowd the shelves behind his desk.
Behind his desk is an early edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, perhaps the most distinctively American poetry ever published. On his coffee table is a copy of There Will Be No Miracles Here, a recent memoir by Casey Gerald, who grew up poor in Texas and later attended Yale. Bennet liked the book so much, he invited Gerald to dinner in Washington. Standing in his office, Bennet raves about the book with an enthusiasm most politicians reserve for accomplishments they can take credit for.
“In order to create enduring change, you’ve got to figure out how not to have a monopoly on wisdom on every single thing,” Bennet told me in a recent conversation in the reading room that evidently doubles as his Senate office.
Bennet, in other words, is refreshingly humble in addition to being exceedingly well-read. He has his own Yale degree, from the law school, to go with an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan, the prestigious liberal arts college in Connecticut that his father led for more than a decade. Bennet’s own new book, The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in An Age of Broken Politics, contains allusions to James Baldwin and charts showing income stagnation. Neither is forced. In fact, you can easily imagine Bennet as the urbane college professor willing to talk Karl Marx and David Bowie over a beer or two.
The 54-year-old Bennet would like you to imagine him as something other than a hip academic. This spring, he declared himself a candidate for the presidency of the United States. In his announcement, he spoke of “the need to restore integrity to our government” and bemoaned “the lack of economic mobility.”
These are both themes in Flickering Lights, which opens with the scene that made Bennet famous: an impassioned denunciation of Sen. Ted Cruz on the Senate floor in January. The government was slogging through a shutdown; Cruz, who had years before engineered a government shutdown over his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, said he wanted to make sure that, this time around, Coast Guard officers would be paid.
Hearing this, Bennet became outraged. The 2013 shutdown that was Cruz’s doing had prevented federal first responders from helping victims of devastating floods in Colorado. And there was Cruz, six years later, piously evincing concern for emergency personnel.
“I have worked very hard over the years to work in a bipartisan way with the presiding officer, with my Republican colleagues, but these crocodile tears that the senator from Texas is crying for first responders are too hard for me to take,” Bennet roared.
He continued in this fashion for 25 minutes, shouting and gesticulating. By the end of it, Bennet was famous. “Michael Bennet went viral,” went the headline in Roll Call. “Now what?”
Bennet plainly knows that, if it weren’t for the Cruz takedown, he would have no rationale for a presidential run. But is a speech enough? True, it was his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that turned an unknown Illinois state senator into President Obama five years later. Obama, though, had story on his side, a narrative of racial reconciliation and national hope that inspired people who had once voted for Ronald Reagan as well as people who had never voted at all.
Bennet does not have such a story, and he well knows it. “This book is not a memoir,” he writes in Flickering Lights. “I couldn’t bear to read such a thing, much less expect you to.” On his father’s side of his family, he can trace ancestry back to the Mayflower. After college, he worked for Philip Anschutz, the secretive billionaire known to fund conservative causes. The charmed streak continued: Bennet became chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, another Wesleyan alumnus who went onto to serve two terms as Colorado’s governor. Hickenlooper is also running for president.
In 2005, Denver picked him to run its public schools, though he had no experience in public education. Still, he did the job well, or at least well enough. Three-and-a-half years later, he was appointed by Colorado’s governor to fill the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar, who had been nominated by President Obama to run the Department of Interior. Bennet knows that this is an unconventional path to Capitol Hill. The first chapter in Flickering Lights is titled “The Accidental Senator,” reflecting how some saw him at the time.
Bennet is no longer considered an aberration, having easily defended his seat in 2016. Whether he has done enough in the Senate to merit consideration as leader of the free world is another question. He is, to be sure, intelligent, focused and, unless you’re Ted Cruz, gracious. But as with the aforementioned speech, that may also not suffice, at least not in 2019. He is, after all, a white guy at a time when a good part of the Democratic base has had it with white guys, especially white guys who have benefited from all the white-guy privilege accrued over many generations. Kamala Harris is exceptionally smart, as is Elizabeth Warren. Cory Booker is focused. Pete Buttigieg is gracious and speaks Norwegian to boot. The sea is wide, and full of fish.
Bennet has certainly had the benefit of the doubt from many of the same establishment figures who have fallen for Buttigieg. In her recent Washington Post column, Jennifer Rubin gushed over Bennet, whom she praised for his “substance, sincerity and seriousness.” That followed an even more effusive February column by influential MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough titled “Michael Bennet could be the answer to the question every Democrat is asking.”
He has done little to grow, or even maintain, that enthusiasm. His turn at the first Democratic debate in Miami was uninspiring. When moderator Savannah Guthrie gave Bennet the gift of the night’s first question, he flubbed the response. In a later answer on U.S. foreign policy, Bennet couldn’t remember the name of a friendly nation Trump had derided, settling for “third ally of ours,” an apparent reference to India. Social media users gleefully compared the moment to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s infamous inability to name the third of three federal agencies he promised to eliminate during a 2011 Republican primary debate.
And yet Bennet clearly believes his moderate brand of progressivism is what the Democratic Party needs. “The Twitter aquarium — or whatever it is we’re all swimming around in here — is not where people are,” he says, referencing recent findings that avid users of the social networking platform tend to embrace progressive causes more ardently than Democrats who don’t argue about tax policy in 280-character bursts and Seinfeld memes.
“Twitter is not real life,” he says, “and it’s not real politics.”
Far more than former Vice President Joe Biden, Bennet represents the kind of hopeful, center-left politics practiced by Obama. “I’m a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat,” Bennet told me. “Proud of that.” At the same time, he has a humility that Obama lacked, and that some critics think compromised the former president’s ability to work both with Republicans and members of his own party.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his stridently confident invocations of a political revolution, clearly irks Bennet, both ideologically and temperamentally. Asked whether the Vermont senator’s proposal to eliminate private health insurance stands a chance of being enacted, the normally relaxed senator snaps back sharply: “Do you?” Even so, Bennet acknowledges that we “desperately need universal coverage in this country.”
Certainly, Bennet has no interest in pandering to the party’s increasingly progressive base, even as he does embrace one of its core critiques. “From the standpoint of most Americans, our economy is broken,” Bennet said when we spoke in his office several weeks ago. “And it’s threatening to endanger our democracy. We have had four decades of no economic mobility for 90 percent of the American people.” But if he makes the same argument as Sanders, he does so without the philippics that mark the Vermont senator’s style. Instead, he prosecutes his case calmly, like the lawyer he is, citing easy-to-remember statistics: “Our income inequality is higher than it’s been since 1928,” he says.
Critics will note — and have noted — that a net worth that could be as high as $27 million (it could also be as low as $6 million, since financial disclosures allow only for estimates within a certain range) make him an unlikely populist. And should he survive the primary’s early winnowing, there will surely be questions about a complex bond issue made during his time as Denver’s school chief. The deal was deemed a failure by critics.
And given Bennet’s detailed analysis of the problems, one might expect a similarly detailed analysis of potential solutions. Only one would be disappointed, for he seems a more skilled pathologist than surgeon. In its review of Flickering Lights, the New York Times praised him for a “a sweeping diagnosis of the nation’s political ills,” even as the reviewer thought there was too much “abstract celebration of bipartisan dialogue” and not enough specifics. The review could have also pointed out that a senator whose fame rests almost exclusively on taking down a progressive bête noire like Cruz is probably not the one best positioned to bridge the gap between the left and the right.
In fact, Bennet’s problem may be that he is a partisan trying to squeeze into a moderate’s garb. Flickering Lights is, if nothing else, an indictment of the Republican Party. On several major crises facing the nation — global warming and Iran among them — Bennet blames Republicans for making things worse, in part by hampering Democratic fixes, in part by implementing bad policies of their own, including a wholesale hijacking of the judiciary and irresponsible introduction of corporate money into politics.
Nor has he tried to reconcile with his Texan nemesis since their Senate floor contretemps earlier this year.
“We’ve said hello,” Bennet says flatly of Cruz. “Once.”
Cruz, though, is hardly the only culprit. “Mitch McConnell is to blame,” he says of the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, who he says has hobbled the Senate while abetting President Trump at every turn. “He is the ringmaster of this circus,” Bennet says, blaming McConnell for both the rise of the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives and the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
“I feel duty-bound to fix this institution,” Bennet told me. “We cannot endure another 10 years like the last 10 years. We cannot continue to destroy this place.” It’s only fair to wonder, then, why Bennet would want to fix the Senate by decamping from Capitol Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue. Good legislators may not, after all, get the glory of presidents, but they may be even harder to find.
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