U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to Colorado Matters about his Democratic presidential campaign on the Auraria campus in Denver, May 4, 2019. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

With one daughter or another participating through the years, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said he's been coming to History Day in Colorado — a statewide social studies competition — for about the last decade. But this past weekend's event, on the campus of CU Denver, was the first he'd attended as a presidential candidate.

Taking a break from the re-enactments, exhibitions and documentaries, it occurred to Bennet that, perhaps, 10 years from now, History Day students will be chronicling his 2020 run to the White House.

"I hope that they would say that I helped us lead our way back from a dark period in our American political life, that was a period that was unprecedented," he said. "And that I helped us restore our democratic values in this country ... we're at a moment when we have a president who doesn't know as much about our history as the kids who are competing in Colorado History Day."

Last week Bennet, who has spent the last 10 years in the U.S. Senate, announced his candidacy for president, the 21st person hoping to win the Democratic nomination and eventually unseat Donald Trump.

He joins a field that includes six other senators, six women, a former vice president — and another Coloradan, former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Bennet served as Hickenlooper's chief of staff during the latter's time as Denver's mayor.

That scrum doesn't exactly lend itself to a singular voice rising above the crowd, and Bennet may find himself struggling to be heard. A Monmouth University poll from March said nearly half (48 percent) of Democrats had never heard of him and only 20 percent were able to form any opinion of him.

And, given his relatively late entry into the race, Bennet has possibly fallen behind some of the other candidates in terms of securing donors, some of whom may be coming from the same pool as Hickenlooper, who's had a two-month head start, and finding an audience for his message.

"Obviously I'm not as well known as some of the candidates; I haven't spent my time in the Senate on cable TV or building a national brand," he said. "I recognize that; those are issues I'm going to have to get through ... But I think my record will appeal to Democratic primary voters."

Of course, in the era of social media, perhaps all it takes to find relevancy is a single viral moment. Bennet may have found that when, speaking on the Senate floor in January, he blasted fellow Senator Ted Cruz of Texas before that month's partial government shutdown. Last week, it was Cruz who went on the attack following the announcement of Bennet's candidacy, the Texan trolling Bennet on Twitter by calling his campaign "a Seinfeld campaign — about nothing — that typifies the Left’s empty rage in 2020."

In response, Bennet evoked one of that show's most loathsome characters.

"Hello Newman," Bennet said, referring to Cruz with a Seinfeld catchphrase. "I didn't start it, he started it...that's just pushing back on a guy who as been at the bottom of a huge number of problems before Donald Trump got there.

"Think about the 2013 shutdown that Ted Cruz led while Colorado was being flooded — that was just one example of many examples that he has used the floor of the Senate as a way of advancing his own political career instead of doing the hard work we need people to do."

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet poses for a portrait with students on the Auraria campus in Denver on May 4, 2019. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Bennet admits that he isn't running against Ted Cruz.

Like Hickenlooper and numerous other candidates, Bennet said defeating Trump is the main priority, but that shouldn't be the be all and end all. However, unlike many of the others, Bennet said that while issues like health care are important (he said he's gained perspective since being diagnosed and having successful surgery for prostate cancer), he's hoping to sell voters on a bigger picture.

"What I think people are really sick of, is a world where, people seem to run for office to create controversy, to raise money, so they can create controversy, so they can raise money, so they can get elected again -- and it's led to a politics where people come home to their constituents and say, 'Yeah, I didn't get anything done, but I'm blaming the other side for the failure.'

"Enough of that. I've watched that for 10 years in the U.S. Senate, and I've come to the conclusion that if we do that again for another 10 years, I'm gonna be part of the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to the people coming behind them and I can't stand thinking that we're gonna end up there."

Full interview transcript

Avery Lill: Sen. Michael Bennet is now officially a presidential candidate. When he announced Thursday morning on network TV, he had stinging words and not just about Donald Trump but also about his own Democratic Party which he said doesn’t stand for much at the national level. Bennet spoke with me this weekend on the CU-Denver campus. Senator, welcome.

Sen. Michael Bennet: Thank you.

AL: When you announced on CBS, you said one reason you’re running is to restore integrity to government, the concern for you that precedes the election of Donald Trump. It’s a lofty goal. Some might even say vague. Why are you the man to do it?

MB: Well I’ve always tried to approach my work with integrity whether it was in the private sector or in the Denver Public Schools as Superintendent or in the Senate and when I have found ways to agree with people on the other side of the aisle, I have looked for opportunities to actually drive legislation forward on behalf of the American people.

What I think people are really sick of is a world where people seem to run for office to create controversy, to raise money so they can create controversy so they can raise money so they can get elected again. That is — and that’s led to a politics where people come home to their constituents and say yeah, I didn’t get anything done but I’m blaming the other side for the failure.

I think enough of that. I’ve watched that for ten years in the U.S. Senate and I’ve come to the conclusion that if we do that again for another 10 years, I’m going to be part of the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to the people coming after us and I just can’t stand thinking that we’re going to end up there.

AL: Okay, when we talk about integrity like that, Ted Cruz said your campaign is like a "Seinfeld" episode about nothing and you responded calling him Newman after one of that show’s characters. Where does a Twitter beef with Ted Cruz fit into integrity?

MB: Hello, Newman. I didn’t start it, he started it. He put a tweet out saying that I had done nothing in the Senate and that — except yell at him on the Senate floor. Some of the people that have supported me sent him a bunch of front-page magazine articles that called me the can-do Senator in a can’t-do Senate. I don’t think he knows my record at all and I think it reflects on the lack of progress he’s made in the Senate but that doesn’t have anything to do with integrity. It has to do with pushing back on a guy that I think has been at the bottom of a huge number of problems before Donald Trump got there.

You know, we think about the 2013 shutdown that Ted Cruz led while Colorado was being flooded. That was just one example of many examples that he has used the floor of the Senate as his own personal way of advancing his political career instead of doing the hard work that we need people to do. So, when he attacks me, I’ll push back on him.

AL: And this question may sound —

MB: It’s a little different from him because when, you know, you’ve got a president who said that his father was engaged in the assassination of JFK, he made comments about his daughters, or his wife and he still endorsed him for president. Why? Because he wanted the judges that Donald Trump would appoint.

AL: And I’ve got a question for you.

MB: I’m not running against Ted Cruz though.

AL: That might sound a little bit snotty. But I ask it because you talked with voters in early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire — and besides Michael Bennet, who else wants you in this race?

MB: I don’t know it seems like there are a lot of people that are interested in my candidacy in Colorado and across the country. Obviously, I’m not as well known as the other candidates. I haven’t spent my time in the Senate, you know, on cable TV and I haven’t spent the time creating a brand that’s a national brand. I recognize that. I mean those are issues that I’m going to have to get through. But I do think my record of working in the Senate and my record before that trying to deliver for the kids in the Denver Public Schools and in business, it’s going to be an unusual record and I think it will appeal to Democratic primary voters.

AL: And you’re touting your ability to work across the aisle. I think of the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of Senators who worked together on immigration reform in 2013. But in the CBS interview you also said that there is no bipartisanship occurring today in Washington. Are you a man out of place in politics today?

MB: Yes, in that sense, because I think there are a lot more people that are interested in the partisan battles but what I see degrading before my very eyes are the institutions that the next generation of Americans are going to have to rely on to resolve their differences. And they’re, by the way, the same institutions that 230 years of Americans have relied on to resolve their differences, move the country forward and solve even bigger problems than the ones we’re confronting today.

I don’t — I think it is cynical and, by the way, unnecessary for us to believe that the kind of empty partisanship that prevails today, needs to be with us forever. In fact, as I said earlier, I think that if it’s with us for another ten years, it’s going to be disgraceful what’s going to happen. And I don’t — look, Colorado is a state that’s a third Republican, a third Democratic and a third Independent. That’s one of the great joys for me of representing a state like that that’s complex politically but where the majority of people actually want the same things for their families, for their businesses, for their communities.

The partisanship in Washington, the lack of pluralism in Washington is antithetical to what the American people want and it is the result of a bunch of special interests, a bunch of self-interested politicians and billionaires being able to corrupt our campaign finance system. That stuff, if we get it out of the way, then we can start to act on the priorities and I think, in large part, they’re consensus priorities of the American people.

AL: But you actually mentioned that you are less well-known and the website 538 wrote a story citing Monmouth College poll from March, nearly half of Democrats responding said that they had never heard of you and only 20 percent were able to form an opinion on you. How do you raise the money to change that? It’s sort of the chicken and the egg proposition, especially with the 20 other candidates fund raising too.

MB: Well, first of all, that’s what campaigns are for and as I said to you, I know I’m not the best-known candidate. I also know that over 50 percent of Democratic voters say that they’ve not picked their choice. The field is wide open. In 1993 at this point, Joe Lieberman was the leading candidate for the Democratic Party. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were running, I think Barack Obama was 30 points behind Hillary Clinton at this time in the campaign. So we’ve got a lot of time to be able to make the case and we’ve got a lot of ground to make up. And anybody that would like to help me do that, I’d be very grateful for their help or their contributions.

AL: But how do you go about making up that ground with the primary debates for Democrats about a month and a half away, what are you doing to get on that stage?

MB: Yeah, so this afternoon after I’m finished at Colorado History Day where I’m watching my daughter compete, I’m going to get up and get on a place with my wife and daughters and fly to Iowa and spend two days there then go back to Washington. Next week, I’ll come back to Colorado then head out to New Hampshire so we’re not going to let any — we’ve got no time to waste, that’s for sure. And we’re going to work really hard to make sure we make that debate stage.

AL: On Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate on the Mueller Report looking into the Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr was a no-show in the Democratically controlled House. Having digested the report and Wednesday’s testimony, where do you stand with regards to initiating impeachment proceedings against President Trump?

MB: Well, first let me say about the attorney general, I think he should resign. I think his behavior has been disgraceful. It’s clear that he lied about the contents of the Mueller Report. Mueller himself has said that. And for him to basically be acting as the president’s criminal defense lawyer, instead of acting as attorney general of the United States, is something that the American people shouldn’t have to put with and nobody should have to put up with.

On the president we’ve got a process that’s got to be run in the House of Representatives and the Senate. You know, only when the House impeaches do we then have the chance to have a trial and decide whether to convict the president. He has done things that look, at least on the face of it, like they were obstruction of justice and those are certainly impeachable offenses. But we have to let the process work its way through.

AL: This happens to be the first time that we've chatted with you since your surgery for prostate cancer and I understand that you’re cancer free. What sort of perspective did the experience give you?

MB: It was — thank you for raising it. First, it makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world. I mean nobody likes getting a diagnosis of cancer. It’s a scary thing. But from the time I was diagnosed until I had the operation and was told that I was cancer free was only five weeks. So, one perspective I have is how lucky I am and how much I admire people who have to struggle with the disease much longer than I had to do it.

The second thing is it has made me feel even more strongly that we need universal health care coverage in this country. I have always believed that. I’ve championed that. But now I really understand why it’s so critical. I had no symptoms at all. If I had not had a primary care doctor do a screening and take a test, I would be sitting here talking to you with cancer in my body and not knowing it and on my way to being very sick and probably dying.

And there are a lot of people in this country, unlike any other industrialized country in the world, there are a lot of people that do not have insurance, do not have primary care and the idea that we’ve had a president in Donald Trump who promised after he was repealing the Affordable Care Act that he was going to give us really cheap health care, that we were all going to love it, that it was going to be so much better and everybody was going to be covered, not only has he not done that, he has spent his time in office trying to fight to take away health insurance and health care from millions of Americans. He’s succeeded at it. He’s made it harder for people with pre-existing conditions and that is insane that we have somebody in the Oval Office that’s trying to do that.

You know, when you look at the Democrats in this race, we have disagreements about health care, but every single one of us wants universal coverage. Every single one of us wants to reduce prices for families and for the country and every single one of us wants to maintain quality. His position and the Republicans who support him is exactly the opposite of that which, by the way, is not the position of Republicans in the state of Colorado. I suspect not in Iowa or New Hampshire either.

AL: And we’re actually sitting in the CU Denver campus for National History Day Colorado. Your daughter is competing and you’ve been involved with this for ten years and you know, people could be talking about you a decade from now, what do you hope that they’ll say?

MB: I hope that they would say that I helped us lead our way back from a dark period in our American political life that was a period that was unprecedented and that I helped us restore our basic Democratic values in this country. And that it wasn’t the person at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that made the biggest difference but it was the American people themselves rising up as citizens to say we believe in the rule of law. We believe in the rights of people to participate in this Democracy. We believe in self-government. We believe in being a symbol to the rest of the world of how you can solve your pluralistic differences without violence or even without political violence, without screaming at one another but for the benefit of the next generation of Americans and for the benefit of Democracy’s role in the world.

That’s what I think all of us need to be part of, whether we’re running for President or whether we’re a student at History Day, competing. That’s what it’s all about. These enduring values that we have. That we have never been perfect. We’ve have failed over and over again but for 230 years, those are the values that we have built our country on to make it more Democratic, more fair and more free with every passing year.

We’re at a moment when we have a president who doesn’t know as much about our history as the kids competing in Colorado History Day which is why every day he gets up in the morning to do violence to those values. We need to restore those values if we have any chance of building for the future.

AL: And before we go, I want your best policy idea and I’m thinking specifically what’s going to set you apart from the plethora of other Democrats in the race?

MB: I’ll give you two. One is — I’ll give you two, briefly. One is Medicare X which is a true public option that would allow people all over America to choose a public option for health care that’s administered by Medicare. I think it’s a better option than Medicare for All for reasons I won’t get into today, but I think it achieves the same goal at a much lower price and is politically much more doable because it doesn’t take away insurance from anybody who wants to keep it.

By the way, that’s another perspective I had coming through this operation for myself and a week after I had my operation, my 14-year-old who’s competing in History Day today had her appendix out. That makes you think a lot about how — who you want making choices over your health care.

The second thing I’d say is my plan called the American Family Act dramatically increases the child tax credit which would be a huge benefit to middle class families, it would reduce childhood poverty in this country by almost 40 percent. It costs only 3 percent of what Medicare for All costs and it’s much less expensive than Donald Trump’s tax cut for the wealthy.

The idea that we could do something like that and give middle class families a better chance of affording housing, health care, higher education and early childhood education and lift 40 percent of the kids in this country who are in poverty out of poverty, that’s the kind of thing we could do if we had a political system that actually functioned. And it’s the kind of opportunity cost that we face when we have one that doesn’t function week after week after week.

Think about this. Since 2001 we spent $5 trillion in tax cuts largely for wealthy people America at a time when we’ve got massive income inequality. We spent $5.6 trillion over the same period in the Middle East. That’s almost $12 trillion. We could have used that money to fix our roads and bridges, to fix the electrical grid, to clear up every backlog we have which are massive at airports. We could have restored Social Security and we could have given every teacher in America 50 percent pay raises if we wanted. It is an example of the distorted priorities that exist at the national level in our government and it’s what we have to fix.

AL: Senator, thank you so much for this conversation.

MB: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.