Avery Lill: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Avery Lill and we're going to start in Washington, D.C. where my colleague Ryan Warner is. Hi Ryan.
Ryan Warner: Hi, Avery.
AL: You just caught up with a presidential hopeful.
RW: That's right. We're less than two weeks now from the first Democratic presidential debates, and I just sat down with Colorado Senior Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet, of course, was a late entry into the Democratic primary.
AL: And like people who want to be president often do, Bennet has written a book.
RW: He has and self-effacingly, the senator says it's not a memoir. Quoting him, "I couldn't bear to read such a thing, much less expect you to," but Bennet does introduce himself to the American people. He lays out this series of really serendipitous events that landed him in one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world, and then he borrows a page from John F. Kennedy.
AL: How so?
RW: Well one of the most famous pre-presidential books came out in 1957 from then-Sen. Kennedy. “Profiles in Courage,” it was called, and it was a celebration of integrity in the U.S. Senate, each chapter different example. You could call Sen. Bennet's new book though “Profiles in a Lack of Courage.”
AL: Why is that?
RW: Well the Colorado senator highlights instances of brokenness in our democracy rather than courage. In his words, five moments of uncompromising factionalism.
RW: Senator, thank you for being with us.
Sen. Michael Bennet: Thanks for having me.
RW: And before I ask you about these five moments, I'd like to start with a bigger number, 20. It's the number of Democrats who will be on a debate stage later this month, 10 one night, 10 the next. How do you stand out without grandstanding in some unappealing way?
MB: I tell people that you better not blink because if you do, you're going to miss your favorite candidate, whoever that is, because we all have only five minutes or so. I think what I'd like to do is stand out as somebody who's telling the truth to the American people. That's what I hope to accomplish on the debate stage.
RW: Amongst the nine liars or what do you mean by that?
MB: I just think we need to level with the American people about the 40 years of a lack of economic mobility that we've had in this country that's tearing at our democracy that I think has resulted in the election of Donald Trump and the destruction that's happening with our institutions, our governing institutions in Washington. The Freedom Caucus and Mitch McConnell have immobilized our government, and it's not just that we've been unresponsive to the needs of the American people. We're doing nothing to try to address the challenges that they face, and I think that's what we should be focused on during the debate.
RW: You're talking about economic mobility which I suppose in some ways is another way of saying the American dream. In 40 years of course, Democrats have had some control of governments and apparently haven't fixed the problem you're talking about.
MB: Well for most of that time, we've had mixed-party rule, which is important to keep in mind because for people who think that we're going to solve our problems with one-party rule, I think they need to account for the fact that a lot of time we have divided government. But I think it's also true that, over that period of time, neither party has been adequately focused on the issues that we face. Some people say "Look, this is just the inevitable result of a global market for labor, the rise of China, the role of technology in our society," and I think the Coloradans are not prepared to give up on the American dream for their kids. I think they want to see Washington actually focused on their challenges rather than on the idiotic and pointless battles that we're having today.
RW: Do you think in the face of climate change, which in some ways necessitates a different kind of consumption, that the American dream needs to be right-sized, downsized?
MB: I don't think it needs to be changed in a way that in any sense diminishes the American dream. I mean we're not living the same way we lived in the colonial era anymore. I mean Colorado, nobody even knew it was there when this country was founded. So we change over generations and we need to change again to save this planet. I am convinced that if we do act on climate and if we act resolutely and create a durable solution, that it actually will drive economic benefits for the society broadly and if we don't act, the reverse is true. The effect on our economy will be catastrophic.
RW: Well now to these examples of uncompromising factionalism in this book, you include the rise of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus, which you write have no intention of compromise. You include the lack of Republican engagement in crafting and then sticking to the Iran Nuclear Agreement, but you start with the erosion of bipartisanship in how the Senate confirms judicial nominees all the way up to the Supreme Court of course. This is something commonly referred to as the nuclear option. The rules of the Senate can be positively Byzantine, but why was this the place to begin, the strongest example perhaps of uncompromising factionalism?
MB: I think it shows that, this episode shows the weakness of our political leadership in Washington. To me, it does. When I was in law school which was not that long ago, if you were a qualified nominee for a court, even the Supreme Court, you would commonly get 90 votes or more in your confirmation hearing. That's because we believed, as a country, that using the confirmation process is a way of reasserting the independence of the judiciary, the judicial branch and treating it not just as another partisan political branch of government, that that was a positive thing.
Because of what's happened in Washington just in the period of time that I've been there ... It started before I got there, but in the period of time that I've been there, it accelerated. The confirmation of judges is now an entirely partisan process, and now I see nominees that would never have vetted in the old way of doing this who are getting lifetime appointments on the court. It is-
RW: Are you sour about it because yours isn't the party in charge? In other words, would this be a lovely schema if you had your way and your nominees?
MB: I think that it is very hard to argue that the American people on whose behalf we are ostensibly working in Washington ... I mean that's ... There's a question whether we are. It's very hard for me to see how the American people are better off having this turned into a partisan exercise no matter who's in charge than have it be an exercise that reassures people that we're actually trying to insulate the courts from our political system. There are people who say "Look, the courts have always been political. It's naive to think that that's not been true." I can tell you it is far worse today than it was when I arrived.
RW: Can this cat get back in the bag?
MB: That's a great question. I think the likely answer to that is no. The only way that I can imagine that the cat could get back in the bag would be if both parties could agree that they would plunder an equal number of judges at every level of the court from the District Court to the Supreme Court and that at a moment when we had reached parity that we stopped and said "Okay, we're going to go back the other way."
RW: In this chapter, you reveal the vote that you most regret casting which helped open the door for using the nuclear option with the U.S. Supreme Court. The vote was for a rules change that allowed lower court nominees to be approved with a simple majority. This was at a time when Republicans were blockading President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit, which is a sort of springboard to the -
RW: ... Supreme Court often.
RW: Talk about your regret around the vote you cast.
MB: Well I thought it ... I actually felt that it was the wrong thing to do at the time. We had had-
RW: Wait. Why did you make the decision?
MB: We had had occasions before that where we had almost invoked the nuclear option and then every time we'd walked it back. In fact, Ken Salazar, my predecessor, had been part of a gang of 14 that had managed to walk it back, but by this time the fatigue had set in. The Republicans had filibustered their own colleague, their former Republican senator who President Obama had nominated to be the Secretary of Defense. No Secretary of Defense had ever been filibustered before.
RW: This is Chuck Hagel.
MB: Yeah. Nobody could get through and it was enormously frustrating. In the end, I think Harry Reid also felt that there was a special kind of nullification going on here of President Obama by the Republicans and he wasn't going to stand for it. So I voted with the Democrats on it. I thought that we were setting a precedent that Mitch McConnell would use the way he's used it. I think McConnell has been far more strategic than the Democrats have been on this whole issue, also much more malevolent, much more cynical.
RW: You write that one-party rule is in opposition to pluralism, the idea that we draw strength from difference and wisdom from honest debates. Are you saying in an ideal world, Democrats would not sweep Washington in 2020 as they did Colorado state government last year?
MB: No, I think that it would be great. I'm a Democrat. I'd love it if Democrats swept government, but most of the time we have shared-party rule. Most of the time, there are Republicans that have one branch of government and Democrats that have another branch of government. We have to find a way to work together under those circumstances. I write in the book that the founders of this country believed that one of the great virtues of living in a republic or a democratic republic was not that we would all agree with each other all the time. The point was we were free and we would disagree, and they believed out of those disagreements we would fashion much more durable and much more imaginative results than any king or tyrant could come up with.
RW: Is money the difference, money and politics, which you point to in that passage?
MB: I think money is a huge part of it. The effect of Citizens United can't be overstated here, the breakdown of traditional media, the breakdown of print media. We are at the mercy now of the partisan cable channels at night and the interaction with politics on social media. So when you add up who watches that stuff and who listens to that stuff, you get to about 12 million people and they're really well represented in Washington. But there are 320 million other people that spend their day every day just trying to build their business or provide for their family or hope for the best for their country who have no representation here. That's what we have to find a way to change. I think it requires ... It's difficult. It's gonna require all of us to have a more elevated sense of what it means to be a citizen in this country, and it's gonna require a far different expectation for our elected leaders in America.
RW: You dedicate a few pages to introducing yourself to the American people, Sen. Bennet. It seems that your career has been a series of ... I'm not sure what the word is. Happy accidents, lucky breaks. You studied law and you write "I would become the world's worst lawyer," but after moving to Denver, you sent letters to powerful –
MB: I think I said I'd become the worst lawyer if I stayed in the law.
RW: If you had stayed.
RW: Once coming to Denver, you send letters to powerful people: fellow Wesleyan alumnus John Hickenlooper who was running a brew pub; Phil Anschutz, the energy railroad telecom tycoon. Anschutz eventually gave you a job that you weren't on paper qualified for so you go to night school to gain the necessary skills. You do well by him. You later help Hick run for Denver mayor, become his Chief of Staff when he wins, and later the DPS school board appoints you superintendent. The coup de gras perhaps is that, when Ken Salazar becomes Secretary of Interior, there's a vacant U.S. Senate seat to which then-Gov. Bill Ritter appoints you. Have you thought about whether privilege plays into your rise?
MB: Well I write about that in the introduction I think very clearly. I have benefited from every single lucky break that our society can provide people that are situated as fortunately as I was situated. I write about my mom and her parents who were Polish Jews who were, they and an aunt, the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. Then they spent two years living in Warsaw after the war was over and then went to Stockholm, Sweden and then Mexico City and came to New York and rebuilt the small business that they had lost in Poland. They were the ones that paid for my education and for my brother's education, my sister's education.
So yeah, I've had every privilege that anybody in this country could ever want. What that makes me believe strongly is that children born into families that are poor shouldn't be denied those privileges as well, and they are every single day in America when you have a school system that's reinforcing the income inequality that we have rather than liberating people from it.
RW: As I was reading your book, Sen. Bennet, I tweeted an excerpt about your appointment to the Senate. You write "To this day, I really don't know why Ritter" -- that's Gov. Bill Ritter -- "why Ritter made such an appointment. It did absolutely nothing to help him politically. I was relatively unknown in this state. No one, including myself, knew whether I had the skills required to win a statewide race which I would have to launch immediately after the appointment." Several of my followers on Twitter just don't buy that you're really perplexed by your appointment. Is this false modesty?
MB: No, that's ... Everything I wrote there is true. What did your readers say?
RW: Just that you're a smart guy who would've probed to find out why he appointed you.
MB: What I say in the book is that I think that he saw a meeting that I had held as the school superintendent where people were just coming unglued because we were changing the graduation requirements in Denver. It was at South High School and in those days as on many nights, I spent hour after hour after hour taking incoming and being able to continue to have a productive and positive conversation even as people became or were enraged. It is true that that has prepared me well to be in the Senate.
RW: You thought "This is nothing compared to it."
MB: School closing.
RW: A ticked off parent.
MB: Yeah, this is nothing compared to a school-closing meeting.
RW: So I rang former Gov. Bill Ritter up, asking why he chose you over people with longer political careers like former Speaker of the State House Andrew Romanoff, who's now running for Senate. You and Ritter first interacted when he was Denver District Attorney and you were the mayor's Chief of Staff and you advised him a little bit on education when he ran for governor. He says he appreciated your intellect and your humility.
Bill Ritter: Yeah, he's one of the first people I've known went to Yale Law School and didn't tell you that in the first 20 minutes he met you. So I really, really liked Michael.
RW: Ritter thought it was remarkable to that you were a finalist for Education Secretary under President Obama, but it may have been your underdog status, Michael Bennet, that Ritter says really clinched the deal.
BR: One of the things people should remember about my own entree into political life is that I was appointed by Gov. Roy Romer to be the Denver District Attorney in 1993. In most of the stories leading up to that appointment, I was in the paragraph also on the boat period and I was very much a dark horse candidate, but it worked out in my mind that the governor took a chance.
MB: You know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of a moment when I was in LoDo one morning and Bill Ritter had decided to run for governor and everybody thought there's no way Bill Ritter could be elected governor. He was the DA in Denver at the time. There he was getting out of his truck on the street in LoDo. I was in a car down the block. I knew him a little bit through the work we had done together in the city, and I thought it's really incredible that that guy thinks he can get elected governor and he must know something that nobody else knows. I think that happens to be true about politics. You just don't know. Barack Obama was 30 points behind Hillary Clinton in the November before the Iowa Caucus. Bill Clinton was at about 1.3 percent in the polls at this moment in his cycle.
RW: Is this what you tell yourself when you look at your own polling?
MB: Yeah, it is.
RW: Analysis by CNN's Harry Enten raises the question of whether you qualified for the Democratic debates on a fluke. It seems people who knew you didn't pick you in a poll, but people who had no idea who you were chose you. What's your take? Have you seen this analysis?
MB: I saw it. We've qualified in four polls and I think it's going to be a fluke when what you're talking about is 1 percent which is what we're talking about in order to qualify. That's within the margin of error in every single one of these polls, which I think raises the question whether this is the way we should put people on the debate stage, but it is what it is.
RW: You could qualify either through polls or through number of supporters.
MB: Well the number of supporters is turned into this insane money-laundering scheme to get people on the ballot. I mean people are having to spend a fortune in order to get these dollar contributions. I think it also creates a set of incentives for people to say "Watch me light myself on fire. Send me a dollar," which one might ask whether that's the best way for people to run for president or not.
RW: You recently said that nobody knows what the national Democratic Party stands for. How does adding your voice among the throng of Democratic presidential candidates help focus that?
MB: Well I think we're going to have a competition of ideas here, and my view of this is that, in order to overcome Mitch McConnell and the Freedom Caucus ... I say in the book that I think Trump is much more a symptom of our problems than the essential cause of our problems. He has made matters much, much worse and he's made matters intolerable for the families in Denver Public Schools that I used to work for, which I particularly resent. But before he got here, we were immobilized by McConnell and by the Freedom Caucus and their ideology which is very far outside the mainstream of conventional American political thought, including conventional and traditional Republican thought.
Now the National Party is the party of Donald Trump, and in order to overcome that, I think we need to unify the American people. It needs to be Democrats coming together, but we also need Independents and some Republicans to close over this. This, by the way, is not the project of just one election. This is the project of the rest of my life, I think election after election after election after election to establish a set of policies that drives broad economic growth in this country, lifts incomes for everybody in America again, educates our children, builds a durable solution to climate change that can't be torn out every two years depending on what happens in the congressional elections, creates universal health care in America. We're the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have that.
That's what an agenda would look like if we were succeeding as a country and if we were paying attention to what we were doing for the next generation and if we were thinking about America's place in the world. That's what it would look like. That is not what it looks like when you turn on the cable television at night. That is not what it looks like when you watch CSPAN at night, and that is not what it looks like when you have a president who wastes the American people's time for six months on the subject of a few billion dollars for the wall Mexico was supposed to pay for while China is building a 3000-mile fiber-optic cable from Latin America to Africa to connect it with China.
That's not what it looks like when, before Trump even got there, we couldn't pass an infrastructure bill while over the course of three years, China poured more cement than we did in the 20th century. This is what's at stake. It is now harder for the first time in American history. More than 50 percent of young people today will earn less than their parents for the first time in American history. How have we let this happen to this country?
RW: Senator, thanks for being with us.
MB: Thanks for having me.