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Michael Bennet’s pragmatic case for president

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Michael Bennett delivers a campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 11, in Des Moines.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty Images

Michael Bennet is an affable candidate with an animated message: To fix Washington and make lasting progress on important issues, the Democrats must win in purple states like his.

That leaves the Colorado senator taking aim at Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s calls for replacing private health insurance coverage with a government-administered single-payer health care system. Single payer isn’t the kind of practical liberal message that helped the Democrats retake the House in 2018, and it isn’t the way to win swing voters or swing states in 2020, says Bennet, who is seeking the presidency after twice winning a US Senate seat in purple Colorado.


“I don’t think you want to run anywhere on a plan that makes private insurance illegal for 160 million Americans and raises taxes by $33 trillion over 10 years,” he said during a Monday sit-down. “It is terrible politics.”

In pursuit of that point, Bennet notes that Sanders’ liberal home state of Vermont couldn’t get single payer done. That a single-payer proposal has gone nowhere in California. And that Colorado voters rejected a single-payer proposal by 79 percent to 21 percent in 2016.

So if Warren becomes the Democratic nominee, does Bennet think she goes down to defeat? She, after all, is currently beating Donald Trump, and sometimes handily, in national head-to-head heats.

“I’m not going to say she loses,” he says, taking a moment to compliment her overall campaign, “but I think if our nominee embraces Medicare for All, they may win for other reasons, but they are going to have to overcome that among the voters, who don’t support it. . . . It is a needless headwind we are giving ourselves.”


A far better course, Bennet says, would be to add a public option to Obamacare — a plan he calls “Medicare X” — and let people choose between that and their private insurance.

For my money, Bennet has got that right. Voters clearly prefer a Medicare-like Affordable Care Act public option to the Sanders/Warren approach. At a time when Donald Trump is steadily defeating himself, the Democrats shouldn’t put an easy target like mandatory single payer on their backs.

That’s not the only issue where Bennet differs with prevailing progressive priorities. As Denver’s former school superintendent, he says that “free preschool would be a lot more important and much more progressive than free college.” He is also proposing big increases in the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. “Take those two things together, raise the minimum wage, and have paid family leave — that’s a huge shot in the arm for the middle class and for working people,” he says.

But does Bennet, a relatively late-starting candidate, have a shot in a crowded race where Joe Biden, Warren, and Sanders currently own the top tier? He hasn’t, after all, made the stage for Thursday’s Democratic debate.

“If history is any guide, it’s not locked in,” he argues.

To emphasize that point, he campaigned in New Hampshire on Friday with Gary Hart, who emerged from a distant second-place showing in Iowa in 1984 and battled former vice president Walter Mondale to the last primary and beyond.


If distressed by Warren’s and Sanders’ sweeping single-payer schemes, this political pragmatist also rejects Biden’s notion that if Trump loses, congressional Republicans will become more reasonable. That, Bennet says, ignores the history of the last six years of the Obama administration, “when we couldn’t get anything through the Congress because the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and [Senate Republican leader Mitch] McConnell have immobilized our exercise in self-government.”

Which brings Bennet back to his starting point. To bring about real change, it’s not enough simply to win the presidency, he stresses. Democrats need to hold the House and retake the Senate. That means creating a broad coalition for change, one that extends beyond the deep blue states.

“There is no shortcut here,” Bennet says. “You’ve gotta go out and win races in purple states in order to make change.”

That’s a tough truth from this smart, thoughtful political pragmatist — a candidate who has yet to get the attention he deserves.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.