If you missed it, Michael Bennet did well in his CNN town hall with Dana Bash Thursday night. The question now is whether doing well will translate into doing much good for his campaign. And there, as the line goes, is the rub.
He was late to the race — delayed, of course, by his (successful) bout with prostate cancer — and he’s rushing to find a place among the 24 candidates that does not put him on the bottom rung of Nate Silver’s bottom tier, along with John Hickenlooper.
If Bennet doesn’t get a noticeable bump in the polls — meaning going from somewhere under 1 percent to anywhere consistently over 1 percent — he probably won’t make it onto the June debate stage in the first round. Even then, he might still have to meet the goal of 65,000 unique donors to qualify, which would be a monumental reach. For example, it took Cory Booker many months to get to 65,000. Bennet has been out there for weeks.
When Bennet first learned he had cancer, he told me it would be unlikely that he could qualify with so little time. Now, he seems desperate to get on the stage. The strange thing is that with two debates needed to accommodate a huge field, they’ll probably have less impact than you’d think. But not making the cutoff — when so many others will have —could be a problem. And missing the first two debates would make it much tougher to make the third debate.
Bennet needed this town hall, easily his biggest stage since joining the field, to give him a boost.
He seemed comfortable enough in the role. He was able to display, without going too deep into his wonk side, his understanding on a wide range of issues. He was personable, if not big-room charismatic. Bennet, who severely limits public displays of passion, had a couple of nice moments — on his Holocaust-surviving mother and grandparents, on our failings in public education, on Trump’s new round of tariffs and his failure to understand that what is happening at the border is a refugee crisis.
But what Bennet needed was headlines. He got a couple, but will they break through?
His biggest was calling Bernie Sanders out on Medicare-for-all, even going so far as to — gasp — say those Democrats in the field supporting Sanders’ plan were “wrong.” Many in the field think Sanders is wrong to push, at this point, to eliminate private insurance. But not many will say it. Bennet is pushing his own program, which basically would give anyone who wants Medicare the option to join — sort of like the old public-option idea. Bennet points out that Democrats seem to have forgotten how Obama’s promise that everyone could keep his or her insurance played out and how much of a fight it would take to pass Medicare for all. Bennet said people “don’t need insurance 10 years from now or 20 years from now. They need insurance now. And we haven’t been able to give it to them for the last 10 years. We can’t afford to do this for another 10 years, in my view.”
The next morning on CNN, Bennet moved from Sanders to Joe Biden, who has been taking heat from more than a few Dem contenders: “Well, I certainly don’t mean any disrespect for the Vice President. I’ve got tremendous affection for him and I’m grateful for his service, but I do think it’s time to go forward. I think it’s time to go forward from an era where America invaded Iraq, I think it’s time to go forward from lousy bipartisan deals that actually didn’t advance the interests of the country.”
Back to the town hall, Bennet said he supported the idea of the film industry — and others — boycotting Georgia if the state’s restrictive new abortion law actually goes into effect. Disney, Netflix and WarnerMedia have all warned they would stop movie production in Georgia, which has a huge stake in the film industry. Bennet on a possible boycott: “I think it’s important, it’s helpful and it’s necessary.”
Bennet also said he does not support a rush to impeachment, which may not be what most Democrats want to hear. Nearly half the Dem field is calling for at least a House inquiry. Bennet, who believes Trump has committed impeachable offenses, favors Nancy Pelosi’s slow-walk approach, saying that there is no way the Senate will ever vote to convict Trump even if the House votes for impeachment. “That’s what he wants,” Bennet said of Trump, “to be able to say he was railroaded.”
So, did Bennet help himself? He said he was a long shot when he entered the race. He’s still a long shot.
Here’s my don’t-bet-the-farm overview of the race to this point. Biden’s frontrunning role as Democrat savior will probably begin to fade with time. I’m guessing that Warren, with a plan for everything, has a plan to overtake Sanders on the left. One or more from the middle pack of Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and maybe Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar, will still be alive after Iowa and New Hampshire.
For Bennet to have any chance, he will first have to fight his way into that middle pack. And no matter how well he might have done Thursday night, he will still have to do a lot better.