Tens of millions of Americans fixed their attention Wednesday and Thursday nights on 20 Democratic candidates for president, debating for the first time on television.
Back in Colorado, the half dozen Americans who comprise The Colorado Independent staff fixed their attention on two of those 20 — locals John Hickenlooper, the former Denver mayor and two-term governor; and Michael Bennet, the state’s senior, two-term U.S. senator.
Neither is polling well at the moment, as both have hovered between 0 and 1%. But it’s early yet; Donald Trump was also polling around 1% this time three years ago. And in the limelight Thursday in Miami, Bennet and Hick had their best opportunities so far to make strong impressions on an American public that, by and large, has little or no idea who they are.
Bennet got significantly more airtime, with about eight minutes to Hick’s five. Neither landed a knock-out punch or a viral moment, but Bennet, who was more engaged, likely advanced his profile, while Hickenlooper generally seemed content to hang on the sidelines.
Here are a five takeaways on their respective performances:
Both went at Bernie
Hickenlooper and Bennet are riding in the same lane in this race — that is, the moderate white-guy lane. And as moderates, they’ve unsurprisingly both been critical of Bernie Sanders, who many see as the most far-left candidate in the race.
Not four minutes into Thursday’s debate, as Sanders was wrapping up the first remarks of the night, Bennet interjected. He seemed ready to pounce on the Vermont senator regarding taxation. The NBC moderator cut him off. “Senator Bennet,” Savannah Guthrie said, “everyone’s gonna get in here, I promise.”
Bennet did eventually get his digs in.
“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is,” he said, in reference to income inequality. “Where I disagree is on his solution of Medicare for all. … I believe the way to do that is by finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option, that every person and every family in America can make a choice.
“I believe we’ll get there” — there being a more just and equitable health care system — “much more quickly if we can do that.”
Throughout his campaign, and particularly in the last few weeks, Hickenlooper has voiced ardent opposition to socialism, with which Sanders is now synonymous. (Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist.) He did so again Thursday:
“The bottom line is that if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come every way they can and call us socialists,” he said. “We can’t promise every American a government job. .. I believe health care is a right and not a privilege, but you can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for millions of people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.”
Hickenlooper has said repeatedly that if Democrats aren’t careful and embrace the Sanders platform, they’ll help re-elect Donald Trump.
Sanders responded, in defense of his viability: “Last poll I saw had us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump, because the American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist, and that he lied to the American people during his campaign.”
At one point, Sanders also called Bennet “Mike,” a nickname by which Bennet, to our newsroom’s knowledge, does not go.
Hickenlooper was asked at one point about what, if anything, he’d change about border policy on Day 1 of his potential presidency.
He didn’t say what, exactly, he’d do, in contrast to other candidates, including Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who each offered several specific policy ideas.
“Certainly the images we’ve seen this week just compound the emotional impact that the world is judging us by,” Hickenlooper said. He added that if someone had told him the U.S. would one day be caging migrant kids and separating their families, “I would’ve told you it was unbelievable.
“The first thing we have to do is recognize the humanitarian crisis on the border for what it is,” he said, before calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be “completely reformed,” albeit without specifying which reforms he’d push.
By the time the mic circled back to Bennet, the conversation had moved on to foreign allies and adversaries. Bennet said Russia is “the biggest threat to national security.” But he made a point to return to border issues, and said the situation reminds him of what his mom, a Holocaust survivor, endured.
“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility that the whole world is looking at,” he said, growing animated, “when what we should be represented by is the Statue of Liberty.”
In the first hour of the debate, Hickenlooper spoke for about two minutes to Bennet’s four. Unlike other candidates, Hickenlooper never butted in, speaking only when called on. But early in the second hour, he interjected after Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., remarked on the lack of black officers in that city’s police force, and on the recent killing of a black man by a white South Bend officer.
Hickenlooper suggested Denver could be a model for cities like South Bend.
“The question they’re asking in South Bend and across the country is why has it taken so long?” he said, adding that the question people should be asking is why every city in the country doesn’t have police accountability in the way Denver does.
Hickenlooper’s critics would note there’s no shortage of Denverites who believe the city’s policing is no less racist than that of other cities, and Denver has had many of its own high-profile cases in which black men in vulnerable situations died in custody.
Bennet was asked about partisan gridlock in Washington, and responded: “Gridlock will not magically disappear as long as Mitch McConnell is there, first.
“Second, that’s why it’s so important for us to win not just the presidency, to have someone who can run in all 50 states, but to win the Senate as well,” he continued. “We need to end gerrymandering in Washington. The (U.S. Supreme) Court today said they couldn’t do anything about it. We need to overturn Citizens United. The Court is the one that gave us Citizens United. … All of those things have happened since Vice President Biden was in the Senate.”
That last line about Biden was a pointed dig at the current poll leader, who was the subject of a whole lot more digging from the rest of the candidates Thursday.
Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist whose governorship coincided with record oil production in Colorado, defended his past statements that oil and gas companies should “be a part of the solution” on climate change.
“I share in the sense of urgency,” he said. “I’m a scientist so I recognize we’re within 10-12 years of actually suffering irreversible damage.”
But he zoomed right past climate change and back to his main talking point: socialism is bad.
“Guaranteeing everyone a government job is not going to get us there. Socialism is not the solution,” he said. “We can’t demonize every business.”
All candidates were asked what they would fix if they could only tackle one issue.
Bennet named two issues: “Climate change and lack of economic mobility.”
Said Hickenlooper, “A collaborative approach to climate change.”