In his first local town hall since his failed presidential run, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet hammered on voter turnout, polarization and the Trump administration.
He also said he was still undecided about which of his former Democratic rivals he would back to take on President Donald Trump in November.
“There’s not a nominee, not a potential nominee, that I wouldn’t support because I think Donald Trump poses such an existential threat to the country,” Bennet said in an interview afterward.
He kept his remarks short on his presidential campaign, which ended when he gambled on New Hampshire, but wound up with fewer than .3% of the popular vote.
“I didn’t do as well, as I hoped I would do. It ended sooner than I hoped that it would,” Bennet said.
About 100 people showed up at a Littleton community center, and their questions revealed anxiety, uncertainty and frustration about their future well-being and that of the country. Here are a few quick takeaways:
Healthcare, college affordability and climate change
Among the questions uppermost on constituents’ minds last night: How to pay for health care (two of those in attendance said the government just needs to get out of the health care business), how to pay for college, and who will end up paying for climate change.
When it comes to health care, Bennet blasted the current system as wasteful and said, as he did on the stump, that he favors a public option healthcare program, administered by Medicare. He also said medical care should be more transparent and accountable, so people actually know what they are paying for care.
Bennet pointed to his work with Louisiana GOP Senator Bill Cassidy on legislation to stop surprise medical bills, many provisions of which were adopted into the Lower Health Care Costs Act introduced to the Senate in June.
On education, one constituent talked about interest rates on student loans, which, she said, are so high that her daughter “can’t afford to do anything.”
Bennet said he doesn’t support proposals that would erase debt entirely, something favored by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a current frontrunner in the Democratic primary. Instead, Bennet said, among the solutions he supports is allowing borrowers to restructure their loans as well as reducing interest rates. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it mitigates it, he said.
Income inequality, access to affordable quality health care and student loan debt will all be challenges passed on to the next generation, Bennet said, but no challenge inherited by the generations to come is more pressing than climate change.
“Your generation looks at us and says we aren’t going to string you up for that other stuff, but we will string you up for that [climate change],” Bennet said.
Bennet, who has taken flak from the environmental left — he voted for the Keystone XL pipeline — hasn’t publicly come out for or against the Green New Deal. He voted “present” when the Senate voted on whether to hear the bill in March.
But, along with 31 other senators, he introduced the Clean Economy Act of 2020 last week — a bill that aims to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. to a net-zero by 2050. While campaigning for president, he outlined various climate proposals, including putting land in conservation, establishment of a Climate Bank, and carbon capture.
“We only have one planet, there is no Planet B … nothing else matters if we can’t survive as a species,” Littleton resident Jan Hejtmanek said.
Polarization and the media
Hejtmanek also asked for Bennet’s thoughts on polarization and the media. People are less informed, Hejtmanek said, and “an ignorant society is a malleable society.”
Bennet acknowledged that he’s deeply worried about the state of the media and how people get information. He said that although the country was founded with political disagreement baked into the system, people have lost the ability to communicate across the aisle. Social media, cable news and the erosion of print media all factor into the growing divide in the nation, he said.
“We no longer have a shared understanding of the facts,” Bennet said.
People have to figure out a way to turn social media from a tool of polarization to one of democratization, he added.
A pep talk on voter participation
The anxiety around the Trump administration and its policies was palpable.
“It seems like our democracy has been hijacked by a crazy man, and cronyism, crooked cronyism, is out of control,” one commenter said.
“We have been watching over the last couple of weeks that the rule of law has been challenged and is at real risk,” another said.
Bennet called the president’s behavior unacceptable and said it’s the responsibility of the people to change things, Bennet said. “I think it’s important to reassert the standard we want out of the president of the U.S.”
What, one constituent asked, are Democrats are doing to “light the fire under some people” and get them out to vote in a time when so many are feeling “beaten down.”
Yes, Bennet said, some people feel beaten down, but now, “before the election even gets here,” is not the time to check out.
In a hypothetical future 20 or 30 years down the line, Bennet said, if 70% of people voted, the U.S. could solve all the problems it’s confronting. Climate change, economic inequality, access to healthcare for everyone and robust public education can be addressed through increasing voter turnout, he said.
“All of us — as citizens — have a responsibility to make sure that the turnout is large, not small,” Bennet said.
The government is in gridlock, he said, the Senate only passed 28 amendments to bills in the last year.
“We don’t want to have four more years of this chaos, we want to do better than that, and the only way to do that is by winning elections,” he said.
Bennet will be holding two more town halls this week: Thursday in Grand Junction at 12 p.m. and Friday in Steamboat Springs. Details on the Steamboat Springs event have not yet been released.