MANCHESTER — Sen. Michael Bennet said he believes he can pull off a top-three finish in the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary. The Colorado senator has not been in a televised debate with the other Democratic presidential candidates since July, and is far from the top tier of candidates in money, staff or volunteers.
So rather than send an army of canvassers door-to-door, or land a zinging line on TV, Bennet is trying to build support with house parties and town hall speeches. This kind of campaigning seems to suit him, Bennet said in a Friday interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“I’m not the best soundbite person,” he said.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Bennet spoke about his experience as a school superintendent and aisle-crossing senator, and his moderate vision for America.
Bennet was proud of the way the achievement gaps between white students and students of color, between rich and poor students, narrowed during his four-year tenure as school superintendent in Denver. He said part of the improvement came because he was willing to disrupt the status quo. Bennet said he was willing to close schools, and played a key role in implementing performance-based pay for teachers — a system that was thrown out last year after Denver teachers went on strike.
Bennet said he believed Denver teachers went on strike not because of the pay system, which he still supports, but because their pay was not keeping up with the skyrocketing cost of living in Denver.
Families across the country, he said, are similarly squeezed between stagnant earnings and the increasing cost of a middle-class life.
As he spoke, Bennet used a blue felt-tip pen to draw a small chart on a note card plucked from his jacket pocket. A flat line for family income was sliced by steep slopes representing the cost of health care, housing, college tuition and child care.
Asked why the economy was booming if things were so bad, Bennet characterized President Donald Trump’s policies as a series of Keynesian interventions — in essence, a series of stimulus packages akin to the 2009 auto industry bailout under former President Barack Obama.
Obama was called a socialist for the bailout, Bennet said, but weren’t Trump’s farm subsidies — $28 billion for farmers, to dull the pain of the trade war — the same kind of response? Pounding the table, Bennet said 30% of farmers’ incomes last year came from the federal government.
“Who’s the Bolshevik, you know?” Bennet asked.
And, he said, while the economy has been steadily creating jobs under Trump, the rate of job growth has been slower than it was during Obama’s second term. Bennet said that if job growth had continued at the rate it had been growing from 2012 through 2016, there would be a million more jobs in America.
Explaining this point, Bennet lunged for a wall-mounted white board to illustrate with a bigger graph, but stopped himself before grabbing a marker. He settled for another graph on a note card, and another note card chart for the national debt. Bennet called the debt a generational problem.
His interest in the national debt makes Bennet something of an outlier in this year’s Democratic primary. With pride, he points out the low cost of his proposals, as compared to those of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — illustrated with a bar graph on a note card. Bennet said he wants realistic proposals, and believes he can work with Republicans to get things done. He was one of the “gang of eight” Republican and Democratic senators who, in 2013, came up with a compromise immigration reform bill, and believes Democrats and Republicans can work together again.
Democrats and Republicans reaching some kind of agreement on goals would lead to more lasting change than a policy passed on partisan lines, he said, which the other side can always dispense with when they come to power.
“At best, I get something done for two years, the other side rips it up,” he said. “You can’t fix climate two years at a time.”
He believes lasting progress is only possible through compromise.
By the end of the hour-long interview, Bennet was sitting sideways in his seat, blue jacket slung over the chair beside him. His hair was a little ruffled, but he looked ready for a long weekend on the campaign trail. On Saturday and Sunday, Bennet will go to five more small events as he tries sell his vision of America to New Hampshire voters, one handshake at a time.