The Michael Bennet Problem

What does it say about American politics that the Colorado senator hasn’t managed to stand out in the presidential race?

Michael Bennet
Samantha Sais / Reuters

Michael Bennet walked into a classroom at the Jesse Taylor Early Education Center on the north side of Des Moines carrying a box of school supplies. It was the first day of school. Around a table sat 10 Iowans—nine women and one man—teachers, school administrators, education experts. Bennet set the box down and took a chair. Jacketless and tieless, medium height, medium build, slight hunch, blue shirt coming untucked, pale-brown shoes, red-brown hair conventionally combed and parted, low-wattage smile flickering across thin lips: He might have been the preschool director, except she was a woman named Celeste Kelling sitting to his right. Even the position of school superintendent—which Bennet once held in Denver—would have needed a little more flash. When he introduced himself as a senator from Colorado who was running for president, it sounded like a half-apologetic and slightly improbable aside. He wanted to get to his real business, which was listening to these people.

Judy Russell, who runs Head Start at Drake University, said that she had recently seen a sharp rise in poor children enduring violence and abuse at home.

Bennet leaned forward. “Tell me more about that. What’s happened?”

“I think we’ve had more drugs.”


“We’re still in the meth period. There’s more violence on TV. Families are struggling, jobs and support are missing. The trauma that the children go through is absolutely evident in the classroom.”

“Is that a common view here?”

Everyone nodded.

The Iowans described their work. Starting pay for preschool teachers is $13 an hour. Juli Bretz, the school nurse, barely made minimum wage as a teacher’s associate before quitting, taking out student loans, and going to nursing school. State funding is miserly and bureaucratically tortured into different strands that need to be braided together. Kids attend class in half-day shifts because the money for each time period comes from separate sources. When you think of Des Moines, you don’t think first of poverty, but three-quarters of the city’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced lunch—a higher rate than Denver’s. Half of them don’t attend preschool, and the yearly wait list comes to a hundred children.

“If it were up to me, we’d be talking about free pre-K, not free college,” Bennet said. He had just that morning released an education plan calling for, among other things, increased teacher pay and free preschool for every American child through a combination of federal and state money. “My sense traveling around Iowa is that you have the same problems we have in Colorado, which is just a complete underinvestment in our public-education system. We’re not investing the way our parents and grandparents invested in us. It’s not even close.”

They sounded like equals talking about a subject of intense mutual interest: that most basic, perennial, ubiquitous, and all-American subject, our collective failure of poor children. Bennet didn’t ask for votes, or even mention politics. The visit, he said, would be the high point of his week.

“Any other questions, Senator?” Kelling asked.

“I’m just so grateful for the work you do,” Bennet said. “I wish that we were treating it with the dignity it deserves.”

Nothing is nondescript—in some cases, more effort is needed to know a thing well enough to describe it. This is true of Des Moines; it’s also true of Bennet. His qualities are unspectacular, but in politics they’re unusual, even rare. He listens closely, and he talks like a human being who is trying to figure out what he thinks as he speaks. He reads Montesquieu, Douglass, Whitman, Baldwin, and Jill Lepore, and he writes well (in his book, The Land of Flickering Lights, he says of a Ted Cruz filibuster, “His hypocrisy had a papier-mache grandeur to it”). His moderation has nothing to do with political cowardice or softheadedness. He is passionate about education, equality, and self-government, and he’s devoted his political career to turning around the decline of all three. At the same time, he represents a purple state in the almost evenly split upper chamber of a deeply divided republic. “I just believe that we are at our strongest when we have the most—these aren’t political words—but when we have the most fulsome pluralism that we can have, the greatest diversity of opinion, the greatest opportunity for people to weigh in on what we’re doing,” he told me.

In another era, Bennet’s name would be attached to pieces of significant, maybe historic legislation.(For example, he has co-authored a bill with Senator Sherrod Brown that, if it ever becomes law, would greatly expand the child tax credit and could reduce child poverty by almost half.) But by his own measure of success, which is actual work done, his career has been a qualified failure. He was appointed to his seat in 2009, then elected the next year and reelected in 2016 (both terrible years for Democrats). During his decade in office, the U.S. Congress has been about the least productive legislature in the world. For eight years the Freedom Caucus held the Republican House majority in a death grip of legislative nihilism; Mitch McConnell used Senate rules and power politics to block the Democratic majority and president, then neuter the Democratic minority. All the while, dark money from wealthy interests has flooded the institution, stopping action on problems that large majorities of Americans want solved, including gun violence and climate change.

Bennet’s book describes five episodes from this dark decade. He avoids extreme partisan terminology and describes at length his effort to compromise with the other side on immigration reform in 2013. But his book is an implied argument for the impossibility of working with the Republican Party.

“True,” he said. “That’s why I’m for winning races. You have to take a climate policy to Colorado, to Iowa, and you have to win an argument.” It’s still possible, he said, to work with Republicans in Colorado, though it’s becoming much harder—but not Republicans in Washington, D.C. “I don’t relish it. Barack Obama used to say after his election the fever would break. Now we know the fever didn’t break. I believe that if we are going to continue to live in a democracy, which I think is up for grabs, this is the big question for America right now: It is, can we build a coalition of Americans to make Washington do its job? And what issues we pick, what issues we decide to lead with and the way we design those issues, has a lot to do with whether we’ll succeed in that or not.”

There are many reasons why Bennet stands almost no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. One is that few Americans have heard of him, and—since he failed to qualify for last Thursday night’s debate—few are likely to hear of him in the future. Another is that he only got into the race in May, later than almost all his opponents, including the one—Mayor Pete Buttigieg—who occupies the narrow strip of earnest, low-key, deliberative center-left political ground that Bennet might have claimed. A third is that he lacks what he called “sex appeal, or whatever it is if it’s not that,” and then amended to “star power—and I don’t have it in a way that some of these other candidates do.”

“It” is the power to attract attention, desire, devotion, on a vast impersonal level. Unpromising prospects can acquire star power, or have it conferred on them—Buttigieg is an example, and Andrew Yang is becoming another. Its opposite is a human being in politics who is most comfortable in direct connection with other individual human beings. The disastrous reign of a celebrity president who excites stadiums full of followers might have depressed Americans’ longing for the oceanic feeling in politics, but it continues to thrive.

Strategically, Bennet has no obvious path to the nomination. The main obstacle is Joe Biden, who blocks the middle way with a candidacy at once large, soft, and potentially implosive. As long as Biden remains strong, no other moderate will gain enough oxygen to thrive. The questions that paralyze Democrats with anxiety—Could Biden survive a round with Trump? Would Warren or Sanders drive away enough swing voters to lose? Is there another candidate who could do better than the three leaders? Can anyone unite the party across lines of age, race, gender, and ideology, and still encompass independents and moderate Republicans?—leave a glimmer of hope for someone currently trapped in the low single digits.

Bennet’s decision to stay in the race despite failing to make the cut for the fall debates has an air of lonely quixotism. He has 20 paid staff and two field offices in Iowa. His highest-profile endorsement came last week from Gary Hart. During the hour-plus that we spent in a Des Moines coffee shop, no one approached our table. It was as if I were talking privately to someone I could have talked to for hours more. Afterward, as I watched Bennet cross the street with an aide and head off in their car to the next event, I had a strong though not really justifiable feeling that there’s something wrong with a political culture in which such a person barely stands a chance.