Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet went toe to toe with fellow White House hopefuls Wednesday night in the Democrats’ second presidential primary debate this week in Detroit, calling on Democrats to “come together, united against a broken Washington.”
“I believe we have a moral obligation to beat Donald Trump,” he said. “He has to be a single-term president, and we can’t do anything that plays into his hands.”
Bennet took the attack to the Republican incumbent in his opening remarks, saying he recently saw what he termed “one of those Trump signs” that read, “America, love it or leave it,” outside a church.
“I love America, and I know we can make it better,” Bennet said.
Recalling his tenure as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, he said, “For the last three years, we’ve been consumed by a president who frankly doesn’t give a damn about your kids or mine.”
Bennet drew applause with his next line: “Mr. President, kids belong in classrooms, not cages — and they deserve something better than a bully in the White House. Let’s end the three-ring circus in Washington, and let’s make this election about reclaiming our future for our kids and our democracy. Empty promises can’t beat Donald Trump; I can.”
Bennet at times drew sharp contrasts with many of the nine other Democrats in the debate, which aired live on CNN, but also railed against “a broken Washington” and called for the party to put “the divisive politics of Donald Trump” behind them.
Like the other low-polling candidates on stage — he’s languished at or below 1% in surveys of primary voters — Bennet vied for the spotlight in a debate dominated by front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who took fire from fellow candidates and clashed over their health care proposals and criminal justice reform records.
In the first round of questioning, Bennet argued that his legislation to establish a public option for health insurance is the surest way to reach universal coverage for Americans.
He went on to lash the Medicare for all proposal — backed by Harris and progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, who debated Tuesday — as a sure-fire way to turn off crucial swing voters.
Bennet said that running on a platform promising the single-payer “Medicare for All” “makes it much more likely” that Trump will beat the Democratic nominee.
He described his public option proposal as “totally different than the plan Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders and Sen. Harris have proposed, which would make illegal employer-based health insurance in this country and massively raise taxes on the middle class to the tune of $30 billion, as Joe Biden said.”
Defending her plan, Harris responded: “We cannot keep with the Republican talking points with this. We just gotta stop.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also swung back at Bennet, accusing him of “fearmongering” and distorting the plan. He added: “This should be the party that stands for universal health care and says we’re not going to accept anything less.”
Biden weighed in on Bennet’s side with a trademark phrase, calling the “Medicare for All” proposal and its enormous price tag “a bunch of malarkey.”
It remains to be seen whether the debate boosts Bennet in the polls and juices the fundraising he’ll need to qualify for the September’s primary debate, when the requirements tighten, potentially drastically winnowing the number of Democrats on stage.
Bennet will need to score 2% in four national or early-state polls, as well as receive contributions from at least 130,000 donors from a geographic range. As of this week, seven Democrats say they’ve qualified for the next round of debates, set to take place in Houston.
Describing comprehensive immigration reform legislation he shepherded through the Senate in 2013, Bennet batted back the moderator’s attempt to stoke controversy over the candidates’ different position on whether to treat illegal border crossing as a criminal or civil matter.
“I think this is one, in the end, we agree with each other. There is not a single person on this stage, who if we were president, would ever separate a child from their parents at the border,” he said. “That is what this administration has done in the American people’s name — they have turned our border into a symbol of nativist hostility.”
The Statue of Liberty, Bennet added, was the symbol of the United States before Trump was president and should be again, not Trump’s border policies.