MIAMI • Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper brought their passion for pragmatism to the national stage Thursday in Miami as the two Coloradans joined eight other Democratic presidential candidate for a fast-paced, fiery debate.
The two Coloradans made the points the candidates and their advisers said they intended to get across during the two-hour broadcast, though neither held the camera nearly as long as the night’s higher-polling stars, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California.
Bennet, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, and Hickenlooper, the state’s former governor, both argued that some of their party’s more left-leaning policies risk throwing the 2020 election to President Donald Trump — called “the worst president in American history” by Hickenlooper — by allowing Republicans to brand the Democrats’ platform a form of socialism.
“I think the bottom line is that if we don’t clearly define that we’re not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” said Hickenlooper early in the debate as Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, scowled.
Bennet directed his most pointed criticism at a signature Sanders health care proposal while saying he agrees “completely” with his Senate colleague that the country suffers from increasing economic inequality.
“Where I disagree is on his solution of Medicare for all,” Bennet said, calling health care “a right.”
“We need to get to universal health care,” Bennet continued. “I believe the way to do that is by finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option that every family and every person in America can make a choice for their family about whether they want a public option, which for them would be like having Medicare for all, or whether they want to keep their private insurance.”
Sanders wasn’t buying it.
“You know, Mike, Medicare is the most popular health insurance program in the country. People don’t like their private insurance companies. They like their doctors and hospitals,” he said, adding that his plan will “substantially lower the cost of health care in this country by removing the greed of the insurance companies.”
Speaking about the migrant families being separated by the Trump administration, Hickenlooper was pointed.
“In Colorado, we call that kidnapping,” he said.
Bennet also excoriated Trump over the family-separation policy and the condition in some detention centers at the southern border.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom because I know she sees herself,” he said, adding that his mother, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, was separated from her parents for years before they reunited to emigrate to the United States after World War II.
“For Donald Trump to be doing what he’s doing to children and their families at the border — I say this as somebody who wrote the immigration bill in 2013 that created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people in this country, that had the most progressive DREAM Act, that had $46 billion of border security that was sophisticated 21st-century border security, not a Medieval wall,” Bennet continued, pointing his finger as his voice rose, possibly reminding viewers of his impassioned speech on the Senate floor in January that went viral.
“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of native hostility that the whole world is looking at when what we should be represented by is the Statue of Liberty, which has brought my parents to this country to begin with. We need to make a change,” he said.
Nearly every time he spoke, Hickenlooper managed to reference his record in Colorado and list the handful of accomplishments that have become staples of his presidential run.
“In Colorado we brought businesses and nonprofits together,” Hickenlooper said. “We got near-universal health care coverage. We were the first state in America to bring the environmental community and the oil and gas industry to aggressively address methane emissions, and we were also the first place to expand reproductive rights on a scale basis and we reduced teen pregnancy by 54%. We’ve done the big progressive things and people said couldn’t be done. I’ve done what pretty much everybody up here is still talking about doing.”
Bennet also repeatedly referenced what has become a central thrust of his campaign, revamping the way government operates.
“We have to restore our democracy at home,” he said.
Hickenlooper and Bennet earned spots on stage for the Democrats’ first round of debates by polling at least 1% support in three polls. They’ve also met requirements to appear in a pair of debates in Detroit scheduled for late July but aren’t guaranteed spots if other candidates also qualify.