Staff Columnist

Good luck, next president. Democracy is broken

Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bennet asks, 'Can we fix it?'

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democratic presidential hopeful, waves to the audience after speaking Oct. 20 at the Linn County Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner at the DoubleTree in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democratic presidential hopeful, waves to the audience after speaking Oct. 20 at the Linn County Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner at the DoubleTree in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet isn’t going to be president. He’s a thoughtful guy with some good ideas, but at a moment when so many Democrats are craving big, dramatic, diverse strokes of structural change in the way America operates, Bennet’s brand of “hey, now, let’s not get too crazy” hasn’t caught fire. And that’s not going to change.

But about those structural changes, Bennet insists our democratic institutions are too damaged to deliver them. He may not be president, but he’s sticking around to remind us that defeating Donald Trump doesn’t solve all our problems.

If a Democrat manages to crawl from the smoldering wreckage of the 2020 election victorious, the rubble will remain piled up all around, along with a sizable portion of the power structure bent on exacting payback.

Yeah, Bennet can be a real bummer. But he’s not wrong. Granted, our dystopia is hard to miss.

“In the 10 years I’ve been in this job there are days when I’ve wondered whether we can govern the country anymore,” Bennet told our editorial board this past week.

“The place is debilitated. Our democracy is broken. These institutions are broken. The question is can we fix it? Do we have the will to fix it? I believe we do have that will,” Bennet said.

I’m not seeing much “will” right now. Unless he means “will we be burning down a democratic norm or critical institution today?”

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But Bennet argues the founders crafted the Constitution to account for our disagreements. They figured the friction of debate, checks and balances would lead to ideas with support from multiple factions. This notion of pluralism has been lost in national politics, he contends.

“We’re in this low-rent politics today where it’s all about how you can provoke a reaction on the other side, so you can raise money or sound compelling on social media. But we have lost our ability to govern completely,” Bennet said.

So on a generational issue such as attacking the climate crisis, Bennet argues electing a Democratic president won’t be enough to move the needle.

“If you actually want to create durable change, on climate, you can’t accept a politics where I get elected, I put my stuff in, two years later it gets ripped out by the other side. That is a fair definition of our political system today,” Bennet said.

“You can’t address climate change two years at a time. Which means we have to create a durable solution. And the only way to do that, I think, is to create a constituency for change in America of an unusual group of people who come together and act urgently on climate,” he said.

So Bennet would, for instance, seek to enlist farmers and ranchers in efforts to sequester carbon through farming practices, practices that could also lead to cleaner water and less soil loss. Getting farmers on board broadens the climate coalition.

But a proposal such as Medicare-for-all does the opposite, Bennet contends, driving away skittish moderates and independent voters while wasting piles of political capital better spent on an array of issues instead of a long, losing health care fight.

“I think if the Democratic Party is going to continue to be dominated by coastal elites and their policy ideas that have very little to do with the people who live in Iowa … that’s going to continue to be a problem,” said Bennet, who attended Wesleyan University and Yale Law School before heading out West. He is polling very, very far behind candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are pitching Medicare-for-all. Universal health care has everything to do with how many Iowans live.

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Bennet wants other governing reforms, such as a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United ruling that opened the campaign cash floodgates, or at the very least far more disclosure. He’d like to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists, and mandate non-partisan redistricting.

On this point, Bennet used Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King’s western Iowa district as an example, apparently unaware Iowa already has nonpartisan redistricting. Look it up; it’s a national model.

But without a return to the “pluralism” Bennet mentions repeatedly, rules and reforms won’t be enough. Trump claimed he’s the “only one who can fix it,” using what Bennet calls “an autocrat’s slogan,” but it’s not true. It takes a governing majority.

“It’s on all of us,” Bennet said.

Comments (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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