Near the end of the town hall in Frisco last Friday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat in his ninth year in the Senate, invoked the famous answer Benjamin Franklin gave when asked what the framers of the Constitution had created.
“He was asked, ‘What kind of government are you forming, a republic or a monarchy?’ and his answer was, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’”
While Bennet had spent a little over an hour discussing everything from the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency — “I think we’ve decided we should have the freedom to have the Cuyahoga River catch on fire again,” he quipped — to the Republican Senate’s plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act — more than half the questions were about health care — the theme that reverberated throughout the meeting was Bennet’s contention that the great American experiment could be at risk.
More than 225 years after drafting the Constitution, Bennet said, the Founders might be shocked that their government had adapted and grown to a county spanning a continent, leading the world, with 300 million people and the biggest economy the world has ever known.
“That’s because of their genius and because of generations and generations of Americans that answered Ben Franklin’s call. And that’s what this is about now for us,” he said. “It’s a republic, if we can keep it. And we can keep it if we stand up for independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press and balance of powers and keeping too much money out of our political system and making sure that not just 50 percent of the people vote in this country, but that 90 percent or 100 percent of the people eligible to vote, vote in this country. And if we do that, we will be around for the next generation and the generation after that. And — and, I think, we will reassert it for the rest of the world how important America is in terms of our commitment to pluralism, our commitment to the rule of law and our commitment to (being) a nation of immigrants. That’s very rare in this world. That’s why I think we have to fight to preserve it.”
He was met with nods and applause from the roughly 100 people crowded into a meeting room at the Summit County Community and Senior Center for Bennet’s first town hall of the day. Two more were scheduled that afternoon, in Edwards and Glenwood Springs, bringing to 13 the number of town halls the senator has held across the state this year.
Again and again, Bennet pointed to signs the republic could be faltering, although he put a determined, somewhat optimistic face on it.
At one point, an angry constituent rose to deliver some advice — questions were taken at random from cards submitted by the audience, though this man started out by saying he was going to skip the topic he’d written down — and vent some frustration.
“What I’m hearing from you is, we’re pretty much screwed for the next four years — these other people in power are going to dismantle what’s taken a while to assemble.” Gathering steam, he said, “When somebody comes up with a bald-faced lie, call him on it. … They don’t know the meanings of the words they’re using. Call them on it.”
This gave Bennet an opportunity to mention a quote from ancient Greek historian Thucydides that he’d broadcast on social media a couple months back when the Republican-controlled Senate had changed the rules in order to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a Denver appellate judge before his elevation to the high court.
The gist of the passage from Thucydides — doubtless few at the town hall thought they’d be hearing about him that day — was that states turn to propaganda and erase the meaning of words when the going gets tough for a certain kind of ruler.
“Words,” Bennet said, shaking his head, “have lost their meaning. I think that’s exactly right.”
“None of us picked this time we were going to have to deal with a president who doesn’t believe in separation of powers, doesn’t believe in an independent judiciary, doesn’t believe in freedom of the press,” he continued. “This is a time it would be very easy for people to divert their eyes and say it’s so screwed up back there.”
Then he brought up examples he said suggested the president was on a mission to “decouple” Americans from reality.
“When Trump said journalists were not covering terrorist acts,” Bennet said, sounding exasperated and throwing out his hands, “newspapers put out a list, a long list — there are journalists who have literally been beheaded in the Middle East. And if you don’t think this is part of a broader effort to try to disenfranchise the American people from their democracy, I think you’re wrong.” However, he concluded, “I am not settling for the idea that we’re just screwed for the next four years.”
The next question was about insurance rating areas — a big concern in Summit County, which has some of the most expensive health insurance in the country — one of numerous questions about health care, many involving the legislation Senate Republicans have been drafting out of public view. (Along with other Democrats, Bennet sponsored a bill introduced this week that would require Senate leadership to hold a hearing on the health care bill before voting on it, although the chance of passing the requirement is slim.)
While Bennet had earlier ripped the GOP health care proposal — at least the broad outlines that have emerged from behind closed doors — he mostly used the insurance question as the occasion for a sardonic observation.
“You’re free to buy insurance you can’t afford,” he said with a grim chuckle. “That should distinguish us as proud, free people — as opposed to all those shackled people in Europe.”
Then, turning more serious — or at least more literal — he added, “If we were working together as Republicans and Democrats, as we should be on this issue, this would be one of the fundamental questions.”
When the topic of health care — and the GOP’s effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act — came up near the start of the town hall, Bennet delivered what sounded like a polished exegesis, proposing that the Republicans were engaged in a ridiculous endeavor.
“If you set out to design a bill less responsive to the criticisms I’ve heard of Obamacare — the critics, to say nothing of the people who have supported it — you couldn’t design a bill less responsive than the House bill,” he said. “It would be impossible.”
As members of the crowd chuckled, Bennet continued. “I’ve never heard people say, ‘Could you please give a $400 billion tax cut to the richest Americans? Very seldom have I heard somebody say, ‘It’d be a good idea to cut Medicaid by a quarter,’ which is what that bill does — that’s before an $800 billion cut to Medicaid that they haven’t just proposed, they’ve passed.”
Then, in a line that prompted a quick smile from Bennet before he delivered it — he knew it would draw some laughter, which it did — Bennet said, his voice rising, “I join the Freedom Caucus in their critique of the bill the House passed, because it really is just Obamacare Lite.”
Rather than rebuild the health care system, as Bennet said Republicans have promised for years — “after all this rhetoric about how Obamacare is destroying capitalism as we know it,” he said with a shake of his head — all the legislation does is provide a massive tax cut for wealthy Americans and strip a few key provisions from the Affordable Care Act, he maintained. “You don’t have to cover preexisting conditions, but being a woman is a preexisting condition,” he said, trailing off.
There are, he continued, “completely reasonable critiques of Obamacare,” such as how should the system encourage competition in rural Colorado. “But what the Senate is doing is trying to get 51 votes, not solve problems.” He added, “The level of economic insecurity that exists in this county because of our screwed up health care system shouldn’t be tolerable in the United States of America.”
Then Bennet encouraged constituents to let lawmakers know what they want while the Senate bill is still being written. “Let them know it’s not acceptable to you that it’s not as crazy as the House bill.”
He noted that the Senate was likely to hold a vote on its version of the health care bill by July 4.
A few questions later, Bennet said he didn’t know where his Republican colleague, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, is on the bill. (Gardner is one of 13 Republicans involved in a working group putting together the Senate legislation.) “But he was one of four Republicans who sent a letter to (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell saying he was uncomfortable with the cuts to Medicaid in the House (bill),” Bennet added. “If that’s true, he should be making sure that whatever’s happening in the Senate reflects that discomfort.”
In an interview with Colorado Politics before the town hall, Bennet went into some detail about a point he said he intended to make at the meeting. (He did so, although less expansively.)
“I’ve talked about how important it is for us to distinguish between edited content — curated content — and content that’s just gibberish on the Internet. I think that’s important for everybody. I hope that we all have the opportunity to reassert the importance of our institutions — not just our democratic institutions but our journalistic institutions as well,” he said.
“I do think it’s one of the things that underlies the disagreement we see in our politics right now — when you see, for example, that the majority of solid Trump supporters didn’t even get their news from Fox, but the Columbia Journalism Review said that it came from Breitbart and a constellation of five or six websites around Breitbart. That suggests that people are kind of in an echo chamber. I see that on the left as well; I’m not sure it’s as pronounced as it is on the right.”
Bennet said the consequences were clear as lawmakers take sides not just over policy positions but over various sets of facts determined by media diets.
Nodding toward fired FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before a Senate committee the day before, Bennet shook his head in what looked like bemused wonder at the partisan reaction to key portions of Comey’s testimony.
Did the Russians interfere with the U.S. election last year? “They absolutely did,” Bennet said. “That is a place where I don’t understand why Republican members of the Senate and the House aren’t saying this is a — we ought to be sanctioning Russia right now.”
Then, measuring his words carefully, Bennet laid out why he believes it matters.
“This shouldn’t be hard,” he said. “Everyone in — I won’t say everyone in America — everyone who’s had access to the intelligence here, with the possible exception of President Trump, knows that the Russian incursion here was real and was serious, and they were trying to influence the outcome of our elections. They’re doing that all over Europe as well, and people need to pay attention to it. Your average person on the street doesn’t have the benefit of what our intelligence agencies are collecting, but members of Congress certainly do. And for them to treat it as an open question — whether it was the Russians, or whether it was anybody at all, whether, as the president said, it was the Chinese, is not acceptable.”
Whether the Trump campaign had any involvement in the Russian meddling, he added, “is an entirely different question. What Russia did isn’t.”