Senator Bennet discusses his proposed changes to U.S foreign policy and how the United States can best meet the challenges of this century.
ENSOR: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Michael Bennet. I’m David Ensor, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. This meeting is part of the Council’s Election 2020 Series, so please check out CFR.org if you want to have any additional Election 2020 information.
This session is on the record, and I’m here to introduce our speaker, the senior senator from Colorado. He’s the product of a classic American melting-pot story, which suggests to me that he most likely follows international affairs with a bit more personal interest than maybe some of the other candidates for president do. On his father’s side, Senator Bennet is a descendent of travelers on the Mayflower, and he was born when his father was a senior U.S. diplomat. His mother, though, was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1938.
And there may be others in the room who can say this too, but I had the pleasure, the great pleasure of knowing his father back when Doug Bennet was the president of National Public Radio, so it’s a great pleasure now to meet his son.
As we all know in this room here, the American presidency has a great deal more influence over foreign policy than any other aspect of government, but our election campaigns never seem to reflect that. Like most of the candidates, you have not—he has not had many opportunities yet to present his views in any detail, at least on international affairs. Tonight that changes.
And I’m—basically I just want to say, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome presidential candidate Senator Michael Bennet. (Applause.)
BENNET: Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be here. I offered David the opportunity for the two of us to have a debate of our own tonight, and I said that I would play the part of Bernard Sanders and he could play anybody he chose, but we decided not to do that. Instead, I’m grateful, very grateful to CFR for allowing me to share a few thoughts tonight on foreign policy which sadly, as David says, has been an afterthought in this debate, though it deserves for a variety of reasons our urgent attention.
Over the past three years, America and the world have seen the costs and dangers of a president who lacks any coherent strategy on foreign policy. That is ironic, because we’ve also never had a president who thought he knew more than Donald Trump. As a candidate, he said, “Nobody knows more about trade than me.” He said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” As president he praised King Salman in Saudi Arabia, then flew to Israel and announced, “We just got back from the Middle East.” He re-tweeted that he was, quote, “the king of Israel” and that Israeli Jews love him “like the second coming of God.” You know the rest.
The real question is how does someone so clearly unfit for an internship at CFR become commander in chief? (Laughter.) One reason was fifty years of economic stagnation for the vast majority of Americans. Another less-understood reason was the invasion of Iraq, which discredited Washington, stoked ambivalence about our global engagement and made America far more susceptible to Trump’s incoherent bluster.
In 2016 I remember pundits predicting that Trump would lose the South Carolina primary because he had attacked the Iraq War. That analysis sounded wrong to me in the moment because it was clear by then, especially in rural southern communities where the cost of war fell especially hard, there was a growing sense that Iraq had been a catastrophe. Donald Trump won South Carolina and, surprisingly, the presidency.
Having won, President Trump’s animating impulse has been to do the opposite of Barack Obama in every respect. In foreign policy, unfortunately, that led him to reject not just President Obama, but seventy years of U.S. foreign policy traditions that have crossed Republican and Democratic administrations since the Second World War. This is not the place for a dissertation on our postwar traditions, but in an era of America First and with a president who says proudly, “I’m a nationalist,” let us remember three.
One, America is never secure in isolation. Generations ago when Nazi Brownshirts burned the Reichstag or when Japan invaded China, it was tempting to view these events as distant problems for different people. We learned at Pearl Harbor how wrong that was. We learned in the mountains of Sicily and the jungles of Luzon that our alliances make us stronger, not weaker. And in the postwar era we created NEAT/NATO, deepened the Five Eyes alliance and wove a network of security partnerships unmatched in human history.
And for seventy years, America resisted the siren song of isolation, understanding that our security demanded engagement in the world, bound by humility about what we could and could not achieve. The humility, for example, to contain Soviet Communism rather than imagine we could destroy it by force. As FDR said, we cannot escape danger by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads. That was as true on December 7, 1941, as it was on September 11, 2001, and it remains true today.
Two, we understood that force alone can’t keep us safe. The allied military may have won the Second World War, but the Marshall Plan secured the peace, making friends of one-time foes, driving opportunity in Europe and East Asia and returning our investment many times over. With that lesson in mind, America would go on to promote economic development, education, health, the rule of law across the globe as our diplomats promoted peace, brokered agreements among Israel, Egypt and Jordan, limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and deepening our ties with nations in every region of the globe.
America’s active role in the world is why fifty-four years ago—I should say actually, fifty-five years ago next week—I was born in New Delhi, India, of all places. My dad, Doug Bennet, had taken a job with Chester Bowles, the U.S. ambassador to India at the time, joining a wave of young people motivated to deepen our global ties during the Cold War. A few years ago I was in India with Senator Warner, my friend from Virginia, who enjoyed pointing out in every single meeting that we went that out of 2,300-and-something senators from the beginning of our republic, I was the only one to have been born in New Delhi. (Laughter.) It was a great applause line in Calcutta, not as much in Des Moines. (Laughter.)
Third, we learned that America’s power is inseparable from American values. Democracy, pluralism, the rule of law—our values drew others toward us. They deepened our ties with democratic allies, they gave confidence to those struggling against tyranny. Above all, our example was proof to the world that a society rooted in human dignity and freedom was not only possible, but essential to humanity.
Even when we fell short abroad and at home, we were always trying to be better. It’s what separated America from other powers of history. We held ourselves to a higher standard. Through it all we understood that one of our greatest values was the value of our word, and over the years America’s word has acted as a force multiplier, inspiring confidence in our friends and fear in our foes. These were our postwar traditions, and though we were not always perfect at our best, they acted as a force of stability, prosperity and inspiration to the world.
What Donald Trump failed to grasp is that our invasion of Iraq never embodied those traditions; it betrayed them. It was an exception, not the rule. In Iraq we broke with our allies while abandoning any restraint of what brute force could achieve. We weaponized our values by justifying shock and awe in the name of democracy. We frittered away trillions of dollars in incompetent nation building, and we lied about weapons of mass destruction, eroding the trust of the American people and the world—mistrust Donald Trump exploited all the way to the White House.
But for all Trump’s criticism of the war, the president has drawn all the wrong lessons from Iraq. Instead of pulling our allies closer, he’s driving them away. Instead of rejecting nation building, he’s rejected foreign assistance of any kind as a waste and then forcing mindless hiring freezes at the State Department and threatening to slash funding for the United Nations and foreign aid by nearly in half. Instead of burnishing our values, an example, he’s abandoned any commitment to democracy and human rights abroad while running roughshod over our democratic values at home. The result has been devastating to America’s leadership in the world.
Consider Syria. So pitiful was Trump’s knowledge of the Middle East and so desperate was his desire to get out that it took just one phone call from the Turkish president to upend U.S. policy, to devastating effect—the Kurds betrayed; Assad, Iran and Russia empowered; ISIS revived. It was an historic blunder. Over the past five years, we and our Kurdish allies had effectively put ISIS in a box. We lost six soldiers, which is tragic, but the Kurds lost eleven thousand people. The idea that of all our engagements in the Middle East this is the one Trump would abandon is ridiculous, made more ridiculous by the fact that he has deployed over fifteen thousand troops to the region at essentially the same time.
His withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Agreement was equally damaging. That agreement, for once, was an attempt by this country to help manage a problem in the Middle East, rather than to go to war with it. The decision to scuttle the deal, even though it was working and even though there was no alternative in place, was like abandoning a lifeboat at sea because we wanted a better one, even with no better one in sight.
Now Iran has resumed enrichment at Fordow. It has sent new centrifuges spinning at Natanz. And it’s intensified its malevolent activity in the region. The damage extends to North Korea, where any future negotiation over its nuclear program will now occur in the shadow of Trump’s abandonment of the Iran deal.
President Trump doesn’t grasp this, and until recently has been so desperate for a deal with North Korea that he trumpeted their commitment to denuclearize, a promise they broke repeatedly in the past and have never actually made in the present. But these facts didn’t stop President Trump from telling the world it could sleep well because of what he achieved in Hanoi, which was nothing other than give Kim Jung Un cover as he expanded his missile program.
As the president has penned love letters to Kim, he’s hurled insults at our allies. He said Germany was captive to Russia. He called the Canadian prime minister very dishonest and weak. He called the mayor of London a stone-cold loser. If anyone in America tweeted like that, they’d have a meeting with HR the next Monday morning. And if their response was, “Don’t worry about it; I’m a stable genius with unmatched wisdom,” they’d be fired on the spot.
President Trump’s disdain for our allies extends to our values. He sided with Putin over our democracy, pursued a Muslim ban and slashed our refugee admissions during the worst refugee crisis since World War II. He’s not uttered one word about Hong Kong or the Uighurs. The president’s ignorance of our values is matched only by his ignorance of the world.
His ignorance is a weakness that foreign leaders have rushed to exploit. After the brutal murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, the president refused to criticize Saudi Arabia, claiming he didn’t want to, quote, “destroy our economy by jeopardizing an arms sale with the kingdom,” as if our economy were so weak and our values so cheap that they hinged on a few military contracts. Last week he said he might attend Russia’s top military parade in Red Square. In every arena, the president acts as if America were some two-bit transactional power instead of the world’s indispensable nation. It’s why he’s been rolled by Turkey and North Korea and also by Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. He is a fundamentally weak foreign policy president.
If you were to sum it up, the Trump doctrine has been to take bad situations and make them a thousand times worse—embrace our enemies, confound our allies and betray our strengths and our values. For seventy years America was largely a force for stability in the world, the calm in the storm. Under Donald Trump, we have become the storm, and we are losing ground quickly.
Trump’s incoherence could not come at a worse time. We confront urgent, overlapping challenges that demand thoughtful and strategic American leadership. I won’t recount them all, but here are my top three.
First, climate change. Unless we are content to hand our children a hellscape of droughts and wildfires, we must achieve net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050. Instead of leading, President Trump has isolated the United States as the only nation on Earth outside the Paris Climate Agreement. In humanity’s greatest test, Trump has put America on the sidelines.
Second, we must confront the rise of China. China’s economy has quadrupled since 2001, tripled since 2004 and doubled since 2008. Between 2011 and 2013, China poured more concrete than we did in the entire twentieth century. They’ve laid 3,500 miles of fiber optic cable to connect Latin America to Africa and ultimately to China, while we spent seven months fighting over a wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for. They are building bases, buying ports, exporting surveillance technologies and pledging $1 trillion to their One Belt One Road Initiative, while we can’t even pass a basic infrastructure bill in the Congress.
Whether we like it or not, America and China are now competing to define the future, and unlike us, they’re playing to win. And unlike us, China is not inconvenienced by our form of self-government. Their model is clear—security without freedom, riches without rights, action without dissent. We have a different model—democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, individual rights, and today that model is under greater assault than at any period in my life, by an American president and around the world.
This is the third challenge we must confront. Far-right nationalism has resurfaced from Rome to Charlottesville. New technologies like facial recognition risk a new digital tyranny. On top of it all, social media pollutes democracy with endless clickbait vitriol and lies, while serving as a Trojan horse for Russian propaganda. Russia, China, Iran and ISIS cheer these developments because they have no use for democracy. They have no use for pluralism. Diversity and dissent are threats to their ambitions of nationalism, authoritarianism and fundamentalism. And if America does not reject that dim view of humanity, no one else will.
Climate, China, the attack on democracy, all of these challenges demand urgent American leadership. Naturally, there are many others, from global pandemics to mass migration to the migration issues in our own hemisphere. Pick any and you’ll discover that they call on us not to discard our best foreign policy traditions, but to reaffirm them for a new era. Because in this century, even more than the last, there is no security in isolation. Today a new coal plant in Calcutta can mean new wildfires in Colorado, just as a Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg can reach voters in St. Paul.
To meet these challenges we need the support of other nations, and it remains true that force alone can’t keep us safe. You can’t bomb climate change any more than you can launch a cruise missile at white nationalism. Of course we must maintain our military edge, but today’s challenges also require strategic investments abroad, and they require us to uphold our values to offer an alternative to China’s authoritarianism and to burnish our democratic example at the very moment the world needs it most.
Put simply, the world needs American leadership and as president, I will act urgently to reclaim it. On my first day in office America will re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement. Within my first hundred days I’ll convene a global climate summit to reassert our leadership and set even more ambitious emissions targets for 2030, and I will catalyze $10 trillion in public and private investment to create clean energy markets for our businesses around the world. To deal with China instead of slapping tariffs on our allies, I’ll galvanize them to counter Beijing’s mercantilist trading practices, stem the expansion of its surveillance technologies and offer other nations a compelling alternative to China’s roads, ports and politics.
And I will defend democracy. As president I’ll form an international coalition to defend democracy with our partners and allies. I’ll expand U.S. support for civil society, the rule of law and press freedom around the globe. And instead of joking with Russia about election interference in 2016, I’ll sanction them and make them pay a price.
Finally, we will not meet any challenges this century with institutions still mired in the past. As president, I’ll invest in foreign assistance as a critical instrument of American power while making it more targeted, more integrated and accountable for results. I’ll reorient from legacy weapons programs and invest in future threats from cyberattacks, not donors. And instead of railing against the United Nations, I’ll work to end the bureaucratic inertia that has corrupted its noble purpose and kept it from addressing next-generation challenges.
If our grandparents could forge the international system, surely we can re-imagine it in the twenty-first century. The stakes are nothing less than the world America built, once rooted in the hard wisdom of war, but oriented toward common aspirations of human freedom and dignity, one that understand s our fates as peoples and nations are inescapably interwoven and that rejects the dangerous myopia of America First. America First didn’t liberate Europe. America First didn’t defeat Soviet Communism. America First didn’t forge an international order that helped billions of our fellow human beings escape poverty and disease.
Earlier this year, when the president was separating families at the border, my mom gave me a call. She told me that she saw herself in those kids because she was separated from her parents when the Nazis invaded Poland. She was told that her parents were dead, and only discovered later they were alive when they came to find her. They moved from Warsaw to Stockholm to Mexico City and ultimately to the United States—the only place in the world they could rebuild their shattered lives.
As a senator and presidential candidate, I’ve traveled broadly throughout our country and I have never met anyone with a stronger accent than my grandparents had. And I’ve also never met anybody more patriotic. They believed in what America stood for. They had no doubt of what it stood for, what it meant, the world’s last best hope.
Fifteen years after my grandparents came to America, not able to speak a word of English, they sent me a note to celebrate my first birthday in New Delhi. And they wrote, “The ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of democracy, in search of which your dear mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful America in 1950. We have been happy here ever since, beyond our greatest dreams and expectations, with democracy, freedom and love and humanity’s greatest treasure. We hope that when you grow up you’ll help develop in other parts of the world a greater understanding of these American values.”
Aware as we must be of our own failings, my grandparents' experiences always underscored to me how important the American example has been. If we falter at this critical moment, America’s ability to secure our future and defend our values will be set back, and humanity will suffer. We have no choice but to succeed.
Thank you. (Applause.) Appreciate it.
ENSOR: I was going to ask for a—(laughter)—I don’t know, you remind me of—
ENSOR: You bring to mind Lt. Col. Vindman from over there, at the end, and my own immigrant father.
ENSOR: This is an immigrant nation.
Q: Could you speak louder?
ENSOR: Sure, yes. Is this on?
ENSOR: It is? I’ll speak—
ENSOR: I can speak up. I will speak up and I’ll look this way.
Why don’t I start, if I may, by asking you what it’s like on the trail? Are people raising the issue of foreign policy at all on the trail, and what are their questions?
BENNET: It is rare that somebody does it, but in every single meeting somebody does, and the overarching question always is, what are you doing to do to restore our alliances? So there is a sense that we have made ourselves vulnerable by rejecting those alliances, and I think that’s important.
ENSOR: The other thing I have to ask you about is a country that not too many people know all that much about in this country, Ukraine. (Laughter.) Because a lot of—
BENNET: We’re learning a lot about it.
ENSOR: Yes, we are, aren’t we? As you observe the impeachment process and including today’s remarkable hearings, what lessons do you draw for how American foreign policy should be conducted after this president is gone from the scene?
BENNET: Well, so this president has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in the rule of law, he doesn’t believe in separation of powers, he doesn’t believe in freedom of the press, he doesn’t believe in the independence of the judiciary. I would say he doesn’t believe in democracy. I would say he doesn’t believe in America. And I think what I have learned traveling around the world the last few years is that people all over the world are looking for our leadership, and that a huge vacuum has emerged in the three years that President Trump has been in office.
In Europe I meet people all the time who are saying we can’t push back against Russia by ourselves. And by the way, their democracies are destabilizing in ways that are similar to what’s happening here. In Asia you meet people all the time who say we don’t want to be dominated in a unipolar world by China. We need the United States to help lead us. And in the Middle East where, you know, all kinds of confusion reigns, people there are worried as well that we backed away in Northern Syria and that’s had huge consequences.
And those tweets that I was reading tonight? I mean, the part about the HR department and if you—you’d be fired, the horrible reality is those tweets were coming out from the White House on a weekend when Iran was announcing that they were doubling the number of centrifuges they were using to enrich uranium, and China was signing a trade deal with enough countries that together they add up to half the GDP of the world. And we’re nowhere. We’re not part of that.
So the weeks that we are distracted by the Twitter stuff and by the fights on the cable television over whether the Mexicans are going to pay for the wall and any of that stuff, it comes at a huge opportunity cost, and that is something that I talk about on the campaign trail and I think that’s something people respond to. They haven’t necessarily thought it through, but when they hear it, it seems obvious to them. When they hear that China’s building 3,500 miles of fiber optic cable while we’re horsing around with no infrastructure bill, that’s something that catches their attention.
ENSOR: Yeah. You’ve said that you think—I read that you’ve said that you think that Russia is currently a greater threat to the United States than is China. That’s a little counter—counter of the conventional wisdom.
BENNET: I wouldn’t—well, I don’t think I should have to pick. I mean, I think they’re different threats. Russia is a cyber threat, and they are more threatening now because we have not responded. So when the president stands up in Helsinki next to Putin and takes Putin’s word over our intelligence agency, or goes to Japan and makes a joke about the Russians attacking us, when our intelligence agencies—I’m on the Intel Committee; I’m not telling you anything that I’ve learned in secret there—but when our intelligence agencies are all saying not only that the Russians materially attacked our elections in 2016, but that they were trying to do it in 2018 and they’re trying to do it in 2020 and they’re now doing it. And, by the way, they’re not the only people doing it. So that’s what I would say about sort of the immediacy of that challenge.
I would say, over the long haul, clearly, we’ve got a huge competitive issue with China. And the good news for us is I think virtually every single country in the world shares our equities vis-à-vis China when it comes to trade. In fact, I can only think of two that don’t—Russia and North Korea. I think everybody else does. And they too want to have access to China’s markets for exports, but they also want China, you know, to not take unfair advantage of their state-sponsored businesses. They don’t want China stealing their IP. They don’t want China forcing American or other countries’ companies to sell majority stakes in those companies.
And I think we can stand with the rest of the world and say, you know, to China, we’re just not going to allow you to do stuff to us anymore that we’ve permitted you to be able to do in our country, or vice versa. In other words, I think there’s a reciprocity here that provides a real opportunity for us to convene the whole globe, which is an exciting prospect.
So I guess a long—that is a long way of saying I actually think Trump was right to call China out. I just think he did it in a very counterproductive way, a harmful way.
ENSOR: What should be done about Russian interference in our elections, and what should be done about Russian aggression against its neighbors and others around the world?
BENNET: Well, we’ve got a bunch of election-protection legislation on the floor. Mitch finally got tired of being called Moscow Mitch, which is amazing, because the guy seems to be immune from all criticism, but that name got under his skin. I think he detected, probably correctly, that it could have some legs in Kentucky when he was running for reelection. So he paid a small ransom and allowed, I think, two hundred fifty million bucks to go through.
There’s more that we need to do, and none of that money is enough to harden our local secretary of states’ or county offices. And just because Russia didn’t manipulate the vote last time doesn’t mean they can’t. And so we need to pass the legislation. It’s all bipartisan legislation; mostly the money that we need to use to harden our local counties, but also to better coordinate what the Homeland Security Department does with state and local countries.
And then on the second question, I mean, I believe, if I were elected, that the first place I would go would be to Europe, to put my arms around our allies there and say we are here to push back on Russia. As I mentioned earlier, I think that we ought to have a coalition of countries together that are there to defend democracy against what Russia is doing, also against what’s happening on social-media platforms.
I mean, we are tearing at ourselves in ways that are not unique to America or unique to the U.K. or to France. I mean, we’ve all got some of the same problems. And I think we should spend some time figuring out how to dig ourselves out together.
ENSOR: OK. So a tougher approach to Russia than we’ve seen.
ENSOR: But do you think arms control is dead?
BENNET: For the rest of our lives, or do you mean just for right now?
ENSOR: For the next presidency.
BENNET: Well, no, I don’t. I don’t think we should—I think that President Trump—this is another place where he’s been an outlier. And I don’t think we should think that. I have no doubt that whatever has happened has been to the advantage of Putin and to Russia. And we’re going to have to understand that as we go back to the negotiating table, just like with Iran. But I don’t think nuclear—I don’t think arms control is dead.
ENSOR: Climate control. You outlined a vision of what you—some ideas about what you would do as president to try to combat it and set some very high targets. But, I mean, some people I see talking and writing about a concern that our democratic institutions—well, whether they’re asking the question whether they’re even capable of doing what’s required to address what really is a freight train. I mean, it’s an oncoming huge threat to the entire globe.
BENNET: I was asked in Des Moines, Iowa, the other day by a woman there whether I thought Western democracy could solve climate change. And I said I think you’ve just asked the most existential question of this campaign. And I really mean it. I mean, and this is—we’re having a battle in the Democratic Party right now about this and having a battle in America about this.
I often hear people say on the campaign trail we have to act urgently on climate change. And that is undoubtedly true. But it’s not sufficient. We have to act in a way that will last for a generation. And if you accept our current political framework in Washington, you’re accepting a world where we either get nothing done or, when we get something done, it gets ripped out as soon as the other party can do it.
And you can’t solve climate change two years at a time. I put my ideas in. They rip it out. I put them in. They rip them out. I put—that’s the way our politics today are constructed by the Freedom Caucus, Trump, and Mitch McConnell. And there’s a reason for that, because it actually serves their purposes to do it, because they’re not actually trying to do anything except put right-wing judges on the courts or occasionally cut taxes for rich people. That is the extent of their interest.
But I believe that if we are going to get to a place where democracy can solve climate change, we have to get to a place where there is an American climate policy, just like we once had an American foreign policy where, when you elected a Democratic or Republican president, they understood what their role was vis-à-vis the Soviet Union or vis-à-vis the Cold War or what their responsibility was to the Atlantic alliance, no matter what party they were in. And if we can’t get to a place like that on climate, it’s going to be very hard for us to solve it. And that is an existential question for democracy, because if we can’t solve it, democracy can’t survive.
And my only point is for me the answer to the question, can we go down the rathole with Mitch McConnell of destroying our governing institutions, my answer is not if you actually want to solve climate change, because if you go down that rathole with him, then you need to confess to yourself that democracy can’t solve climate change or any of the other profound matters that we have to solve.
And there are no shortcuts and there are no easy answers. We have to go out to the country with an agenda that convinces enough people that allows us to win, because even at that point, if we can put it in, then we have to be able to sustain it and not have it ripped out by the other side.
We have a climate denier in the White House today. He’s gotten rid of virtually every single thing that Barack Obama tried to do on climate, including things that industry supports, like fuel-efficiency standards and capturing fugitive methane. And it’s all gone away. We need a more durable politics if we’re going to really contend with climate.
ENSOR: I’m going to ask one more question. So be thinking about what your questions are, because you’re next.
My last question is about Afghanistan. And, you know, let me just be honest and put it on the table that I served there as a diplomat.
BENNET: It’s unfair to ask me a question about it.
ENSOR: Well, you said that you would withdraw in the first term—
ENSOR: —if you were elected to a first term. What would that mean, in your view? And I guess the real question is, are you ready to tell Americans honestly what the range of consequences of that might include? Because I think they might include terrorism in our cities.
BENNET: I think you might be right about that. And I’ve said—I’m not sure I said it then or amended it—but I do think we have to keep enough of a footprint to maintain or sustain the counterterrorism effort that we have there. And I think we can do that with a smaller footprint than the one that we have, but I don’t think we can do that with nobody.
BENNET: So that’s how I feel about that.
Well, now it’s your turn. Please state your—ask one question; a question, not a comment, if you can make it that. And we will see how many we can fit in in the time we’ve got. I think there are microphones that will be passed to people; perhaps this lady over here to start. Right behind you.
Q: Thank you. Tesi Schaffer from McLarty Associates.
I wanted to go back to what you were just saying about—
BENNET: Also from New Delhi, India for many years.
Q: Yeah, although I was there a little bit after you were. My husband was there when you were there—
BENNET: Well, that’s true.
Q: —when you were born. But I wasn’t. (Laughter.) But from the Connecticut shore.
You were talking about climate change and the importance of having a durable politics of climate change. Looking at things more broadly, there are a number of your foreign-policy priorities which are going to require some kind of legislative action. You mentioned climate change. That certainly is one of them; arms control, election hardening.
How are you going to get things through? Obviously, the first step is going to be to try to get control of both houses. But how—that probably isn’t enough of a step. How do you make this appeal to the people who’ve been hard to convince in today’s world?
BENNET: Thank you.
This is another place where I would say—and my argument is different than some of the other candidates in this race—is that I believe there are no shortcuts to that. You know, and I think the reason—I didn’t know this going in, but I’ll tell you why I think I differ from some of these other people.
I for ten years have represented a state that is a third Republican, a third independent, and a third Democratic. And I feel obligated to represent everybody in my state, whether they voted for me or not. I feel obligated to show up and explain myself whether they voted for me or not.
And, by the way, the places I have trouble are not the places you might expect. Sometimes, you know, I go to Boulder, and if I’ve made Rachel Maddow mad at me that way—which, by the way, I try to avoid, because she’s really smart—but if I have made her mad at me and I show up there, there’s hell to pay in Boulder, Colorado for not being sufficiently loyal to the cause.
When I’m on the eastern plains of Colorado and people’s view is—you know, places where I’ll never win more than 20 or 30 percent of the vote no matter what I do, having written two farm bills and been on the Ag Committee and spent more time there than any other statewide elected official—you know, and people are inclined to think that I’m a socialist or a Bolshevik or whatever.
When I get there, and after I—you know, as I’m leaving, they’re saying, well, what are you reading? I’d like to read what you’re reading, because you’re reading something different than I am, which I always consider a victory for our democracy when people can have a conversation like that.
And the only way we’re going to get this done is by winning—first winning seats in purple states. And then, when we win states, purple states, but not, let’s say, a majority in the Senate, by convincing the American people that what we’re trying to do is useful to them and constructive to them.
It’s desperately inconvenient that in between us and the American people is Fox News and gerrymandered districts and the Koch brothers and Citizens United. But these are things that we have to overcome. We can’t wish them away. We either have to reform them or we have to get to places and make the case that the election-protection legislation is critically important.
What Republican is there who really wants to take a vote on the Senate floor against election protection? It’d be fascinating to see who those people are. And there’s one person in America who can decide whether we have that vote or not, and his name is Mitch McConnell. He’s up for election in Kentucky. The people of Kentucky deserve to know that the only person that’s preventing this legislation from being passed is Mitch McConnell. He’s just trying to protect the president. Do you think people in Kentucky don’t want us to protect our elections from the Russians?
You’re hearing something on Fox that’s different from what reality is. And I think the only way to handle that is for a president to show up in these places. So I would anticipate being in places all over America where I’ll never win more than 30 percent of the vote.
If I ever got to that job and had the opportunity to overturn, for example, the Trump tax bill or to propose a replacement for the Trump tax cut, I will do that in the reddest, most rural area in America. And I’m going to bring my calculator, because I’m like some of these people. I’m numerate, or at least somewhat numerate.
And I’d say to the Fox News hosts, I’d like you to come, you know, with me. You bring your calculators too. And let me make my case to the American people, to the farmers and ranchers that are there, about what my policy looks like for them compared to what Trump did. There’s just no other way around it. It’s what we’re going to have to do.
We’ve been trying to run our politics through the commercial breaks on the cable television. It’s not sufficient. It isn’t sufficient. There are eleven (million) or twelve million people in America who watch cable TV at night and engage with their politicians on social media. That leaves another two hundred and—or three hundred ten million people who literally have no representation in the Capitol today.
And I’d love to be a president who is about representing those people and doing the hard work of going out and finding them and having a real conversation with them about what we need to do. I think it’s the only way we can force change here. I don’t think there’s any other way. We can’t force it here.
ENSOR: How about on the side? Well, the young lady here.
Q: Thank you. My name is Sarah Bauerle Danzman. I’m at Indiana University. And I’m a CFR fellow this year at State. I really appreciate this conversation.
Q: Speak a little louder.
Q: Sure. I can be as loud as you need me to be.
I really appreciate this conversation. I especially appreciate how you’ve tied Iraq as an important inflection point in the acceleration of distrust in institutions. And I think that this conversation about persuading the American electorate about—is really important.
And so my question is about, you know, how you would actually build a coalition, a domestic coalition, in support of a more robust and engaged foreign policy, centered around democratic principles. And I ask this especially because, you know, public-opinion polls show that belief and—in the importance of democratic institutions is really waning in the U.S.—
Q: —especially among young people and especially because of this climate issue that you have brought up. So how do you convince people that these democratic institutions are worth investing in when we have this concern that there’s this existential crisis with climate? We know that autocrats consolidate power during crises. So how do you do this? Thank you.
BENNET: And if you think about the founding of this country or the genius of the founding of this country, when the Founders put it together, they didn’t think we would agree with each other. They thought we would disagree with each other. But they believed, out of that disagreement, we would create more imaginative and durable solutions than any tyrant or king could come up with on their own.
So they would look at something like climate and they would say—first of all, they’d say pay attention to the science, because they were Enlightenment thinkers. That’s what they would say. But within the bounds of science, the Founders would say have it out. Have a battle. Figure out how you’re going to do it. You can’t fail at the mission. And you’re going to come up with a more imaginative solution than some autocrat some other place who’s likely to guess wrong.
Now, China is dealing with much better data and much greater computing power than was available when Stalin was building canals in the wrong direction to try to grow cotton or when the Founders were writing the Constitution. That’s true. But I still think there’s huge value in the genius of a democracy.
We have a big challenge with young people, because for the kids that are twenty-five years and younger, they’ve never known a democracy here that’s worked. I can’t—I look at my kids. They were nine years old, the oldest, and three, the youngest, when I became a senator 10 years ago, and all they’ve heard me say is how impossible it is to get anything done. And it’s impossible to get anything done because it hasn’t worked. And on top of all of that, we’ve been engaged in wars the whole time they’ve been on the planet. They deserve to know there have been better times.
I was struck this summer when I went for a tour of the civil rights—the African-American Museum on the Mall with my daughter Halina, who’s named for her Polish grandmother, who’s my middle daughter. And all the stuff I saw there, you know, about the ’60s was stuff that was really familiar to me. I mean, I was born, obviously, only four years before Martin Luther King was assassinated. But that was the world I grew up in was a civil-rights movement that had advanced the cause of liberty—not perfectly, obviously, but where American citizens had taken responsibility for improving the democracy, to make it more democratic, more fair, and more free.
She has no equivalent example to that, really. Gay marriage happened, and that was important. But it was, in some ways, different. And I think we’ve got to be talking to the young people of this country about why the role they have to play is so important. And the two issues that I’d say are most critical in this election are, one, climate—and you can’t act urgently on climate as long as there’s a climate denier in the White House, so that feels like job one is to get that person out of there; and two, that the only way we can reclaim the democracy is if we all vote and every single person who’s eligible, particularly young people, vote.
When I’m on college campuses now, I say to kids, why don’t you make your university the first place in America where 100 percent of the kids who are eligible to vote actually voted? Create a model for the whole rest of the country of voter registration and making people then vote. And I think we’d be amazed at how far we could go.
By the way, the Russian interference—most of you probably know this, but a lot of that was about suppressing the vote in the United States. And that’s deeply worrying to those Western democracies as well.
So there’s no easy way to do it except we’ve got to engage young people in doing it. And what I tell them is—I met with a university president not that long ago who said to me—I said what is engagement, political engagement, like on your campus? This is one of the most widely known Ivy League campuses in America. And she said, well, everybody hates politics, and everybody hates politicians. Which of course, held me to say: Listen I serve with these people, I know what it’s like. But then I said, what was it like when you were in college? And she went to college in the late ’60s. And she said: We thought our country couldn’t survive without us. We thought the country’s future depended on us for its survival. And that’s what I believe. I think my daughter’s generation, we can’t get this done without them. So we have to have a very deliberate way to engage them in the process. And I think voting is the most important way to do that.
I want to make one last point about Iraq, because you mentioned it. I was reading something this week that led me to a citation to the war college volumes on Iraq, which they have just published. And I was flying home here, back to D.C. from Los Vegas, and started to read the first one of those volumes. And it just an unbelievable piece of writing, at least that part of it. And the failure—one failure after another to understand what the consequence would be of our invasion. Anyway, if it continues like this, they will have made a great contributing to understanding what went so terribly wrong there.
ENSOR: A question in the back, maybe? Is anybody back there? No? Then I’ll come to the front. How about the lady there with the long hair?
Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
I was lucky enough to start life at the Peace Corps with John Kennedy. I hadn’t known about you before. I’m really impressed. Thank you very much.
BENNET: (Laughs.) Thank you.
ENSOR: I get that a lot. The first part. The first part, not the second part. (Laughter.)
Q: I guess the question I have is how do we educate the general public about how our processes work, and why they need to be a part of it? I mean, this came to me when I was driving in my car and I learned that Trump had been elected. And I said, how do we get truck drivers to understand what he represents and the consequences of that. I don’t know what the answer is, but perhaps you have some ideas and can get us going in the right direction.
BENNET: I appreciate that. Please sit down. I—
Q: I plan to.
BENNET: OK, good. I—you know, I think that a big reason he got elected was for fifty years, 90 percent of the American people saw no improvement in their incomes. You know, if I had to summarize ten years of my town halls in Colorado, it is extremely simple. It’s people coming to my town halls and saying: Michael, we’re working really hard. We cannot afford housing, health care, higher education, and early childhood education. We can’t afford a middle-class life. When I was graduating from Wesleyan in 1987, that is not what people said about our country. But that is what people say about it now, including in a state like Colorado which has one of the most dynamic economies in—on the planet.
For the parents that I used to work for in the Denver Public Schools who were, you know, parents of kids living in poverty and who were kids of color. What they would say if they came to the meetings is: No matter what we do—and we’re really killing ourselves because they’re working two and three jobs, many of them are immigrant families. They’d say: No matter what we do, we can’t get our kids out of poverty. And a democracy does not do well when you don’t have shared prosperity and when there is no economic mobility. And it seems to me that job number one of curing ourselves of somebody like Donald Trump is restoring our country to a place where there is actually mobility when you work hard.
And that’s why, for example, I resent so much the focus of some people in this campaign on stuff like Medicare for All, which is meant to galvanize the Democratic base but has absolutely nothing to do with solving the principal challenges that we face. If we—if we cared to, we could cut childhood poverty by 40 percent in America in one year. We could end $2 a day poverty for children in America in one year for far less than the Trump tax and for 3 percent of what Medicare for All costs. I’m running on that. I’m not running on Medicare for All. We could create universal health care for people in three years by having a public opinion that gave everybody in America the choice of whether they wanted it or didn’t want it, and auto-expanded—or, auto-enrolled everybody eligible in Medicaid—in Medicaid, and the poor kids into SCHIP, which is the kids’ health insurance program.
That would do a lot to create stability. And we could then address climate. And we could invest massively in our infrastructure as part of that, that would drive incomes up in the United States. We’re doing none of that. We have cut since—since Reagan was president we’ve cut our domestic discretionary spending by 35 percent. And since 2001, here’s what our priority has been: We’ve borrowed $5 trillion from the Chinese for the privilege of giving tax cuts to the richest people in America. And we’ve borrowed another $5.6 trillion from the Chinese to fight these wars in the Middle East. I mean, you can see why people might feel like the priorities of what have been happening here don’t align terribly well with what they’re trying to do.
Similarly, by the way, when people say, well, what do we do about China, and I’m worried about China, and all this stuff. Even if we didn’t do the stuff that I suggested, which I believe we should do, the most important thing we can do is get our act together here, and educate our kids, and invest in our infrastructure. And we’re not doing that anymore. And I think one of the things we’ve got to show the American people is what the cost is to the world of our not doing that, and what the cost looks like to ourselves.
I mean, I’ll give you two last thoughts. One, what Trump has done on trade has been terribly damaging to our farmers and ranchers in the country. And that’s going to create an interest in what America trade policy looks like, and how we can fix it, and how we can open up markets overseas, because that’s the only place our farmers are going to see growth. And what I say to people on sort of our democracy is—I say to them, you know, I don’t know about you, but the worst decisions I make are the ones I make by myself at home. The best decisions I make are the ones I make contending with other people’s points of view, and experiences, and perspectives, and those decisions are always enriched by the having the benefit of that.
In the cable cartoon that goes on at night, we’ve completely rejected the definition of pluralism. And that’s something we have to recapture, or the country can’t survive. We’re still doing it at the local level. I mean, every day there’s—you know, in most of America people are coming together and deciding, should that stoplight go there or go there? Should we zone that part of our town residential and that part of our town commercial? That’s what a democracy is supposed to look like, and that’s what this has to look like again.
Imagining that our preferred version of one-party rule somehow replacing their less-preferable version of one-party rule is going to get us where we need to go, I just think is a terrible mistake that’s at war with who we are as a country and who we are as a democracy. And I think that is what Bernie and Elizabeth are peddling in this election. And I think it would be a real mistake if we go down that road.
ENSOR: So interesting that here we are in the Council on Foreign Relations and these are not typical questions. We’re not getting foreign policy questions. Does anybody have a foreign policy question while we’re at it? Madam, right there. But it’s all related, right? That’s what—
BENNET: It is all—I mean, we are a democracy. And we are exporting those values.
Q: So thank you so much for those inspiring remarks. I’m Amanda DeBusk. I’m the head of the International Trade Practice at the law firm Dechert.
And I have a foreign policy question. Bringing it back to the Americas. And I’m wondering what your vision is for two of the hotspots, for Mexico and Venezuela?
BENNET: Well, I think we’ve got to continue to support the—with humanitarian aid in Venezuela the people there that are suffering. And I don’t think we’ve got much to say about what the outcome is going to be there. I hope that in the end it will work out for the opposition, but I don’t think there’s—you know, we can do what we can to sanction Maduro and try to be supportive, but I think we want to be very careful about meddling too much there.
Again, Mexico, and in this hemisphere, we’ve got an incredible opportunity. In 2014 I went down to El Salvador and Honduras because I wanted to see why a parent would take a year’s savings and pay it to a drug smuggler to take their kid to the southern border of the United States. I wanted to understand it, because I couldn’t understand it. As a parent of three daughters I couldn’t understand how you’d put somebody in the hands—put someone in the hands of people that, you know, very likely could end up raping your child. And in the backyard of the embassy in San Salvador it became very clear what’s going on, which is there is no rule of law. And you’ve got a group—one group of poor people that are terrorizing another group of poor people.
And I think that’s a job for our whole hemisphere. I mean, we can work with every country from Canada to Argentina to say, look, we’re going to deal with the immediate issue on our southern border, the refugee crisis that’s there. There are plenty of countries that would—or, there are plenty of people that are on that border that would rather be in a Spanish-speaking country than here, they’d rather be in a country with a lower cost of living than here. And then I think we can work together to try to develop and support the rule of law in these places and create an economic framework for the hemisphere that drives economic growth in these regions. And that seems like a very exciting prospect to me. And something that I think Mexico would be a real beneficiary of as well.
ENSOR: Senator Bennet, thank you so much for your time this evening.
BENNET: Thanks for having me. Thank you, everybody. I appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause.)