As frightening as this historical moment is in so many ways, it’s hopeful in one respect. We may finally be at a point when a majority of people are ready to ditch supply-side economics. The economy is doing very well right now, so it seems in one sense a counterintuitive argument. But Americans are increasingly recognizing that even this good economy is mostly good for the top 10 percent, especially the top 1 and .1 percent; and that if you live in one of these 50 counties or hundreds of others like them where the unemployment rates are more than twice the national average and the poverty rates are above 25 percent, the economy doesn’t feel that great at all.
There’s a story for the Democrats to tell here. A story of a country where prosperity was once broadly shared, because politicians of both parties in those days agreed that investments in ourselves and our future were good, and that there was an inextricable link between democracy and broadly shared prosperity. I wrote about this link recently in the Times, and they tell me it did gangbusters traffic, not because it was Shakespeare but because it’s a subject people care about devoutly and want to hear public figures address.
Enter Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. One morning a while back I’d dropped the kid off at school and I tuned in to Morning Joe. I heard a voice saying: “Trump is not the cause of our problems. The cause of our problems is 40 years of economic immobility for 90 percent of the American people. Stagnant wages over that period of time. Periods when we had economic growth, but for most Americans, those were periods of recession. We have to fix that. It’s going to take us a generation to do it.”
Oh my God. Naturally I thought this person was brilliant, because he was talking exactly the way I write. As the segment ended I heard them say thank you, senator, but they didn’t say a name. I emailed a guy I know who works on the show and asked. Yep, he wrote, that was Michael Bennet.
Shortly thereafter, Bennet, a former schools superintendent, got a prostate cancer diagnosis. Today he declares himself “miraculously cured,” and makes sure to tell a visitor that the cost of his cure was $55,000, of which he had to pay only $1,800. “It made me realize just how insane it would be to get the same diagnosis without insurance,” he said. “Or not to get the diagnosis at all because you didn’t have a primary care doctor because you didn’t have insurance.”
Now, Bennet—the brother as it happens of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, the only one-t Bennets I’ve ever heard of—is running for president. Is he likely to win? No. Woke lefties write him off as too moderate, because he is not for Medicare for All and because he says things about how he still thinks it’s possible to find reasonable Republicans in the Senate to work with. But however you feel about his proposals, whether you’re center or left, you must listen to his analysis of the problem, because he is exactly correct, and he’s saying it better and more clearly than anyone else running.
So I sat down with him last week in his Capitol building hideaway office (complete with foosball table!) between votes. Unlike most pols, who stay focused on the moment, his perspective is relentlessly historical. “Maybe,” he mused, “we’re finally at the end of the Reagan era. Maybe there are things we can do together as a country to improve the economic condition of all of us.”
This is why he’s running, he tells me—to say these things: “I didn’t think this was getting the articulation it deserves among the people who were running… I thought it was important to give voice to this and see what would happen.”
To that end, most of our interview was him showing me a PowerPoint presentation—“this’ll be the first time I’ve walked anybody through his,” he says—that he and his staff assembled to tell the story of the inequality and stagnation of the last 40 years for the vast majority of the population. Slide 1, Wages for most Americans have been flat for decades; Slide 2, The rich are getting richer; Slide 4, The building blocks of the middle class are out of reach; Slide 12, America is no longer leading the world in investment. He goes into much deeper detail in an upcoming book, The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics. It’s a campaign book, yes, but it’s a smart and substantive one.
As much as this sort of thing excites me, I’m unfortunately not confident it’s going to get the hearing it deserves. He’s not bombastic. He’s no moralist. He did say one thing in particular during our chat that really caught my ear and may catch others’:
“Since 2001, we’ve spent $5 trillion on tax cuts, almost all of which has gone to the richest people in the country, and we’ve spent $5.6 trillion on wars in the Middle East. So that’s $11 or $12 trillion we haven’t spent addressing any of the issues we could have addressed.”
If his rhetoric were a pop song, that’s the line that strikes me as the hook. That, plus the fact that he says he wants to take on Big Pharma, which I think is a great issue.
So we’ll see what happens. The one thing he said that I really disagreed with and challenged him on was that if he were president and the Democrats took control of the Senate, he would not ditch the filibuster. I said: So you’d pass nothing. He has no illusions about Mitch McConnell (“ruthless,” “immune to give-and-take unless he’s taking everything”), but he still thinks a few Republicans could be pressured or persuaded to vote with him. OK, good luck with that.
But that’s hypothetical. What’s real is his analysis of the recent economic history of this country. As they said in a movie that came out back when the supply-side era started, nobody does it better.