Centrist think tank co-founder warns calls for free college, health care could 'turn people off'

Matt Bennett, co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, on Wednesday questioned the legitimacy of some of the progressive plans laid out by 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, warning that pushes for free health care or college tuition could alienate some voters. 

“For most people, technology has been bad — it’s been a headwind and government hasn’t done anything to adjust that, absolutely Democrats have to offer a bold and big vision,” Bennett, whose group has been vocal about its opposition to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (I-Vt.), told Hill.TV. 

“But when we offer them that seem fake, like your health care’s going to be free, like your college is going to be free,” he continued. “Most people don’t hear free college and think ‘oh that’s going to help me and my family.’ ”

"Then we turn people off," he added, saying Democrats need to put forth proposals that have a better chance of passing and helping Americans now. 

Bennett also doubled down on previous remarks made by the group’s president, Jon Cowan, who called Sanders an “existential threat to the future of the Democratic Party for the next generation,” according to a report by The Guardian.

"We think Sanders would be a real threat to Democrats because we don’t think he can beat Trump, and that is an existential threat," he told Hill.TV. "Our fear is that Bernie can’t do for Democrats what we did in 2018, which is to win in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania."

A number of 2020 hopefuls have touted plans to address the rise of student debt and college tuition.

Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (D-Mass.) have released plans that aim to make college free and eliminate student debt.

The two liberal rivals have also led the field on embracing “Medicare for All,” which was authored by Sanders and remains a contentious issue among Democrats.

Warren was one of only two candidates on the first night of night of the first Democratic primary debates who raised her hand when asked who would abolish private insurance in favor of a government-run, single-payer system.

“I’m with Bernie,” Warren said at the time.

Other White House candidates, such as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (D-Calif.), appear to more reluctant to say that they would get rid of private insurance.

Though she initially raised her hand on the question during the second night of debates, Harris later walked back her position on abolishing private insurance in favor of a government-run system.

"I am supportive of Medicare for All, and under Medicare for All policy, private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage," she told CBS News the following morning.

⁠—Tess Bonn