Interview With Sen. Bernie Sanders: 'Count Me As A Radical'

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U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been making waves across the country during the ongoing 2016 presidential campaign, drawing huge crowds and raising millions of dollars in campaign donations from more than a million individual donors. The outsider candidate for the Democratic nomination for President is anything but a longshot, and he joined us from Capitol Hill today to discuss the growth of his campaign, his feelings on his fellow candidates and why American just might be ready to elect a Socialist as President.

TOM ASHBROOK: (TA)  If somebody told you a couple of years ago that a social democrat, a socialist, was a top contender for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination, within shouting distance of the White House, you might have rolled your eyes.  And yet, here’s Bernie Sanders.  Killing it in the polls, drawing in enormous crowds, raising almost as much money now as Hillary Clinton. And very up front that this country needs dramatic change. He’s with us here today.  This hour On Point:  We speak with candidate Bernie Sanders. You can join us, on-air or online—where this conversation is always on. Are you “feeling the Bern”? Does Bernie Sanders turn you on? Turn you off? Can he really close the deal with American voters?

Joining me now from Washington is Vermont Senator and former Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders.  The longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history.  Former mayor of Burlington, Vermont.  He is now a very hot candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 2016.  Senator Sanders, welcome to On Point.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: (BS) Great to be with you, Tom.

TA: When you dove in, was it to make, to deliver a message, or to win? Did you think you'd be in this position at this point in the campaign?

BS: No, when we got into this race, our intention was to win. We thought we had a message that would resonate with the American people. My experience has been that the American people are sick and tired of seeing the middle class continue to decline. Over 47 million people living in poverty and almost all new income and wealth going to the top one percent. That was a message that I believed would resonate. If you're asking me, did I believe it would resonate as quickly as it has? No, that I did not think. The fact that we're drawing huge crowds all over this country — we'll be in Boston on Saturday evening, Springfield, Mass. Saturday afternoon — the kinds of crowds we're drawing, the kinds of small donations that are coming into the campaign, the kind of volunteer organizations that we're putting together has gone a lot faster than I thought it would.

TA: We wanna talk to you about what you want to do, Bernie Sanders, how you want to do it, and then Presidential politics. Big picture, what you wanna do, you're talking about a political revolution and a very big agenda of changes. Big picture, what do you want to do?

BS: Big picture is, we have got to end the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country. We have got to create millions of decent paying jobs because real unemployment in this country, Tom, is not 5.1 percent, it's over ten percent when you include those people who have given up looking for work, and those people who are working part time. Youth unemployment for African American kids is 51 percent. We have more people in jail than any other country. So yes, count me as a radical. I want to invest in jobs and education for our young people rather than jails and incarceration. In my view, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is an affront to democracy in this country. It has got to be overturned. We have gotta move toward public funding of elections so that we end up having people running for office who are looking out for the best interests of their constituents, not hustling money for millionaires and billionaires. What Pope Francis just told us last week and what everybody who listens to scientists knows to be true — Climate change is a huge, huge global crisis. In my view, the United States has got to lead the world, working with China, Russia, India, other countries, transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. In a competitive global economy it is totally insane that hundreds of thousands of young people can not afford to go to college. We need public colleges and universities to be tuition free. Not a radical idea, actually, it existed in this country 50 of 60 years ago, it exists in a number of other countries around the world. And to pay for these programs, which are expensive, what we have finally got to say is that when the top one tenth of one percent of the people in this country own almost as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent. When 58% of all new income today goes to the top one percent, yes, the wealthy and profitable large corporations will have to start paying their fair share of taxes.

TA: Senator Sanders, you call yourself a Democratic Socialists. Can you define that, and what does it mean in policy terms?

BS: What it means, Tom, is that we have got to look at countries around the world — including many Democratic Socialist, or Labor governments, or Social Democratic countries — countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and other countries — that have done some really extraordinary things for their working people and the middle class. Let me give you a few examples. Today, despite the gains of the Affordable Care Act, the United States remains the only major country on Earth that doesn't guaranteed health care to all people as a right. We still have 29 million people uninsured and many more uninsured and we pay by far the highest cost per capita for health care than any other country. Why is that, Tom? Why are we the only major country that doesn't guarantee health care for all? I live in Burlington, Vermont, 100 miles away form the Canadian border, they provide health care to all people. Another obvious example, the United States is the only major country on Earth that doesn't guarantee paid family and medical leave. So there are women who are having babies today who do not have a lot of money who will be forced to go back to work a week from now, or two weeks from now, separate themselves from their newborn babies, because they need to go out to earn a living to take care of their family. Every other country on Earth, major country, says, you know what? When a women has a baby, dad has a baby, they should have some income to stay home to get to love their baby, know their baby, we are the only country that does not do that. We have the highest rate of child poverty of any major country on Earth. Is that really where we should be? We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world but the vast majority of the people don't realize it, because they're working for longer hours and low wages.

TA: So Democratic Socialist means guaranteeing certain services?

BS: Yeah, it does. It means learning from countries and saying, you know what, everybody should have health care as a right. Everybody regardless of the income of their family should be able to get the education that they need. Don't tell some poor bright kid who wants to become a doctor or an engineer that he or she can't do that because their family doesn't have a lot of money. So what it means, in so many words Tom, is that instead of having a government, which we do today,which is significantly dominated by big money interests and large campaign donations, donors, we should have a government that represents ordinary Americans, middle class, working class Americans and guarantee the rights of people to live in dignity and security.

TA: Can we afford that? You've got a lot of European countries, you're citing some, but you've got a lot with very large debt. We have very large debt. The Washington Post estimates today that your program would cost $3.27 trillion. That's a lot of money.

BS: Yes, but like other analysts, who exaggerate what we're doing, we pay for what we're doing. But here's the point, Tom. Yes, I'm not going to deny that if you make certain that every public college and university is tutiion free and if you by the way substantially lower student debt — which is now a very serious problem, Tom — that will cost you about $70 billion a year. That's a lot of money. But you know how we pay for it? We pay for it based on a tax on Wall Street speculation. Yes, I oppose cutting Social Security benefits, I want to expand it. We pay for that by demanding that the wealthiest people in this country, people earning over $250,000 a year, we will lift the cap on taxable income, and they will in fact pay on all of their income rather than on $118,000 right now. So you name the issue, and we are paying for it by doing away for example with the absurd loophole that now exists such that profitable corporations making billions of dollars a year can stash their money in the Cayman Islands and in Bermuda and not pay a nickel in Federal taxes.

TA: Our friend John Harwood asked you in May, and I want to ask you again now. If you implement all this, and the net effect is to pull down economic growth in this country. You get more equitable distribution of income, but less economic growth, is that worth it to you? And you said, yes. Why? Are you still there?

BS: What I said is, this is what I said. Growth just for the sake of growth does not necessarily mean anything for middle class and working families. Today, the median family income is about $4,000 less than it was in 1999. Fifty eight percent of all new income is going to to the top one percent. So you don't want growth to make millionaires and billionaires wealthier. What you want is economic growth which benefits the working class and middle class of this country. What I believe, and as opposed to many of my Republican colleagues who think tax breaks to the rich and corporations will benefit everybody, that's trickle down economics I think historically that has been shown to be false. I believe that if you put money into the hands of low income and working families, raising the minimum wage, creating jobs to deal with unemployment, they will then have the money to go out and spend and create other types of jobs. So I think our approach will substantially benefit the middle class and working families of this country.

TA: For Democrats, why vote for you, Bernie Sanders, rather than, at this point, Hillary Clinton, let's say?

BS: Well, you know, I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years and I have a great deal of respect for Hilary Clinton. I'm not gonna tell you we are bosom buddies, but you know we're friends, we have known each other, we served in the Senate together. But I think people have to assess where we are this moment in the history of this country. And if you think establishment politics and establishment economics is the answer to our problems, fine, there are good candidates out there. But if you think it's time for what I define as a political revolution, and that means involving millions and millions of people in the political process today in a way that has never been the case before, than I think I'm your candidate. And let me tell you why, Tom, this is not just rhetoric. What I have said over and over again and repeat to you now, is that no President, not Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, not anybody else, with the best intentions in the world can become President of the United States and effectively take on the incredible power of Wall Street, corporate America, the corporate, media, large campaign donors. No President can do that. The only way we transform America and make government work for all of our people is through what I call a political revolution and that means involving tens of millions of people in the political process.

TA: It sounds a lot like what Obama called for, Barack Obama, how'd that work out?

BS: Well in many ways, I would say it is hard for anyone who is honest and not totally partisan not to say that we're a lot better off today than where we were when George W. Bush left office and we were hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs a month. But and we can talk about this after the break, I think that the President made a major mistake after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, not maintaining those ties with his grassroots base.


TA: I'm Tom Ashbrook, this is On Point. We're talking this hour with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, about his run for the White House, about his call for a political revolution in this country, a revolution to the left. He joins us today from Washington. His latest fundraising numbers just in, he's right up there, almost neck and neck with Hillary Clinton now. Ahead in New Hampshire polls — who would have thought it, months ago? Nationally, within seven points by some polls now. Doing well in Iowa as well. There's a lot of fluid chemistry in the Democratic field. Bernie Sanders, right in the middle of it. You can join us this hour — what's he tapping into, can he win? David in New Orleans, you're on the air with Bernie Sanders.

Caller David: Hi Tom, thanks for taking my call. I have two quick comments, and a question. First, I wanted to thank Senator Sanders for his 34 years of public service. I believe he can win the Presidency and win big, and bigger than Hillary Clinton. But even if his detractors are right, he has done the public a great service by talking about the issues the donor class could care less about. Second, a message to Bernie's supporters who might be listening, Senator Sanders is not the Messiah, he needs us as much as we need him, and he can't solve all these problems today on his own. He needs us to vote down ticket, call our elected officials, get involved in the process.

TA: Your question, David.

CD: And third my question I think that $15 an hour is a great platform for Senator Sanders, but what I haven't heard about and which is very important in New Orleans which has a big restaurant industry is the minimum wage for service tipped employees. Right now it's $2.13 an hour. And I was wondering if Senator Sanders had any ideas on what he could do to relieve those working class individuals.

TA: David, we've got it. Beyond the $15 an hour national minimum wage that you say you'd push for, Bernie Sanders, what about the waiters and servers out there?

BS: He is absolutely right. I mean it is beyond disgraceful that you waiters and waitresses, people in the service industry, who are making almost no money at all.

TA: What about tips? Tips? Tips?

BS: Well, sometimes, if you're working in a good restaurant, my daughter used to work and she did very well. On the other hand, if you're working in a diner and not a lot of people are coming in, you make zero tips on a bad day. So I think what we have to do is obviously substantially raise that minimum wage as well. Last point I would make in terms of David's comment, and David, thanks very much for your support, is that one of the reasons I think we can win this election, in fact do very well, is that Democrats win when voter turnout is high, Republicans win when voter turnout is low. The American people are prepared to stand up and fight back and get involved in a campaign and I think that campaign is our campaign.

TA: Beth asks you, she says overturning Citizens United is a focal point of your message, what specific steps will you take to implement this change, she asks on Facebook?

BS: Well, two ways. Number one, what I've made very clear that no nominee of mine to the Supreme Court will get that nomination will have his or her name sent to the Senate unless they are very, very clear that they will in fact not only overturn Citizens United, but also make it one of the first orders of business that comes up, to rehear the case. Second of all, we have got to continue the hard work for a constitutional amendment. Fastest route is overturning it. Thirdly, we have got to move toward public funding of elections so that candidates in the future are just not dependent on big money interests.

TA: Richard in New Shoreham, Rhode Island, you're on with Bernie Sanders.

Caller Richard: Oh thank you gentlemen. Senator Sanders, this is a tripartite government. You have mentioned and taken a position on the main issues of the day, but what makes you think you can get any support from  Congress? What are you doing to get support from Congress or a Congressional candidate to do something more than Obama's doing? It seems to be a stalemate, won't you be in the same position?

BS: Well Richard, that's a very fair question. Let me respond this way: I am not naive. On one hand, I have worked over the years on a number of important pieces of legislation with Republicans. In the last session of Congress, I helped this chairman of the Veterans' committee pass one of the more important pieces of legislation, working with people like John McCain in the Senate, Jeff Miller, Republican Chairman in the House. SO I do know how to work with Republicans. But here's the more important point. The more important point is that right now, you're having a United States Congress that to a very significant degree is controlled by big money interests. And Richard is right that in that much of the legislation that I would be bringing forth would be opposed by Republicans.

TA: Even Democrats. I mean, you had zero co-sponsors on your universal health care bill, on your free college bill.

BS: But here is the point. The legislation, and virtually all of the programs that I am bringing forth has the support of the American people, and in some cases, the vast majority of the American people.

TA: How do you bring that to bear in a way that actually gets a change?

BS: Tom that is a very good question, and the answer is that the President of the United States brings people together and rallies millions of people so that they do know what's going on in a way that don't know what's going on right now. Most people have not a clue about what the Republican agenda is, tax breaks for millionaires.

TA: Barack Obama brought a lot of people together, they elected him, they re-elected him, in a huge way.

BS: And the difference that I have, and I've said this before and I say it again, is that what Obama did after a brilliant campaign in 2008 — let me say I'm a friend of Barack Obama, I work with him closely on many issues — but the big mistake that he made is that to a significant degree is that he severed the ties between his very strong grassroots movement, and after he got elected, he basically said, "I will take it from here on my own."

TA: So your answer is to put millions of people in the mall in Washington, is that what you envision?

BS: Not a bad idea! You wanna make public colleges and universities tuition free, yes. Actually, Tom, that's a good idea. If a million young people demanded that, marched on Washington, knew the legislation and made it clear to every member of the Congress they were paying attention, yes you would get public colleges and universities tuition free in America.

TA: I don't know...I mean maybe you would.

BS: Tom, how do you think we had Civil Rights in this country? How do you think you had a women's rights movement and a gay rights movement. It starts from the bottom. We have got to do that, right now.

TA: Claire, from Madison, Wisconsin, you're on with Bernie Sanders.

Caller Claire: Hi, Tom. First of all, I've had the pleasure of seeing Bernie Sanders speak in person, twice, he's a very exciting and compelling person...

TA: Claire, we've got it, our time is short. Take us right to your point or comment.

CC: Okay, thank you. The word socialist scares a lot of people, Senator Sanders, and I'd like to explain what other US institutions, are right now, socialist institutions.

TA: The word socialist, Claire I appreciate that. Gallup Poll, Bernie Sanders, says American are open to elected a President who is Catholic, female, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Mormon, gay, lesbian, Evangelical Christian. Even 60% of Americans said they'd vote for a Muslim. Atheist, 58%. The absolute lowest category, Socialist — 47%.

BS: Well, first of all, 47% is probably a lot higher than it was a couple of years ago. And I think the answer is, as Claire indicated, is to talk about the issue. To talk about Social Security being a socialist program. To talk about the fact that your local police department or your fire department or your library is a publicly owned institution. I come from a city where our electric company is publicly owned. TVA is publicly owned. But I think we need to do a lot of education on this issue, primarily pointing out what governments around the world have done to protect their middle class and working families — in terms of better retirement programs, than we have right now, better childcare programs, than we have right now. But I think there's a lot of education to be done. But I think when we end up explaining what Democratic Socialism is, which is not what goes on in North Korea, not what went on in the Soviet Union, I think many people will be responding to that message.

TA: Senator Sanders, 1972 is the first Presidential race that I really have any memory of, and it was George McGovern, a lot of people on campuses were very, very excited about him, he was the big liberal in the race. Boom, out he went. He won one state, the one I'm sitting in right now. How do you get around that?

BS: Well, we hope to do very well with young people. And to be honest with you Tom, I've been kind of blown away by the kind of response we've had from young people all over the country. But this is not just a campaign based on the support of young people. Every rally that we have, and the support we're winning comes from the middle class, comes from working class people, comes from lower income people. The coalition that we're going to put together is the coalition I've always believed in — that is working families, low income people, people of color, the immigrant community. I think we put that coliation together of people who are saying, that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world we can do a lot better for working families than is currently the case.

TA: Do you need Joe Biden in the race to split the mainstream vote to beat Hillary Clinton?

BS: Well, there are some polls that say if Joe Biden it works for us, other polls say that is not so much the case. This is the decision that the Vice President has to make. I've known Joe for many years, very, very decent guy. And let me just say this: what I have tried to do in this campaign, and if Joe Biden gets in the campaign I will continue to do it, is not get involved in personal attacks against people, not run negative ads, but just debate and talk about the most important issues facing this country. I think that is what the American people are entitled to hear and if Joe Biden gets in, I will continue that, and welcome him with open arms.

This segment aired on October 1, 2015.


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