Amid all the drama of the 2018 midterms, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders cruised to re-election Tuesday night, securing a third term in the Senate with an easy 66.1 percent of the vote. In a year in which longtime Senate incumbents on both sides of the aisle were either unseated or faced stiff challenges, Sanders continued a tradition dating back to his House days of winning too easily to make headlines. He was barely mentioned during the cable news election-night marathons.
But Sanders was implicitly a major part of the 2018 narrative. He had campaigned hard for several candidates, notably Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum, and seemed deeply disappointed in Gillum’s narrow loss (which appears on the verge of being relitigated). Pundits treated many of the races around the country as referendums on the viability of Sanders-style progressive politics going forward.
As we did after Election Day in 2016, Rolling Stone caught up with Sanders to ask for his take on the midterms, the Democrats’ likely strategy in the House, the dismissal of his former Senate colleague Jeff Sessions and other key issues.
Sanders, a possible 2020 presidential candidate, called Tuesday’s victories “a significant step forward in terms of the revitalization of American democracy.” But he also had some customarily sharp-edged takes about the conventional wisdom already forming about the results.
As he did two years ago, Sanders warned against complacency and insisted it would be a “very, very serious mistake” if Democrats did not at least try to pass progressive legislation, so as to call Trump’s populist bluff. Failure to do so, he implied, would mean ceding vital territory to Trump, a man with “no core beliefs.”
Matt Taibbi: Senator, congratulations on your win.
Senator Bernie Sanders: Thank you very much.
First impressions from Election Night? Most encouraging result, least encouraging?
My impression is that, given the fact that Trump fired [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions today in order to remove media coverage from [Tuesday] night tells me we had a pretty good night. I think [Tuesday] night was a significant rejection of Trumpism. Not only did the Democrats regain control of the House, which was the most important development, Democrats won seven governors’ races. Democrats won 300 races at the state legislative and in the four states that Trump won in order to get his Electoral College majority — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — all four of those Senate Democratic candidates won. And three out of the four [Democratic] candidates for governor won. As someone who worked very hard for Andrew Gillum, that was a major disappointment. He ran a brilliant campaign, dealing with a lot of things, including racism. We’ll see what happens in Georgia, whether or not they’re going to count all the votes there. But if Abrams loses, that [will be] a painful loss.
Do you have any plans to oppose what happened in Georgia?
I will add my voice and do what I can! Bottom line there: We are aware of the absurdity of this guy Kemp, who is the Secretary of State, counting the votes. [He] happens to be her opponent. The demand has got to be that every bloody vote has got to be counted. I will add my voice and do everything I can to make sure that happens.
The Washington Post had an op-ed suggesting this means no “fire-breathing” progressives going forward, no liberals, that the way forward is moderates —
[Laughs] Matt, I am really shocked by this! I cannot believe that that is their conclusion, given that they have been spouting that absurd line forever, and that was the line that they had which enabled Republicans to gain control of the Senate and the House and the White House and for Democrats to lose almost 1,000 seats in the previous nine years. Of course, that’s what the establishment will say, and that’s what the establishment Democrats will say. But the truth is that what has happened in this election is a significant step forward in terms of the revitalization of American democracy. It wasn’t moderate democrats or conservative Democrats who got young people into the political process. It wasn’t moderate Democrats who increased voter turnout in this election compared to four years ago, I think by almost 50 percent.
It wasn’t just moderate Democrats who won incredibly great victories for the House. There were some moderates, to be sure. But I think the Washington Post is going to be very surprised at who shows up on the first day of Congress and gets sworn in, because that is going to be the most progressive freshman class in the modern history of the United States. Many of these folks are not just women, not just people of color, who campaigned on Medicare-for-all, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks, campaigned on making public colleges and universities tuition-free, of undoing Trump’s tax breaks for billionaires. The political establishment notwithstanding, the future belongs to progressives.
Earlier you mentioned Attorney General Sessions. Obviously you served with him in the Senate. Do you have any thoughts about his legacy as Attorney General, or the meaning of this firing?
I would just reiterate that Trump knows how to manipulate the media and that it’s not an accident that he fired Sessions today, not tomorrow, not the next day. Because he wanted to divert attention from what happened Tuesday night. Sessions did Trump’s bidding. Did his bidding on criminal justice — terrible. Did his bidding on immigration — terrible. Did his bidding on a number of areas. On the one hand, the resentment that Trump obviously had toward Sessions is that he recused himself in terms of the Mueller investigation, which was the right thing to do. And Trump never forgave him. The key question right now is whether or not Trump will attempt to impede the Mueller investigation. And that must not be allowed to happen. Congress has got to pass legislation to protect that investigation. However, if Trump goes forward and tries to impede it, that is in my mind an obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offense. So we have to do everything we can in every way to make sure that investigation goes forward.
Do you have any thoughts about the leadership in the House?
I will let them work that out themselves. I’m obviously not a member of the House anymore. We’ll let them make their own decisions. But this is what I absolutely do believe. I absolutely believe that from day one, the Democrats in the House have got to come out with a progressive agenda that speaks to the needs of working people. And that leads to — as you know, the Medicare-for-all bill I introduced, which is to be implemented over four years, lowers the eligibility age from 65 to 55, covers all of the children, and lowers the cost of prescription drugs. My guess is that about 80-percent of the American people would support a proposal like that. It’s wildly popular. And that’s what the Democrats have got to do. They’ve got to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, they’ve got to make public colleges tuition-free and they’ve got to lower student debt. All of these proposals are enormously popular. And they’re good public policy. And here’s what I think, Matt, that maybe nobody else in the world believes. As you know, Trump is a 100-percent political opportunist, who has no political views other than how he can win elections.
Well, that’s true.
Today, if he is a racist and a sexist, tomorrow he may be a great civil rights champion — if he thinks it gets him five more votes. He has no core values. I would not be shocked that if the Democrats passed popular, good legislation, that Trump would look around him and say, “Hey, why not? What do I give a damn?” And he may come on board, because ultimately he doesn’t believe in anything except winning. So I believe it’s terribly important that the Democrats come out of the gate full-steam ahead and start passing really good legislation that puts Trump and the Republicans on the defensive.
So far what I’ve been reading about the intention of the Democrats in the House is that much of it is focused on investigations; we have 64 subpoenas we want to drop, and —
Look, people can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. Democrats can do that. And if all they’re going to do is investigate Trump, that would be, in my view a very, very serious mistake. I think finally we are going to have oversight over Trump’s behavior. And I think investigations are absolutely appropriate. But simultaneously, people who are making $11 an hour are not worrying about investigations. People who have no health care, or can’t afford prescription drugs, are not worried about subpoenas. People who can’t afford to send their kids to college are not worried about another investigation. So it would be a tragic mistake in my view if all the Democrats did is focus on investigations. They must, must, must go forward with a progressive agenda to win the support of the American people.
Because it’s not an either/or. Investigation, oversight: terribly important. But they have got to come forward with a progressive agenda for working people.
And they have to do that, presumably, before the 2020 presidential race begins?
They have to do it on day one. They can start working on it. I’ll work with them. But we’ve got to do that on day one.