Exclusive Interview: Bernie Sanders Discusses the Debate, Joe Biden, and Corporate America
The third Democratic debate was a bizarre affair, marked by whimsical outbursts by Kamala Harris (“Hey-y-y-y, Joe” seemed to catch everyone off guard), the unveiling of Yosemite Sam-inspired epithet (Cory Booker’s “Dagnabit”), and heated exchanges between Julian Castro, Joe Biden, and “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg.
One candidate who didn’t participate in the silliness was Bernie Sanders. Hoarse after a tiring stretch of campaigning — Bernie says he lost his voice after a huge rally in Denver three days ago — Sanders, as he has all campaign, doggedly pushed hardcore issues like Medicare for All, climate change legislation, and a reduced defense budget.
Sanders in this race has been all business. Despite numerous reports of his demise, and transparent efforts by some media outlets to write him out of the race early (a New York Times graphic before the debate placed Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden alone in a “center stage” graphic), he remains entrenched as one of the finalists in what increasingly looks like a three-candidate field atop the polls.
In 2016, Bernie had little trouble outlining for voters the differences between himself and a single familiar opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In the 2020 race, his challenge will be drawing contrasts with two very different candidates in Biden, an old-school establishment Democrat, and Warren, the ascending liberal challenger.
On his way to Nevada for a campaign event, Sanders spoke to Rolling Stone podcast hosts Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper by phone. In a special episode of Useful Idiots, he talked about fighting corporate talking points, the “huge” differences between himself and Joe Biden on policy, and his thoughts on how best to take on Donald Trump.
Below is a transcript
Matt Taibbi: How are you doing?
Bernie Sanders: Great, other than not having a strong voice. I lost my voice in Denver – I forgot there was a microphone. So there you go.
Taibbi: Are you not feeling well?
Sanders: No, I’m feeling fine. It’s just that I’ve been doing too many speeches.
Taibbi: You do a lot of them.
Sanders: We’re off to Nevada in a few hours. So there you go.
Taibbi: Excellent. Well we won’t take up too much of your time. We just wanted to talk a little bit about the debate last night. One of the themes, with regard to you: a couple of candidates, Secretary Castro, Senator Harris, they dropped a line about how we want to thank Senator Sanders, give you credit for moving the Medicare debate. But the subtext of it was, essentially, “Thanks a lot Bernie, we’ll take it from here.” Where do they want to take it, and why is that a bad idea? What’s the difference between what you’re saying and what they’re saying?
Sanders: Thanks for asking that question. Look, at the end of the day, we have to make a fundamental decision in this country. Number one, is healthcare a human right, or is it not? If it is a human right, then we guarantee healthcare to every man, woman and child, regardless of income.
And what we say is, if you’re sick, if you need to check up, you go to any doctor you want to, you go to any hospital you want to, and you don’t have to take out your credit card, you don’t have to pay a nickel out of your pocket for that visit. Because that’s what healthcare is, if we talk about it as a human right. And that’s what exists in Canada, that’s what exists in most industrialized countries around the world.
And then the second point is, we have to ask ourselves, which my opponents are not, is: why is it that we’re spending twice as much per person on healthcare as the people of any other country?
That’s a profound statement. I got all these conservatives who want to save money. We’re spending $11,000 a year per person on healthcare, twice what the Canadians spend, what the French spend, what the Germans spend. They manage to cover all of their people.
The answer gets to the whole heart and soul of this debate. Is the function of healthcare to make $100 billion in profit for the healthcare industry, which is what they made last year? Is it to make billions of dollars in profits for the drug companies, medical equipment suppliers? Or is the function of healthcare to provide healthcare to all people in a cost-effective way?
So to answer your question… what Medicare For All, the bill that I wrote, does, it expands on what the Canadians do. This is not a new idea. It does away with all premiums, all copayments, all out-of-pocket expenses.
Anybody goes to any doctor, any hospital that you want. We phase it in over a four-year period. Medicare is a popular program right now, only applicable by and large to people 65 and older. Four-year period, we go down to 55, 45, 35, and we cover everybody. We expand the kind of healthcare that people get to include, dental care, which is a big, big deal, hearing aids and eye vision as well. That’s it.
Taibbi: Last night was interesting. Before the debate, a pharmaceutical lobby, the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future, was urging candidates to equate Medicare For All with a middle-class tax hike. And right on cue, Vice-President Biden does that. Is that going to be a new talking point that you’re going to have to deal with, with Medicare For All?
Sanders: Absolutely, he is echoing what the health industry wants him to say. So here’s the point, let me say it again. I’ll give just one example. I talked to a guy last week who works for a large company, as a matter of fact, and he has pretty good health insurance. So we chatted. This is the story, like millions of other Americans.
He has a family of four, I believe. He is paying $1000 a month in premiums, and he has a $4000 deductible. That means in his case, he is spending $16,000 a year. This is not to mention what his employer is paying, which is probably an equal amount. But he’s paying $16,000 a year out of his own pocket before he gets a nickel of coverage from his insurance company. Now, Joe Biden may think that he’s delighted, this guy is delighted to pay these premiums. And the answer is that what you pay premiums or you’re paying taxes, you’re paying money out of your own pocket.
Under Medicare For All, that guy, and virtually everybody in America, will be spending less on their healthcare, because there are no more premiums under my bill. No more out-of-pocket expenses, no more co-payments. And nobody in America will pay more than $200 a year for prescription drugs.
So if you’re upset that under a Bernie Sanders proposal, in his case you’ll pay whatever it may be, being hypothetical here. You’ll pay $9000 a year out of your pocket in taxes, as opposed to $16000 a year in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
Fine. I don’t think that guy will be upset about it. I think he will be delighted about it. So that is what the issue is, and it is really disturbing that we have Democratic candidates who are echoing the talking points of the healthcare industry. Which, let us not forget, made $100 billion in profits last year. And will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to defeat my proposal.
Katie Halper: Senator, I’m Katie Halper. I wanted to know, you talk a lot about movement politics, and of course your motto is, “Not me, us.” What will the movement have to do when you’re president to keep you responsible to the movement, to keep your feet to the fire? Which I’m sure is something you want the movement to do, but what are they going to have to do, just so we can prepare?
Sanders: Well Katie, we are living in an unprecedented moment in American history. And it’s not just the racism and the pathological lying and the sexism and the homophobia of Donald Trump. It goes beyond that. And I’m the only candidate I think who talks about this consistently.
And I know Matt, you guys have been writing about this for years, you’re some of the few people in America who write about this stuff. And that is, we are looking not only at the incredible greed of the corporate elite, but the corruption of the corporate elite, and the power of the corporate elite.
So you’re talking about Wall Street, you’re talking about six banks that have assets equivalent to half of the GDP in this country, more than $10 trillion. Banks that borrow money at 2.5% and charge people 25%, 30% interest rates on their credit cards.
You’re talking about the drug companies, who are involved in price fixing. They’re now under assault in court cases right now for selling opiates to the American people when they knew that those opiates were addictive. You’re talking about the insurance industry charging us the highest prices in the world for healthcare. You’re talking about the fossil fuel industry knowing, knowingly, producing a product that is destroying the planet. What can you say about that? So you’re talking about corruption, you’re talking about incredible power. And when we talk about the debate last night, and every other debate that I have been on, these are issues that we’re not allowed to talk about.
No commentator, no moderator, has ever asked me about the power of the corporate elite, the corruption of the corporate elite, and how you deal with that issue. And obviously that is at the heart and soul of what this campaign is about.
Katie, to answer your question, what I have said and I think you’ve heard me say this a million times, is no president, not Bernie Sanders, anybody else, can do it alone. Because these people have unlimited amounts of money, they control the corporate media, they have unbelievable power. The only way we defeat them is with a President of the United States who is prepared to stand up to them.
But behind that president has got to be an unprecedented grassroots movement of millions of people. Who are telling the insurance companies, “Sorry, everybody in this country will have healthcare as a human right.” Telling the fossil fuel industry, “Sorry, your short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet.” Telling the drug companies, “Sorry, we’re not going to die because we cannot afford the outrageous prices of your medicine.” The only way we accomplish that is with a mass movement, that is what this campaign is about.
Halper: And what is the mass movement going to look like? Does that mean protests, does that mean running for office?
Sanders: That means mobilizing millions of people, to run for office absolutely, to make it clear in a way that does not happen right now. Give you an example. Last month I was in Louisville Kentucky, challenging McConnell to bring up gun safety legislation, to bring up the bills passed in the House that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. To bring up the legislation passed in the House which will do the best that we can to prevent Russian intervention in our elections.
Kentucky, it turns out, is a poor state. It is a state where people are struggling. And yet you got a senator there from Kentucky, not only McConnell but Rand Paul, in a poor state, that believe in massive tax breaks for the rich, and cuts to social security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, environmental protection.
How does that happen? How do you have a poor state, a struggling state, elect the people who represent the interests of the rich and the powerful, and ignore the needs of the vast majority of the people in that state? And what the political revolution is about is going into those states, and I have been into Kentucky, got a lot of support there, going into West Virginia, another poor state, going into so-called red states, and blue states, and rallying the working class of this country.
Here is the main point, that I try to make all over this country. The ideas that I am talking about, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, healthcare for all, making public colleges and universities tuition-free, canceling student debt, dealing with climate change aggressively, these are not radical ideas. These are ideas that the working class of this country supports.
Problem is, we have a lot of people who are not voting. We’ve got to get them voting. With have a lot of young people who are very, very progressive, who are not involved in the political process. We’ve got to get them involved. The only way you do that is by having the ideas, the movement that brings them into the political process. And that’s what we’re working on day after day right now.
Taibbi: I want to talk a little bit about what your strategy would be if you were in the general election. A lot of the candidates, both in the last race and in this year already, they fall into the trap when they’re campaigning against Donald Trump of trading insults with him, getting into this endless cycle of barbs, and the media loves to cover that.
Correct me if I’m wrong, I feel like you have a different strategy. You don’t seem to want to engage Trump on that level. You always seem to want to continue talking to voters, almost past him, and focus on the issues, focus on your message of opposing corporate power.
If you were the nominee, how would you deal with Donald Trump differently from the other candidates?
Sanders: I think, Matt, that what you said is basically correct. On one hand you cannot ignore his pathological lying, his racism, his sexism, his xenophobia, his religious bigotry. I mean you can’t do that. You have to defend people who are being attacked by this racist president.
But on the other hand, if you become obsessed, and I think this is the point you’re making, if you become obsessed with Donald Trump’s tweets, you fall into his trap. So I think the main point we make, when we go to states like Michigan, when you go to Wisconsin, when you go to Pennsylvania, when you go to Florida, is you say to the working people of those states, “You know what, not only is this guy a liar, he’s a fraud.
He told you that he was going to stand with the working class of this country, he told you he was going to take on Wall Street and the drug companies and the insurance companies. Well the evidence is clear, he lied to you.”
You don’t stand with the working class when you try to throw 32 million people off of health insurance. You don’t stand with the working class of this country when 83% of the tax benefits that you push for, that you succeeded in getting, go to the top 1% at the end of 10 years. You’re not standing with the working class.
You remember, Matt and Katie, that when he campaigned he said, “I’m a different type of Republican, I’m not going to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.” Absolute lie. His budget does exactly that.
So he said, “I want American companies not to go abroad.” Well he’s producing products for his own company abroad. “Oh my God, it’s terrible that we have all these undocumented people in this country, I hate undocumented people.” Oh yeah? Well they’re working in your companies.
They’re working at your resorts, Donald Trump, you’re a goddamned liar. Forgive me. Shouldn’t say that.
Taibbi: Everybody’s using profanity now, it’s okay.
Sanders: All right. And that’s what you expose him, is the fraud. Here he is hiring undocumented people in his own resorts, after he is ranting and raving and demonizing undocumented people. So I think that is the point you make to working-class people: he lied to you.
And I think we also have to understand, and you’ve heard me say this a million times, Matt – that is to my mind, it wasn’t that Trump won, it’s that the Democratic Party lost. And the Democratic Party forgot about the tens of millions of working-class people in this country, black and white and Latino, Native American, Asian-American, people who are struggling.
Half of the people in this country are living paycheck to paycheck. Car breaks down, they’re in severe trouble. They can’t afford to go to the doctor. Those are the folks we have to start paying attention to. And when we do that, you’ll defeat Donald Trump.
Taibbi: In 2016, when you ran against Hillary Clinton, you made a very clear argument. You said, the first difference is I wouldn’t take money from the banks. You made a very clear distinction about the difference between you and Hillary Clinton, that she essentially was receiving the largesse of a lot of the corporations the we’re talking about.
Do you have to make the same argument now about Joe Biden?
Sanders: Yes, you do. And the point we made, it is impossible to take on the greed and corruption of the corporate elite if you’re taking their money. And on that note, let me say something that I’m really very, very proud of. It’s just something I’m telling you from the heart.
Is that right now, as of today, we have received more individual contributions than any candidate at this point in an election in American history. I think we have three million individual contributions, from very close to one million individual contributors. So a million people, three million contributions. No candidate in American history at this point in a campaign has ever done that.
And these campaigns, there was a piece in the paper the other day. These contributions are coming from working-class people. That’s where they’re coming from. They’re coming from teachers, who I think are our largest single source of funding. They’re coming from workers at Amazon, they’re coming from workers in Target. They’re coming from waiters and waitresses.
This is a working-class campaign, taking on the corporate elite, funded by the working class of this country. We are 100% funded at the grassroots level. I don’t go to wealthy people’s homes to raise money, and our average contribution, God knows, what is it? Nineteen or twenty bucks a piece.
So this is historical. There’s never been a campaign that has relied on working-class financial support to the degree that we are. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m extremely proud of that.
Taibbi: Was it out of bounds last night for Secretary Castro to chide Vice-President Biden about, “Did you forget what you said two minutes ago?” Do you think it’s a legitimate question to talk about things like gaffes, an inability to string sentences together….
Sanders: All I can tell you, Matt, that’s not my style. I don’t try to engage in personal attacks on people. Joe Biden and I have enormous differences regarding our voting record, and how we envisage the future of this country.
Biden voted for the war in Iraq, I opposed it. Biden voted for these terrible trade agreements, NAFTA and PNPR with China, which have cost us over four million jobs. I helped lead the opposition against that. Biden voted for the Wall Street bailout, I did everything I could to prevent that. Biden voted for this terrible bankruptcy bill, I voted against it.
So his views, his voting record, very different than mine. His views on healthcare, on climate, on the needs of working-class people are very different. Those are the areas that I will focus on. I think we’ve only got another minute or so, guys.
Halper: Okay. So who will your running mate be when you win the nomination?
Taibbi: Katie volunteers.
Halper: I volunteer.
Sanders: Send me your resume.
Halper: Matt has agreed to release me.
Taibbi: From her contract.
Sanders: Well you know, a Vice-President needs a staff, Matt needs a steady job, so there you go.
Taibbi: Sounds good.
Halper: You talk about how lacking substance sometimes these debates can be. Anything that you wanted to say, that you didn’t get a chance to say last night?
Sanders: I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to speak about the racial justice issue, that I didn’t have a chance to speak about immigration, didn’t have a chance to speak about climate change.
I am very proud of having introduced by far the most comprehensive climate change legislation ever introduced by any presidential candidate. And I’ve been attacked because that’s a very expensive proposal, $16 trillion. It actually pays for itself.
But the point that I have made over and over again, is what is the alternative? In terms of not doing everything humanly possible to combat climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency. What is the alternative? If we do not do this, what the scientists are telling us…
Just stop and think, we’re not talking about hundreds of years or thousands of years. In terms of extreme weather, think right now in the last few years what happened in the Bahamas, what’s happened in Puerto Rico, what happened in New Orleans. I’m in Houston right now. Of what is happening in Charleston, South Carolina. What we are seeing with our own eyes right now in the United States. Not to mention the heat waves in Europe, in Australia, in India. Not to mention that hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala are unable to grow the food that they need in order to feed themselves.
Think about that problem becoming much, much worse in years to come. We are literally fighting for the future of the planet. And I don’t know how anybody can say we cannot afford to do that. Because if we do not, the planet we leave our kids and our grandchildren becomes increasingly unhealthy and uninhabitable. We just cannot allow that to happen.
So I’m proud that our proposal is supported by some major environmental groups, it is the most comprehensive proposal out there, and we have to do nothing less than do everything possible to save this planet.
Halper: To people who say you have great ideas but you can’t win the general – what’s your response to that?
Sanders: I would suggest to them, take a look at every credible poll done in the last year. Every credible poll has me defeating Donald Trump, sometimes by double-digit figures. Interestingly enough, just a poll came out the other day in Texas, of all places, having me beating Trump by six points, which is more than any other Democratic candidate.
We won Wisconsin in the primary process last time, we won Michigan. I believe we can win Pennsylvania, I believe we can win North Carolina. I believe we can win Texas and some other states that Trump won. In point of fact, to beat Trump you’re going to need a campaign of energy and excitement, you’re going to need to bring young people and working-class people into that campaign in a way that we have never, ever seen before.
I don’t think that status quo politics, the politics of Joe Biden, is going to do that. So I think we are the campaign to defeat Donald Trump.
Halper: Thank you.
Taibbi: Thank you, Senator, and have a good trip to Nevada.
Sanders: Take care.