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Sanders Says He's Democrats' Best Bet On Issues — And Electability

Presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is seen Wednesday in his Senate office in Washington, D.C.
Jun Tsuboike
Presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is seen Wednesday in his Senate office in Washington, D.C.

It was late summer when America began to "feel the Bern," and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the beneficiary of that warm-weather bump, still sees himself as hot on the campaign trail to the White House.

Sanders sat down Wednesday with Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, to review his own remarkably resilient campaign. Inskeep asked the self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont if he sees a path to the Democratic nomination.

"I do," Sanders said in his clipped Big Apple manner. "Look, when we began this campaign some six months ago, I would say 80 percent of American people didn't know who Bernie Sanders was or what I stood for. We have come a very, very long way."

Now, Sanders says, he still needs to acquaint millions more voters with his view of the nation, its economy and its future. But the progress so far has been phenomenal.

"We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the 50 states. We've received more individual contributions — some 750,000 of them — more than any other candidate in history at this point in the campaign. Averaging, I should tell you, $30 apiece."

Sanders readily concedes that he trails Hillary Clinton, the former senator and secretary of state, in the Democratic nomination contest. But he points to another result in the same polling data. "When you look at some of the polls that have come out recently, we often do better than Hillary Clinton in running against the Republicans."

The data in these hypothetical general election matchups indicate that Sanders polls better than Clinton against Republicans such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, especially among men and independents.

Inskeep asked how Sanders might convert some of this appeal to a better showing in the primaries and caucuses against Clinton.

"I probably can and will do better in drawing a contrast," Sanders said. "There are significant differences of opinion between Hillary Clinton and myself.

"I'm glad that Hillary Clinton is now against the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement]. Check my record out. I knew from Day One — in terms of NAFTA, CAFTA, permanent normal trade relations with China — that our trade policies were a disaster for American workers."

Sanders also pointed to the Keystone pipeline, a project bringing Canadian tar-sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico. Clinton recently decided to oppose the long-running project.

"How can you be serious about saying you want to combat climate change and [still] have doubts about whether you want to support the Keystone pipeline or not?" asked Sanders, his voice rising in incredulity. "The Keystone pipeline is transporting and excavating some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on Earth. I was against it from Day One."

Sanders has called for an end to all future extraction of oil, gas and coal from federal lands. But he also wants to establish a program for workers in the fossil fuels industries.

"It is not their fault, but the products they are producing are destroying our planet. They have got to be made whole. We have to make sure they have jobs, income, health care, education, job training they need."

Sanders noted he was also years ahead of Clinton in supporting gay marriage and opposing the 2002 resolution authorizing force against Iraq.

While drawing contrasts with Clinton, Sanders said he would not allow their future debates to devolve into the "food fights" he says the Republicans' debates have been.

He also said he will continue to distinguish himself from his better-known rivals in both parties by refusing to form an independent fundraising and spending arm known as a superPAC: "If I'm going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I cannot have a superPAC."

Sanders ripped into the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, which he said "makes the campaign finance system corrupt," adding that "billionaires are able to spend as much as they have to elect whom they want."

Sanders pledged to work for an amendment to the Constitution to overturn that decision.

Inskeep asked about Clinton's enormous lead among African-American Democrats, which Sanders readily acknowledged. Sanders said he was still working to be better known in the black community, supporting policies that would benefit African-Americans and Latino Americans as well — including higher wages, job creation programs and free tuition at public colleges and universities.

Pressed about his vote for the 1994 crime bill that created mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent crimes, Sanders noted that the same bill included provisions to ban certain assault weapons and protect women from violence . The mandatory sentences, he added, were clearly a mistake that have "devastated literally hundreds of thousands of lives."

In the interview, Sanders embraced two elements of his political identity in particular — being a socialist and being Jewish.

He said he had joined the Young People's Socialist League in his early years and always felt affinity for ideas of equality and social and economic opportunity for all.

In the current U.S., he said, he did not see socialism as nationalization of steel mills but as the adoption of policies that have long been accepted in other developed countries. "Social Security is a socialist program," he said.

"We are the only major country not to guarantee health care as a right," said Sanders, "and not to have paid family and medical leave."

Sanders said what he was against as a socialist was "casino capitalism where people on top are making out like bandits — of course, many of them are bandits."

Sanders said his Jewish family had included many who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, and this history inspired him to oppose the current upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment and "Islamophobia."

"I will do everything I can to fight that," he said. "And that relates to the fact that I'm Jewish. As a young boy I remember seeing people who had numbers on their arms, the Nazi identification put on in concentration camps."

Inskeep asked if the crowds who came to see Sanders had anything in common with those who turned out for Donald Trump.

"They do and they don't," Sanders replied. "People who go to Trump rallies are angry, and some who come to my rallies are angry as well. The middle class and working class in this country have a right to be angry, working longer hours for lower wages while almost all the wealth is going to the top."

The difference, he said, is that Trump tells his crowds he's smart and tough, and if elected he'll solve all the problems.

"What I say is the exact opposite," said Sanders. "I say we need to bring millions of people together to take on the powerful corporate interests that now run America."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.