Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders

The Congressman discusses medicare for all and his latest book Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution.

Bernie Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, Bernie was the younger of two sons in a modest-income family. After graduation from the University of Chicago in 1964, he moved to Vermont. Early in his career, Sanders was director of the American People’s Historical Society. Elected Mayor of Burlington by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont's at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Bernie Sanders. The Independent senator from Vermont joins us to talk about his plan to expand Medicare to provide healthcare for every American, and his new book titled “Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution” which includes ideas about what it means to be a Progressive these days and how to get involved with America’s democratic system.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Bernie Sanders in just a moment.

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Tavis: He is the author of a new book. It’s called “Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution”. He is the Independent senator from Vermont, former Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. Senator, good to have you back on the program, sir.

Bernie Sanders: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking whether or not you are more annoyed about having to continue to answer questions ab out what Hillary said or are you more about what she said?

Sanders: Well, a little bit of both. But the bottom line is, you know, that primary election ended well over a year ago, and right now we’re confronting enormous problems with the Trump administration, whether it is the disastrous healthcare ideas, whether it is throwing 800,000 young people off of DACA, whether it is their refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change, whether it’s the desire to give huge tax breaks to billionaires.

We got enough to worry about today and in 2018 and 2020. I don’t think we have to revisit and rehash the primary campaign.

Tavis: One or two follow-ups and I promise I won’t ask anything that’s about Hillary the rest of the night. Since you said you’re a little annoyed by both, that you continue to get asked about it and annoyed that she said it, can you tell me what most annoys you about what she said? What gets under your skin the most?

Sanders; Well, you know, the thought that we did not strongly support her in the election. I did everything that I can. By the way, some of my supporters were not all that happy about it, but I said over and over again, “We have got to do everything that we can to elect Hillary Clinton. We don’t want to wake up the day after the election and have the disaster of Donald Trump being president.”

I was all over the country working as hard as I could. And to suggest that was not the case, you know, that’s kind of disappointing.

Tavis: Given the way that Donald Trump has behaved or misbehaved as president, do you believe now in retrospect that had you gotten the nomination, you really could have beaten him?

Sanders: Again, that’s speculation, Tavis. Who knows? I think what I can say and what is a fact is that most of the polls had me ahead of him and doing better against him than Hillary Clinton was doing. Does that mean definitively that I would have won? No. Does that mean it was likely that I could have won? The answer is yes.

Tavis: So the next question is, how are you faring in the era of Donald Trump? Everybody has their postmortem on the election and what it means to be on Capitol Hill in the era of Trump. What do you make of it?

Sanders; Well, you know, the answer is we’re doing the best that we can to try to fend off the disastrous policies that he has brought forth. Right now, it looks like the Republicans are once again coming up with some outrageous healthcare proposal that will throw tens of millions of Americans off of the healthcare that they have, defund Planned Parenthood, raise premiums for older workers, and that’s resurfacing right now. So we got to do everything we can to beat that back.

We have got to go forward, in my view, not only in protecting the Affordable Care Act now, but moving toward a Medicare-for-All single payer program. I am very proud that when we introduced that bill last week, we had 16 co-sponsors and we’re getting more and more support all over the country from the American people for the understanding that healthcare in the United States has got to be a right of all, not just the privileged.

Tavis: What do you make of late of this new-found friendship between Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the president?

Sanders: Well, you know, the truth is that I don’t think Trump has much of an ideology except maybe perhaps being a racist and a xenophobe and so forth. But I think on issues like many other issues, I think he has brought in the Koch Brothers people to guide him.

But I think that he has understood that that extreme right wing approach may not be working for him politically, and that the Republican leadership in the Congress is not terribly popular.

So given that reality, given the fact that he doesn’t believe much in anything, and what he believes in today may not be the case tomorrow, I think he’s figuring out a way to try to maybe, you know, get his poll ratings up a little bit.

So if he in fact is prepared to reverse course on this DACA situation and figure out a way that we can provide legal status to the 800,000 young people who he was prepared to throw off of legal protection, if he is prepared to move more comprehensive immigration reform, I think that we should work with him.

During his campaign, you know, he talked a big deal about the high cost of prescription drugs in this country, which is just a very, very serious problem. Drug companies are ripping off the American people every day. If in fact he has some idea of keeping the promises he made to the American people during his campaign, let’s work with him on lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

He talked about a trillion dollar investment to rebuild the infrastructure. If he is prepared to keep that promise and not want to privatize infrastructure or just give tax breaks to Wall Street in order to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, let’s work with him on that as well.

Tavis: I’m not sure that one is better than the other, but when you called Donald Trump a racist and a xenophobe, do you really believe, really believe, that he is a racist and a xenophobe? Or do you think that’s some sort of political strategy, as you intimated a moment ago, to placate his base?

Sanders: The answer is yes and no. I mean, I think if you go back to his attacks on Barack Obama when he was leading the “birther movement” and trying to delegitimize the administration of the first African American president, I mean, I think that’s racist. I can’t think of a nicer word to say. When you think about his attacks on the Central Park rape situation — you recall that…

Tavis: Sure.

Sanders: Where the young men were found to be innocent, and he was persisting on that issue, well, you call it what you want. I don’t know, but, you know, it sounds to me like this is kind of racism. So is it political? Is it what he believes? Who knows?

But certainly the policies that he has been bringing forth in terms of anti-Muslim, in terms of anti-Latino, in terms of anti-affirmative action and so forth and so on, don’t look good to me.

Tavis: Since you mentioned his flip-flopping which he, of course, continues to do, what do you make of his coming out against DACA one day and then, a couple of days later, hanging out with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi saying, “We’ll find a way to protect the Dreamers”? I mean, I’m not sure I know where he stands on DACA. Do you know where he stands on DACA?

Sanders: Well, that’s the point. I don’t know where he stands on anything. And the difficulty that we have is what he said yesterday may not be, for better or worse, what he says tomorrow. So you do the best that you can within that context of a president who lies a whole lot.

You know, I don’t mean to be insulting, but that’s just the fact. He lies a lot, changes his mind a lot, and that’s a hard situation to deal with. But I think he sees the opportunity and if, for whatever reason, he feels it’s in his advantage to reverse course on this horrific — this DACA thing is so ugly.

Young people have grown up here in the United States. This is their home. This is where they’re working, where they go to school, where they serve in the U.S. military. And to take away their legal status and allow themselves to be open to deportation, that is so ugly. It’s almost unimaginable. So if he is willing to reverse course on that, yeah, let’s work with him on that.

Tavis: This might be an impossible question as well. Again, it’s made more difficult by the fact that I don’t know where he stands on certain things on any given day, but is it possible that, if he continues on the course that he’s on now, might he be in fact on a collision course with his own party? Is it possible that we could see his own party start to turn against him?

Sanders: Well, I think you’re seeing a little bit of that. From a tactical point of view, when you’re the President of the United States and a Republican and you suddenly start making deals with Democratic leadership without even informing the Republican leadership, I think these Republicans are increasingly suspicious and very nervous about their relationship with him.

Tavis: Back to Medicare, which I promised I want to get back to. So I guess my initial question, Senator Sanders, is what has happened on Capitol Hill? Because I can’t see what it is, but you’re smarter than I am and you live there every day. But what’s happened on Capitol Hill that makes the territory, the terrain, any more fertile for a real conversation about this now than we had prior to the campaign?

Sanders: Well, I’ll tell you what has happened. Number one, people, I think, have begun to appreciate the gains of the Affordable Care Act. 20 million more Americans now have health insurance. We’ve done away with this obscenity called a denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, and a number of other positive benefits of the ACA. So that’s the first thing. People see that.

And then they see the Republicans coming up with some of the most horrific legislation that I have seen in the modern history of this country. Can you imagine throwing, depending on the legislation they brought forth, 22, 23, 32 million Americans off of the health insurance they have?

Just imagine, Tavis, somebody who’s sitting home on Medicaid with cancer or with diabetes or heart problems, and these guys are talking about doing away with their health insurance. Many of those people will die. We’re talking about thousands of people in the United States of America dying if that legislation were to be passed. Fortunately, we’re able to beat it back.

But anyhow, what people were seeing is, okay, Affordable Care Act did some good. What the Republicans are proposing is horrible and nobody supports that in America. It had the lowest support of any major legislation in decades. But where do we go from here?

Because the Affordable Care Act still contains a whole lot of serious problems. We have too many people, 28 million uninsured. We have even more who are under-insured, high deductibles, high copayments. We are paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.

The cost of healthcare is rising. We are spending, Tavis, $10,000 per person on healthcare, $10,000, almost 18% of our GDP, and the projection is that number is going to go up in the next 10 years rather significantly. So the American people are beginning to ask themselves some simple questions.

Why are we spending twice as much as Canada or any other major country when our healthcare outcomes are not necessarily as good as these other countries? Why do we pay the highest prices in the world for the medicine that we need? Why are we the only major country not to guarantee healthcare as a right to all people?

And when you start asking those questions, then the solution moves in the direction of saying, okay, we have a Medicare program for people who are 65 or older. It has its problems and want to improve it, but generally speaking, it has worked over the last 52 years.

Seniors are by and large happy with it and proud of it. In fact, it’s the most popular health insurance program in the country. Well, why don’t we just expand Medicare to every man, woman and child in this country? And people are saying, yeah, why not? Why don’t we do that?

And the advantages of that is that to administer the Medicare program costs 2%, 2% administration. To administer the hundreds of separate private insurance plans that we have where you have a $5,000 deductible, I have a $10,000 deductible, you pay $25 copayment, I pay $40 copayment.

It is enormously complicated, enormously expensive to administer, and it ends up the private insurance companies are spending between 12% and 18% on administration as opposed to 2% for Medicare.

The conclusion is, if we have one insurance program, a Medicare-for-All, we can save $500 billion dollars a year on administration. If we negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical like every other country is doing, we probably save another $100 billion dollars. And that’s the direction, clearly, we should be going.

Tavis: So I am certain because I do this every day [laugh], I am certain that tomorrow the conservative right wing websites are going to have a field day taking clips of what you’ve said tonight and try to pick this conversation apart.

I would venture to guess that one of the clips they’re going to pull is what you just suggested a moment ago where you sort of intimated — and I can see their headline. “Bernie Sanders Calls Donald Trump and Republicans Doctors of Death”.

What you suggested was that if we go the direction that they want us to go on healthcare that millions of Americans are going — some Americans, not millions. You didn’t say millions…

Sanders: Not millions.

Tavis: You didn’t say millions, but many Americans are going to die. How are you going to respond tomorrow when they say that you said that, Senator Sanders?

Sanders: Tavis, I have responded.

Tavis: Okay.

Sanders: And the answer is this is not Bernie Sanders. There was one of the newspapers that checks out the facts that public officials say. They checked it out.

Tavis: Right.

Sanders: And they said, “Yeah, based on a number of studies” — I’m not pulling this stuff out of my head here. Based on — look, if you deny — Tavis, this is kind of common sense. If you take away health insurance from 20 or 30 million people and you got many of those people dealing with life-threatening illnesses, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out some of them are going to die.

And generally speaking, I think the number was that, if you have 23 million people being thrown off of health insurance, I don’t know, it was 15, 20, 25,000 people a year will die. That’s all. That’s a fact. And they can throw everything they want at me, but there are a number of studies — not my information. These are studies done by doctors and scientists.

Tavis: Right. I just wanted to ask because I suspect that’s going to happen, so you are duly on record here.

Sanders: Well, it’s already happened and it happened again [laugh].

Tavis: I’m sure [laugh]. Get ready for some more tomorrow, yeah. So it seems to me that, when you started this conversation by saying that you had 16 or 17 co-sponsors when you introduced this legislation, I don’t know how anything gets done in the Senate if you can’t find some moderate Republicans to come with you. I just don’t know who those moderates are anymore.

Sanders: Well, Tavis, let me be clear, and I’ve said this many, many times. Medicare-for-All in which we’re taking on the drug companies — and, by the way, the drug companies have spent in the last 20 years well over $3 billion dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions.

They are an incredibly powerful force. The insurance companies are very powerful force. Wall Street that makes money from this current healthcare system, obviously very powerful.

So no one has ever heard me say that we’re going to pass this tomorrow or we’re going to pass this with Republican leadership in the House and the Senate and the White House. But this is what I am saying. I am saying that more and more Americans understand that that is the direction that we have to be going in and polling indicates that.

And that the only way we pass this is when millions of people become actively involved in the political process and begin to stand up and fight for a healthcare system that works for the American people and not just for the drug companies and the insurance companies.

So essentially, in my view, this is less of a “healthcare” issue than it is a political issue. I think Medicare-for-All makes a lot of sense, hard to argue against it.

What we are arguing against is the power of the drug companies and the insurance companies and Wall Street. They are very powerful people, and our job is to take them on through strong grassroots efforts all over this country. And when we do that, I think we will pass a Medicare-for-All.

Tavis: I hear your point. Medicare is one slice of it. I guess the broader question is how do you even find any room to create Democratic space, to have a debate about any domestic program when it appears that the direction they want to move in is to cut domestic spending?

Sanders: Because what you should appreciate and what everybody listening and viewing this should appreciate is that this Republican agenda is incredibly unpopular. I mean, essentially, the polling for their proposals to throw millions off of health insurance are lower than any other major legislation in recent years.

Nobody thinks, or very few people think, we should give tax breaks to billionaires and cut programs for working people. Nobody thinks, or very few people think, that we should move Medicare into a voucher type program. Most Americans know that climate change is real and already causing devastating problems, which is not what the Republican leadership or Trump believes.

So the point is, their agenda is way out of touch with the American people. The reason they’re able to win elections — and they have done very well in that in recent years — is they have unlimited sums of money behind them and they’re able to come up with wedge issues which divide the American people.

And what I am doing and many of us are trying to do is bring people together, not allow Trump to divide us up by the color of our skin or the country we were born in or our sexual orientation or our religion. Stand together around an agenda that demands the government work for all of us and not just the 1%. That’s kind of the direction we’ve got to move in.

Tavis: 1% is one number. 12% is another number. And you know where I’m going with this. 12% is the number we are told of the persons who supported you who went on to vote for Donald Trump. Do you believe that number? And if so, what do you make of it?

Sanders: Well, yeah. I don’t know. It sounds like it might well be right, and that’s kind of low, actually. I believe the number was 24% of people who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and then ended up voting for John McCain and against Barack Obama. So, you know, we live in a time when political allegiance to a party is not particularly strong.

You know, there are more Independents now than Democrats or Republicans. So why would it shock anybody that somebody who voted for Hillary Clinton ended up voting against Obama and for John McCain? Why would it shock anybody if somebody who voted for me would vote against Clinton and vote for Donald Trump?

Tavis: I guess what’s shocking — let me take a stab at answering that question. I guess what’s shocking for some people is that you and Donald Trump are so diametrically opposed on so many issues that it just seems weird that somebody could support you and then flip and support Donald Trump.

Sanders: Well, I know that, but, again, it seems to me to be weird that somebody could support Hillary Clinton and vote for a conservative Republican like John McCain. Look, you know, the world is — we live in a country which is not particularly ideological. There are people who like me, people who like Donald Trump, people who like Hillary Clinton, people who like John McCain.

People often vote for the individual. But, in fact, again, I would reiterate that, as I understand it, according to some of these studies, twice as many people voted for McCain who had voted for Clinton than was the case in my election.

Tavis: Not your fault. You’re not responsible. I was just asking what you made of it. What does it mean in the era of Donald Trump, what does it mean to Bernie Sanders to be a true Progressive?

Sanders: What it means is to understand, as I mentioned a moment ago, that the Trump agenda of tax breaks to billionaires, of throwing millions of people off of health insurance, of trying to take away the legal status for 800,000 young people, of not recognizing the reality and danger of climate change, that all of those things which is essentially the Republican agenda, is a minority perspective in America.

What it means to me as a Progressive is to stand with the working families, stand with the middle class, stand with lower income people who are struggling every day to make ends meet, and bring people together around a Progressive agenda.

What it means, Tavis, is the $7.25 federal minimum wage is a starvation wage, and I’m proud of the progress we’re making where more and more communities around America now support a $15 an hour minimum wage. It means, in my view, to invest a trillion dollars to create 15 million jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges and our water systems. More and more people support that.

I’ll be in California this weekend in San Francisco to talk to a college in San Francisco, San Francisco College, which is now tuition-free. And we’re seeing movement all across this country where more and more states and localities are talking about the need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and substantially reduce student debt.

More and more people are talking about transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. More and more people are talking about the need for real criminal justice reform so we don’t have more people in jail than any other country.

So being a Progressive means coming up with an agenda that speaks to the needs of the middle class and working families, having the guts to take on Wall Street and the drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry and bringing people together, getting them involved in the political process.

Tavis: I got 45 seconds to go. Let me close on this. Back to your book, “Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution”. This is a book specifically aimed at young readers. You mentioned you’re going to speak at a college in San Francisco later this week. What’s your message specifically in this moment to young people?

Sanders: That they have the future to transform this country. That they have the idealisms, they have the energy to help lead this country in a very, very different way. We have a great younger generation. It’s the most progressive generation of young people in the history of this country. And what I want them to do is not just talk about bold ideas.

I want them to get involved in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day politics. Run for school board, run for city council, run for state legislature or the United States Congress. Get involved and transform this country. Have the guts to take on the billionaire class and we can do wonderful things in America.

Tavis: The numbers are astonishing. Bernie Sanders pulled more young votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined in this last race for the White House. His new book is aimed at that generation. It’s called “Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution”, available at fine booksellers everywhere. Senator Sanders, always an honor to have you on. Thanks for your insights, sir.

Sanders: Thank you very much, Tavis. Take care.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from L.A. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: September 19, 2017 at 1:23 pm