Tavis: President Obama yesterday at the White House, defending his deal on the Bush-era tax cuts. For reaction tonight, pleased to be joined by one of two independents serving in the U.S. Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who joins us from the Hill. Senator, always an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: Good to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: So you heard the president. Are you buying his spin?
Sanders: No, I’m not. The president is absolutely right that it is an outrage that our Republican colleagues would hold hostage an extension of unemployment benefits for two million unemployed workers today. That’s an outrage. He’s also right that it is disgraceful that the Republicans are holding hostage tax breaks for 98 percent of the American people in order to get huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
I think where the president is wrong is not understanding that the American people are totally disgusted by this behavior on the part of the Republican leadership and are prepared to fight against it. I think what our job right now is not to reach an agreement which is unfair to our kids and our grandchildren, who are going to be paying higher taxes in order to pay off the debt to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires.
Our job right now is to demand that our Republican friends, who tell us every day how concerned they are about this deficit and this national debt, vote against this bill, which in fact will substantially increase the national debt. We’ve got to rally the American people, we’ve got to defeat this proposal and come back with something that works for the unemployed and the middle class, and not for the rich and big business.
Tavis: I want to ask in a moment, Senator, how you in fact do that, but let me stay with the president’s remarks just for a second here. The president seemed to suggest – in fact, said in his remarks that we just heard that the polls are with him. He believes that the polls representing the viewpoint of the American people are with him. That’s diametrically opposed to what you’ve just said.
So when the president says the American public is with him on cutting this deal, what does he mean?
Sanders: No, no, no. I think what the president said yesterday, at least, is that the polls are very clear – the American people believe we should extend the tax breaks for the middle class; we should extend unemployment compensation for those people who have lost their jobs. The polls are very clear on that.
The polls are also very clear that we should not be giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires at a time when the top 1 percent already earns more income than the bottom 50 percent and the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider. On that issue, Tavis, the polls are very clear. The American people do not want tax breaks for billionaires and driving up the national debt.
Tavis: So how’s the president going to sell this, then?
Sanders: Well, he’s not going to sell it to me. I think what we should be doing is working together. The White House, the House and the Senate should be going out across this country and making it very clear that it is a moral outrage for the Republicans to be holding hostages, the needs of the middle class, for their billionaire friends.
And let me say something else to you, Tavis. If we cave in on this proposal, I will 100 percent guarantee you that as soon as this cave-in takes place, this vote takes place, that the next day or a week or a month later the Republicans will come back and say, “Well, that’s a good start, but now the national debt has gone up – we need to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, environmental protection.”
So what these guys will do, having given tax breaks to the rich, driven up the national debt, they’re now going to use that as an opportunity to slash programs that millions and millions of middle class and working class Americans depend upon.
So the fight is going to come, in my view. I may be wrong on this; I don’t think I am. This Republican crew is led by extreme right-wingers. They don’t believe that government can do anything good for the American people. They see government as the enemy, and they are prepared at any opportunity to cause a government crisis, to slow down government, in order to get their way.
So if we don’t stop them here, this fight will simply continue on and on. Maybe it’ll be the debt ceiling, and they will say, “If you don’t raise the debt ceiling – we won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling unless you slash Social Security and Medicare.”
Tavis: So what’s your response, Senator Sanders, to those who say that the president has, in fact, struck the right tone here? He took that shellacking, to use his word, in the midterm elections, and his deal with Republicans strikes a bipartisan tone, and that’s what the American people want?
Sanders: No, I don’t believe that. I honestly don’t believe, and I think the polls back me up, that look, Tavis, the middle class is collapsing right now, and the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider. I think the vast majority of the American people disagree very much with any extension of tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
Tavis, can you imagine that there are going to be multimillionaires out there who are going to receive $1 million a year in tax reductions at the same time as we have senior citizens and disabled vets who are not going to get a (unintelligible) in Social Security this year?
The American are not – I think getting extremely angry, if I might say, at the power of big money to consistently get their way, the greed of Wall Street and all of these guys to push government to do things that work for them while so many people in this country are desperately trying to pay the bills and keep their families together.
We are moving into a type of nation where a few people on the top have incredible wealth and power while the middle class is struggling for its survival. This agreement only makes that situation even worse.
Tavis: Is the president decimating his base? If you read everything online, you read the newspapers, you listen to the chatter – and I’m not saying this to cast aspersion on the president, but everywhere I look, Senator, everywhere I read, it appears to me that his base is, in fact, decimated by his caving on this issue. Is that how you read this?
Sanders: Tavis, all I can tell you is that yesterday and today we will have received in my office, and I’m the senator from a small state, the state of Vermont, will receive about 2,000 calls. Ninety-nine percent of them are in opposition to this agreement.
What the American people want to see in their president is somebody who not necessarily can win every fight, but they want to see him stand up and fight for what he believes, take his case to the American people.
When he ran for president, and I’m sure they’re showing this clip all over television, he fought very hard and said, “I am not going to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich. They haven’t worked. The Bush economic philosophy was a failure.” Under Bush, we lost 500,000 private sector jobs while the rich became richer and everybody else became poorer.
Then to accede to this Republican demand, people then are going to ask themselves, “Hey, we like the president, but is he ever going to draw a line in the sand? Is he ever going to stand up and fight the fights that have to be fought?”
So I think the president is underestimating the anger of the American people, their disgust with the greed that we’re seeing from millionaires and billionaires who apparently can never get enough. Our friends on Wall Street now are earning more money today than they did before we bailed them out, while small businesses are going bankrupt, people are losing their homes and their savings, unemployment is sky-high.
I don’t think the president is fully appreciating that anger, and I think, to answer your question, I think a lot of people – I can tell you this personally; people are calling me up all the time – a lot of people who voted for him with enthusiasm are now very dispirited.
Tavis: I hear your point. My granddad, Senator, always said to me, “Tavis, there’s some fights that ain’t worth fighting, even if you win, but there are other fights that you have to fight, even if you lose.”
Sanders: I think your granddaddy was a smart guy.
Tavis: So is Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont. Senator, always good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights tonight.
Sanders: Thank you very much, Tavis.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.