Sen. Bernie Sanders

Vermont’s Independent senator and a member of the Budget committee, Sanders weighs in on the tragedy in Boston and the latest White House budget proposal.

Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders is the first person elected to the Senate to identify as a socialist, though he caucuses with the Democrats. He previously served 16 years in the House and is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history. He also served four terms as mayor of Burlington, VT and lectured at Harvard's JFK School of Government and Hamilton College in upstate New York. Sanders' legislative interests include a focus on America's shrinking middle class and widening income gap, and, in the current (113th) Congress, he serves on five standing committees, including Budget and Veterans' Affairs, which he chairs.


Tavis: There’s so much breaking news happening today, including the situation in Boston, the crisis with North Korea, and of course issues of the White House budget. We’re pleased to speak tonight with Senator Bernie Sanders from Washington. Senator Sanders, good to have you on this program, sir.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Good to be with you.

Tavis: Let me start with Boston. I don’t know at this hour that you know any more than the rest of us know, but just for starters, your thoughts about what happened in Boston today.

Sanders: Well, Boston is the capital of New England, and that’s where I live. The Boston Marathon is one of the great events in this country, and it is just – to see the stretchers wheeling away people, it is a real, real tragedy, and our hearts and prayers go out to all of the families who have been maimed, and people who have been maimed or killed. It is just a terrible, terrible event.

Tavis: What does it mean, to you at least, that this happened in Boston? We know that over 10 years ago, when 9/11 occurred, one of those planes, of course, took off from Logan Airport.

As you mentioned, Boston is the capitol of that region of the country, New England. What’s your sense of what it means that the country now has to deal with this in Boston?

Sanders: It is just ultimately extraordinarily sad to think that people who are celebrating a wonderful event, people running 26 miles, people who are cheering them on, can’t do that in safety. So it’s just terribly sad.

Tavis: When the country has to wrestle with and navigate through moments like these, it reminds us on the one hand how important public policy is. On the other hand, it also is cause to put politics on the back burner. But there is so much happening in Washington right now that in fact cannot be ignored.

Before I talk about some of the issues that I had asked you to come on tonight to discuss before this horrific incident, how does an act, a horrific at like this in any way change or steer in a different direction the debates that are already happening on the Hill as we speak?

Sanders: Well, I think obviously regardless of one’s political view, you’re going to have a hundred senators here, as does everybody in America who is shocked and saddened and horrified by this event. It reminds us that we are one people, one country, and that when something like this happens, I think everybody’s heart goes out and comes together.

Tavis: Yeah. So while the country is dealing with what happened today in Boston, one of Boston’s own, John Kerry, now the secretary of State, has been traveling around the world; indeed, to China of late, trying to get China’s help and support in doing something about this crisis in North Korea.

So let me jump from Boston across the waters to talk about your sense of how we’re navigating this potential crisis with North Korea right about now.

Sanders: Well, I think Secretary of State Kerry is exactly right. I think to a significant degree, China is probably the player most important that can bring some resolution to this crisis.

China helps feed a nation which is addressing starvation; China is providing a great deal of energy to North Korea. China borders on North Korea and actually opening its border would have a huge impact on North Korea.

So if there’s any nation in the world that can bring some leverage, has some leverage on North Korea and make them understand that you can’t go threatening nuclear war in the year 2013, it is China. I hope very much China accepts its international responsibility and does everything that it can to bring North Korea into the community of nations and stop the behavior that we have seen in recent months.

Tavis: You never take this kind of behavior, no matter how erratic or bizarre it might be, you don’t take it lightly, and yet I’m wondering whether or not as a member of the Senate you have any reason to believe that this is more than bluster at the moment.

Sanders: Well, the difficulty is when you’re dealing with a nation that has nuclear weapons, if you’re 99 percent sure that it is bluster, you still get a little bit nervous because they have nuclear weapons, and they have strong missile capability.

Because they are so isolated, because they are so authoritarian, because their leadership is so far out of touch with the needs of their people, many of them, they went through an epidemic of starvation not so many years ago.

So you’re dealing with just a small group of people who have control over nuclear weapons, who live in their own separate world. So it may very well be bluster, and let’s hope that it is bluster, but there are reasons to be concerned.

Tavis: So tonight, sadly, it’s Boston, with fellow citizens having their lives lost, snuffed out at a moments’ notice; others being maimed and body parts lost. So tonight, Boston is ground zero, and yet a few months ago Newtown was ground zero, and just days ago there was a vote in your body, in the Senate, to advance debate on gun control legislation.

If I said to you three or four months ago that there would not be a vote on the assault weapons ban, would you have believed that? If I said to you a few months ago after Newtown that we’d be fighting this hard, I would have had to fight this hard just to get debate on background checks.

On either of those questions, would you have believed me three or four months ago, right after Newtown?

Sanders: Yeah, I would have.

Tavis: Wow.

Sanders: Look, you have a lot of members of the Senate that come from rural, very, very conservative areas, and there are folks out there who listen to the NRA and other types of groups who feel, politicians who feel they would be committing political suicide if they stood up to the NRA. So Tavis, no, frankly, I’m not surprise at the course of what’s happened.

Tavis: So now that the Senate has at least taken this vote to advance debate on background checks, your sense of where this debate is going to go in the coming weeks?

Sanders: I think we stand a reasonable chance to at least pass legislation greatly expanding background checks.

Tavis: You’re telling me on April 15th, 2013, a few months after Newtown, it is possible, it is conceivable, that this year might end without an assault weapons ban and without legislation that guarantees background checks?

Sanders: It will certainly end without a ban on assault weapons, that’s for sure. As to whether or not we expand background checks, not sure, but I wouldn’t be shocked if that happens, that we don’t do that.

Tavis: That makes me want to throw up, but I can’t do that on national television, so I’ll keep it in until I get off camera in three minutes here.

All jokes aside, I know you understand how the system works, but how should the American people read that? Your answer is honest, it’s authentic, and I appreciate – I love that about you. Bernie Sanders will always give you a straight answer whether you like it or not. But how should the American people after Newtown, how should they read that?

Sanders: Well, what they should read and what they should think about is what political power is about. The way politics works is that you have a small minority of people, in this case say the NRA, who are extremely well organized, who have money, who put a great deal of pressure on individual candidates.

If a candidate does something that they don’t want, they are prepared to run a primary opponent; they are prepared to put a whole lot of money against that candidate. I think how people should read that is that if you want to make progressive changes in America, you have got to be involved in the political process.

The truth of the matter is why we have a whole lot of people, 55, 60, 62 percent of the people come out and vote during presidential elections, the fact is in terms of the number of people who actively day by day involved heavily in the political process, that number is pretty small.

Tavis: All right. I digress on that for the moment. We will see what happens in the coming days and weeks, and I hope that you are wrong, and I know that you hope that you are wrong about how this might end up.

Let me spend the last few minutes of this conversation on the budget, and the good news is that there will be – I think it’s good news – that there’ll be a lot of debate on this, and in the coming weeks I hope to have you back to talk more about this budget as it advances.

But tonight, let’s take a few minutes to talk about what it means that this budget has the president cutting Social Security, it has the president cutting Medicare. You and a few other members of Congress delivered almost two and a half million signatures to the White House just days ago saying do not do this, and yet the White House did it anyway. So what’s your read tonight on this budget?

Tavis: I think the president has made a huge mistake in terms of public policy. The most important economic reality facing America today, Tavis, is the middle class is disappearing, and we’ve got a heck of a lot of people living in poverty.

Meanwhile, the people on top, the wealthiest 1 percent, doing phenomenally well. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. To my mind, it is unconscionable to do what the president is proposing, and that is through this chained CPI.

If you’re 65 today, by the time you’re 75, you’ll be bringing in about $650 a year less than you otherwise would have. Also, there will be cuts for disabled veterans, and as chairman of the Veterans Committee, that disturbs me very, very much.

So public policy wise, it’s a big mistake. I think politically it’s even worse. Because for the average American, what Social Security has been, it’s been the pillar of the social safety net. It’s what the Democratic Party historically has been most proud of.

When you surrender that, when you give in to the Republican desire to cut Social Security, which is something they’ve wanted to do for decades, when you make cuts in Medicare or ask people to pay higher premiums in Medicare, what you are doing is surrendering to the responsibility ideology rather than standing up and doing in fact what the vast majority of the American people want.

That is they want to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s just not me, that’s every poll that I have seen. Meanwhile, they understand that when corporate profits are at an all-time high and one out of four corporations pay nothing in taxes, you have the opportunity to bring in substantial amounts of new revenue, which is a much more preferable approach than cutting Social Security or disabled veterans’ benefits.

So I think politically the president has disappointed a whole lot of his supporters, and I think public policy, if his approach succeeds, a lot of people are going to be hurting.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate here, because the read obviously, the calculation of the White House is the exact opposite of what you’ve just said – that this isn’t political suicide. They had to know that there was a part of their base that they were going to make very, very angry. You’re right about that.

But the White House isn’t stupid. They wouldn’t have put this on the table if they didn’t think at the end of the day there was some advantage to be gained here, and my read of this, and I’m not a cynic, my read of this is this is to placate the other side.

This is to give the Republicans what they want on Social Security, on Medicare. They’ve been screaming forever about entitlement cuts. I’ve said to you before I hate the phrase “entitlement reform,” “entitlement cuts.” Pardon my English – this ain’t about entitlements. These are earned benefits. The Americans who are expecting these benefits have earned them. It ain’t about no entitlement.

But the president and the White House clearly made a calculation that there was some advantage politically to be gained here by putting these cuts on the table. So why’d they do it?

Sanders: Well, I think their theory is that these changes, this chained CPI and cuts in disabled vets’ programs will not go through unless the Republicans are prepared to raise revenue on the wealthy. They suspect that may not happen. Then they’ll be able to show the world how reasonable they were.

You see, they came forward, did what the Republicans wanted, but the Republicans didn’t want to raise revenue on the wealthiest people in this country.

Be that as it may be, Tavis, I think that’s a dangerous strategy, because what you are telling not only your own base – I’m not talking about activists, I’m talking about the average American, the average senior citizen – and what you’re saying to that person is I’m prepared to cut your benefits, but I am not prepared to ask one out of four corporations in this country to start paying their fair share of taxes. I think that’s a very bad political message to send throughout this country.

Tavis: What does this decision do to the Democratic Party? There are those who have suggested that this splits – it doesn’t just anger the president’s base, but that it splits the Democratic Party.

There are going to be – you’re an Independent, of course, from Vermont, but there are going to be Democrats, we can call the roll, there are going to be Democrats, when they get to the well of the Senate and the well of the House, particularly in the House, there are going to be Democrats who are going to be going after the president on this. What does it do to his own party?

Sanders: I think it causes a real rupture. I think that a lot of Democrats have made it very clear that they do not intend to go back to their district in these very, very difficult times and tell the elderly or disabled vets that they’re going to cut their benefits. That’s not what they believe.

So I think in that sense, from a political point of view, it’s going to hurt the Democratic Party and the president long-term.

Tavis: As I said, because of this breaking news today with the tragedy in Boston, and clearly we’re still on high alert with North Korea, and this budget, of course, is going to be the story over the coming weeks, I’m honored to have had you on tonight, I wish under different circumstances.

But in the coming weeks I hope to have you back to talk more about this budget as these tough decisions and tough choices have to get made on the Hill. I don’t envy you, but I’m glad you’re there. Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont. As always, sir, good to have you on this program.

Sanders: Thank you. Good to be with you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: April 18, 2013 at 12:37 am