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Opinion | An Unusually Optimistic Conversation With Bernie Sanders


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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

There were times, so many times during 2020 election when I was pretty certain Senator Bernie Sanders was going to win the Democratic primary and then win the presidential, and we were going to have the first Democratic socialist president in this country. He didn’t win the primary, but he might have won the Democratic Party. If you look back at the course of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’ careers, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that just passed, it looks a lot like the proposal Sanders has fought for forever without much of the compromise or concerns of political viability that you used to see from Senator Joe Biden. That’s not — I want to be real clear, to take anything away from Biden here. He is the president. This is his plan crafted by his administration and it is fully to his credit that he saw what the country needed, he saw with the politics of the moment would support. He saw where his party had moved and he met all of that with full force. I give Joe Biden full credit here. But I’ve wondered what Senator Sanders makes of this moment too. He lost the election, but in important ways, he really did win the argument. Those $1,400 checks at the center of the Rescue Plan, that was in large part driven by a Bernie Sanders proposal which he pushed in concert then with Senator Josh Hawley. The idea of pursuing full employment through a massive green investment strategy and a willingness to run the economy really hot, that’s been his theory for a decade. So I have Senator Sanders to join me on the show to talk about the American Rescue Plan, the changes in the Democratic and Republican parties, how Democrats should approach voters who agree with them on economics but fear them on culture, what the next investment plan should include, how his views on the filibuster have changed, and much more. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here we go.

So let’s go back. The 2009 stimulus, it was about 5.6 percent of the 2008 GDP level, and the Rescue Plan this year, it’s 9.1 percent of last year’s GDP, so it is much bigger and the individual policies in it are, in my view, at least much less compromise down. So why are 50 Senate Democrats in 2021 legislating so much more progressively and ambitiously than 59 did in 2009?

bernie sanders

Well, I think that there is a growing understanding that we face unprecedented crises and we have got to act in an unprecedented way. And members of Congress look around this country and they see children who don’t have enough food, people facing eviction, people can’t get health care. We have, obviously, the need to crush this terrible pandemic that has taken over 500,000 lives. And I think the conclusion from the White House and from Congress is, now is the time to do what the American people need us to do. Let’s do it. And it turned out to be a $1.9 trillion bill which, to my mind, was the single most significant piece of legislation for working class people that has been passed since the 1960s.

ezra klein

Let’s say I’m someone on the left who supported you in 2020 and I’m looking at the American Rescue Plan and I see the $15 minimum wage got dropped, paid family leave got dropped, the child tax credit, which is my favorite part of the bill, it’s only temporary. Convince me that I should be excited about this. Why do you think it’s so significant?

bernie sanders

I don’t have to convince you. We have already convinced 75 percent of the American people that this is a very good piece of legislation. And I think progressives out there understand that, given a fairly conservative Congress, it is hard to do everything that we want to do. So I was bitterly disappointed, obviously, that we lost the minimum wage in the reconciliation process as a result of decision from the parliamentarian, which I think was a wrong decision. But we’re not giving up on that. We’re going to come back and we’re going to do it. But in this legislation, let us be clear. We have gotten for a family of four, a working class family, struggling to put food on the table for their kids, not get evicted, a check of $5,600. Now, people who have money may not think that’s a lot of money. But when you are struggling day and night to pay the bills, to worry about eviction, that is going to be a lifesend for millions and millions of people. We extended unemployment to September with the $300 supplement. We, as you indicated, expanded the child tax credit to cut poverty in America by 50 percent. Now, that’s an issue we have not dealt with for a very long time, the disgrace of the U.S. having one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. Well, we did it and we hope to make it permanent. That is a big deal. And obviously, we invested heavily in dealing with the pandemic, getting the vaccines out to the people as quickly as possible to save lives, producing the vaccines that we need. In terms of education, billions of dollars going to make sure that we open our schools as quickly and as safely as we can. We tripled funding for summer programs so that kids will have the opportunity to make up the academic work that they have lost. Tripled funding for after school programs, so when kids come back next fall, there will be programs the likes of which we have never seen. So this is not a perfect bill. Congress does not pass perfect bills. But for working class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s and I’m proud of what we have done. However, it is clear to me, and I think the American people, that we have more to do. What this bill was about, Ezra, is an emergency bill that says, in America, families should not go hungry. People should not be forced out of their homes. That’s an emergency response. Now we have to deal with the long term structural problems facing our country that have long, long been neglected way before the pandemic, and that is the need to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, the need to address the existential threat of climate change, the need to create many millions of jobs, decent paying jobs, as we do that by raising the minimum wage to a living wage. The need to build the affordable housing, the millions of units of affordable housing that we need. And that’s just some of the economic issues. In terms of the social issues, the need to fight structural racism, the need for immigration reform, the need to fight against the growing trend of authoritarianism. We’re living in a nation today where 30 percent or 40 percent of the American people have given up on democracy, a worldwide problem. How do we combat that? That’s something we’ve got to do. We’ve got to deal with voter suppression and the effort of Republicans to make it harder and harder for people of color, lower income people, to vote. So there is a huge number of issues out there and some of them are existential. They have to be dealt with, and I intend to do everything that I can as chairman of the budget committee to make sure that we continue to move forward.

ezra klein

So this bill, as you mentioned, passed through budget reconciliation, the things that couldn’t go through Budget Reconciliation, so the things that would have had to pass over a filibuster got dropped from it. But a bunch of the different policy measures you just mentioned, they can’t go through Budget Reconciliation. You can’t do immigration reform there. You can’t do HR 1, the For the People Act or HR 4 voting rights act.

bernie sanders

Well, I’m not so sure.

ezra klein

Tell me why. You’re budget chairman. Tell me why.

bernie sanders

I don’t want to bore the American people with the rules of the United States Senate.

ezra klein

Bore me.

bernie sanders

If you have insomnia, if you’re having problems sleeping, pick up the rule book. You’ll be asleep in about five minutes. It is enormously complicated. It is enormously undemocratic. It is designed to move very, very slowly, which we cannot afford to do given the crises that we face today. So look, this is the way I look at it. We have a set of literally unprecedented crises. We have got to deal with climate change. We have got to protect the American democracy. Real unemployment is 10 percent. We’ve got to create millions of good paying jobs. We’re the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people. You know, we’ve got 500,000 people who are homeless today. We’ve got to deal with the housing crisis, et cetera, et cetera. So to my mind, I’ll tell you my staff is doing right now. We’re looking at these problems and we’re saying, in one way or another, we have got to address. Now, ideally, it would be nice that we could work in a bipartisan way with our Republican colleagues, and maybe in some areas we can. But the major goal is to address these crises. That is what the American people want. And if we can’t do it in a bipartisan way with 60 votes, we’re going to figure out a way that we can get it done with 50 votes or it must pass legislation.

ezra klein

But bore me me with the rules here for a minute because the parliamentarian said you couldn’t do the minimum wage through Budget Reconciliation. It seems very — I have never heard a theory under which you could do democracy reform bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or sort of a major immigration reform bill. A lot of climate things get axed. Do you see a way around that or are you talking about the Democrats changing reconciliation or changing the filibuster?

bernie sanders

Well, obviously, I believe that we should do away with the filibuster. I think the filibuster is an impediment to addressing the needs of this country and especially working class people. So I believe that at this moment, we should get rid of the filibuster and I will work as hard as I can to do that. But as I said, I’m not going to lay out all of our strategy that we’re working on right now. But what I repeat is that this country faces huge problems. The American people want us to address those problems and we cannot allow a minority to stop us from going forward.

ezra klein

There’s a lot of coverage, as there always is, about potential friction in the Democratic caucus in the Senate. Differences between, say, a Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and others. Do you find the caucus to be united on strategy more or less than in the past?

bernie sanders

Well, obviously, we’ve got 50 people. And when you have 50 people, the crazy situation is that any one person could prevent us from moving forward. But I think and I hope that there is an understanding that despite our differences, and some of these differences are significant, we have got to work with the President of the United States, who I think is prepared to go forward aggressively in a number of issues, that we cannot sabotage the needs of the American people. So any one person really has enormous power. But I would hope that by definition, when you are a member of a caucus, you fight for what your views are within the caucus. But at the end of the day, nobody is going to get everything they want. I did not get everything that I want in the American Rescue Plan. Others did not get everything they wanted. But at the end of the day, we have got to go forward together because we need to be united, and I think there is a widespread understanding about the importance of that.

ezra klein

Let’s talk about the dynamics between the parties right now. You mentioned the preference for bipartisanship. A few months ago, you were working with Senator Josh Hawley on bigger stimulus checks. That was a very effective project. It ended up pushing in Georgia and potentially winning Democrats Georgia. But then Senator Hawley votes against certifying the election. He raised his fist to the mob that’s from the Capitol. How have your relationships with Republicans changed in the aftermath of January 6?

bernie sanders

Well, I don’t want to get into personalities here, but this is what I would say and I think it’s a very sad state of affairs. Obviously in the last many years, only accelerated by Donald Trump, the Republican Party has moved not only very far to the right, but moved in the direction of authoritarianism. When you have a president of the United States saying a month before the election that the only way he could lose that election is if it was stolen from him, and when after the election, and he lost the election, he says, obviously, it was stolen. And you have now a very significant majority of Republicans who believe that that election was stolen. So you have a very, very difficult issue of large numbers of Americans who have given up, I think, on democracy. That is where many Republicans are. During the impeachment trial, I asked the attorney for Trump a simple question. I said, did Trump win the election? And he got all upset about that. But you’ve got a lot of Republican senators, members of the House, who are refusing, even today, to say that Joe Biden won a fair and square election. So you’ve got a whole lot of problems, and that’s on my mind, and it’s one of the issues that as a nation, as a Democratic party, we’ve got to address.

ezra klein

Do you think a byproduct of the Republican Party has changed is that it’s less unified and puts this emphasis on economic issues than it used to? I was struck by how much more energized Republicans were the week that the American Rescue Plan passed by the debate over Dr. Seuss’s than by this $1.9 trillion spending bill.

bernie sanders

Look. What you have is the energy in the Republican Party. Their grassroots support has nothing to do with tax breaks to the rich. People are not Republicans. They’re not going into the streets. The Trump Republicans saying, we need more tax breaks for the rich. We need more deregulation. We need to end the Affordable Care Act and throw 30 million people off the health care. That’s not what they’re talking about. What Trump understood, as demagogues often do, and he’s not unique, it’s going on all over the world, is we are living in a very rapidly changing world and there are many people, most often older white males, but not exclusively, who feel that they’re losing control of the world that they used to dominate. And that has to do with patriarchy. It has to do with sexism. It has to do with racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. And that is where the energy is. The energy essentially is somebody like Donald Trump says, we are going to preserve the old way of life, where older white males dominated American society. We’re not going to let them take that away from us. And that is where their energy is. One of the gratifying things — I don’t know if you saw this, Ezra, but in terms of polling on the American Rescue Plan, very interesting. It had a good number, a decent amount of Republican support. I don’t know, what it 35 percent, 40 percent? But among what they called lower income working class Republicans, that number was 63 percent. So I think that our political goal in the coming months and years is to do everything we can, and we saw how great the people in Georgia did in this respect. Reach out to young people. Reach out to people of color. Reach out to all people who believe in economic and social justice. But also reach out aggressively to working class Republicans and tell them, no, we’re not going to throw 30 million people off the health care that they had. We’re not going to give tax breaks the rich. You know what we are going to do? We’re going to make sure that you and your children will have a decent standard of living. We’re going to raise the minimum wage for you. We’re going to make it easier for you to join a union. We’re going to make sure that health care in America is a human right. We’re going to make sure that if we do tax breaks, you’re going to get them and not the billionaire class. And I think we have a real opportunity to pick up support in that area. And if we can do that, if you can get 10 percent of Trump’s support and grow our support by addressing the real issues that our people feel are important, you’re going to put together a coalition that is not going to lose a lot of elections.

ezra klein

Let me pick up on that. So the Republican strategy right now, to your exact point, is to go to these people and say, the Democrats, the liberals, they want to take away things that are culturally important to you. One version is take away your power, but another version is take away your Dr. Seuss books. Liberals have become too censorious. They suppress ideas and products that offend them. They look down on you culture. They want to take away your guns. They want to make it so your kids can’t go to religious school. There’s the strategy of emphasizing economic issues, but how do you talk to voters who are actually worried about those direct questions, who may agree with Democrats on the economic side but are worried the Democrats are going to take things they culturally care about?

bernie sanders

It’s a good question and no one that I know has a magical answer to it. I do think that addressing economic issues is helpful. It’s not the 100 percent solution. As you know, you’ve got the QAnon people who are telling their supporters that Democrats — I’m not sure what the latest particular thing is, kill babies and eat their brains or something. Is not the latest thing that we’re supposed to be doing? I don’t know. But when people who are in trouble suddenly receive a check for $5,600 for a family of four, when their unemployment is extended, when they get a health care that they previously did not have, when they’re better able to raise their child, it’s not going to solve all of these cultural problems by a long shot, but it begins maybe to open the door and say, well, you know what? This is good. Trump didn’t do this for us and maybe these Democrats are not as bad as we thought that they were. And I think it’s going to take a lot of work. These cultural issues, I don’t know how you bridge the gap. You have people who are fervently antichoice and I’m not sure that you are going to win many of them over. But I think what we have got to do is do what I’m afraid of the Democrats have not always done in the past, and that is treat people with respect. I come from one of the most rural states in America and I lived in a town of 200 people for a couple of years, and I think there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America. And somehow enough, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America, work hard. And I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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ezra klein

Do you think there is truth to the substantive critique of contemporary liberalism here, that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural, and corporate, and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?

bernie sanders

Look, you have a former president in Trump, who is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the president, the then president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about it. Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want to hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because of anybody who thinks yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned and tomorrow it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view. So I don’t like giving that much power to a handful of high tech people, but the devil is obviously in the details and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on, and that is how you preserve First Amendment rights without moving this country into a big lie mentality and conspiracy theories.

ezra klein

You talked a bit about how well the American Rescue Plan has polled among particular lower income Republicans and you know better than anybody how there’s a way in which these cultural ideas and signals infuse economic policy. Do you think Joe Biden is having an easier time selling an ambitious progressive agenda than Barack Obama did partly because, or at least to these audiences, partly because he’s an older white man rather than a young Black man?

bernie sanders

I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, let’s not forget that Barack Obama, after four years, was re-elected with a pretty good majority. He was a popular president and is a very popular figure today. Joe Biden has his style, but I think you can’t look at Biden or Obama without looking into the moment in which they are living. I think in the last number of years since Obama, political consciousness in this country has changed. And I think to a significant degree the progressive movement has been successful in saying to the American people that, in the richest country in the history of the world, you know what? You’re entitled to health care as a right. You’re entitled to a decent paying job. Your kid is entitled to go to a public college or University tuition free, that it is absolutely imperative that we have the courage to take on the fossil fuel industry and save this planet by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. That it is a moral issue that we finally deal in a comprehensive way with 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, et cetera, et cetera. And I think Biden is in a position where this country has moved forward, I think, at the grassroots level in a much more progressive way. It is not an accident that today, the House of Representatives is far more progressive than it was when I was there in the House, and you have some great new people, progressives, and the progressive caucus who are transforming that body. And I think the moment was ready and then you had a president who, to his credit, as everybody knows, was a moderate Democrat throughout his time in the Senate, who had the courage to look at the moment and say, you know what? I have got to act boldly. The future of American democracy is at stake. Tens of millions of people are struggling economically. They’re really in pain. Our kids are hurting. Seniors are hurting. I’ve got to act in a bold kind of way, and Biden deserves credit for that. But what I hope very much is that understanding of the need to act bold goes beyond the American Rescue Plan and that is the path that Biden continues during his administration.

ezra klein

Let’s talk about those generational differences for a minute. You’re no spring chicken, but you were the overwhelming choice, the overwhelming choice of young voters in 2020. How are the politics of younger voters different and why are they different?

bernie sanders

I love the younger generation, I really do. And it’s not just because they supported me. People say, how did you get the support of the younger people? Did you poll, did you — we didn’t do that at all. We treated them with respect and we talked about the issues to them in the same way we talked about the issues to every other generation that’s out there. I think you’ve got a couple of factors, though. Number one, for a variety of reasons, the younger generation today is the most progressive generation in the modern history of this country. This is a generation that is firmly antiracist, antisexist, antihomophobia, antixenophobia, a very compassionate generation that believes in economic and social and environmental justice. So you’ve got that. And then the second thing you’ve got is, let’s not kid ourselves. We don’t talk about it enough. This is a generation of young people that is really hurting economically. This is the first generation in the modern history of this country where, everything being equal, they’re going to have a lower standard of living than their parents, and that’s even before the pandemic, which has made a bad situation worse. This is a generation where, on average, young workers are making less money than their parents. They’re having a much harder time buying a home or paying the rent. This is a generation stuck with a huge amount of student debt. And I was surprised when we first raised this issue of student debt back in 2016, how it really caught on because people were saying, you know what? What crime did I commit that I have to be $50,000 or $100,000 in debt? All I wanted to do, I was told over and over again, get an education. I got an education. I went to a state university. I went to a private school. I went to school for four years and now I’m stuck with a $50,000, $100,000 debt? I went to graduate school. I went to medical school, got $300,000 in debt. That’s insane. So I think if you look at the young generation from an idealistic point of view, it’s a generation that has expectations and views that are much more progressive than their parents and grandparents, but it is also a generation that wants the government to address the economic pain that they are feeling.

ezra klein

It was a striking moment when President Biden released a video pretty explicitly backing the workers trying to unionize at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse. What could Congress do to help? What do you want to do to help reverse the decline of unionization in the U.S.?

bernie sanders

I’m chairman of the Budget Committee and we just had a hearing which touched on that issue yesterday. We had a young woman from a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the Amazon plant there, and she was talking about why they need a union. I invited Jeff Bezos to attend the hearing to tell me why a guy who was worth $182 billion, that’s a B, $182 billion thinks he has to spend millions of dollars to fight workers who are trying to form a union to improve their wages and working conditions. So what I have believed for a long time Joe Biden believes. We need to pass legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions because if workers are in unions and can negotiate decent contracts, their wages will go up. Their working conditions and their benefits will improve. So we are working hard on that issue and something I know the House has passed and I want to see it passed here in the Senate as well.

ezra klein

Should Democrats be pushing for something bigger like sectoral bargaining?

bernie sanders

Yeah, I believe so. I campaigned on that, yeah. But I think — bottom line is that, I mean, the Democrats have got to take a deep breath and to make the determination of whether or not they’re going to become the party of the American working class. A class, by the way, which has suffered really terribly in the last 40 or 50 years where today, workers are barely, in real wages, making any more than they did 40 or 50 years ago despite huge increases in technology and productivity. And I think we’ve got to do that. And I think when we do that, when we have the courage to take on powerful special interest, taking on Wall Street, taking on the drug companies, taking on the health care industry, taking on big campaign contributors who want to maintain the status quo, when we do that, I think not only are we going to be able to transform this country and create an economy and a government that works for all, I think Democrats are going to have very good political success as well.

ezra klein

Let’s end on this question. The Rescue Plan will be followed up by a big jobs and investment package. What needs to be in that package for it to win your support?

bernie sanders

Well, a lot. And as chairman of the Budget Committee, again, that’s exactly what we’re working on as we speak. The simple stuff and obvious stuff is you’ve got an infrastructure which is crumbling. It’s roads, and bridges, and water systems, wastewater plants. I would add affordable and low income housing to any discussion of infrastructure. So you’ve got to deal with the infrastructure. And when you do that, you can create millions of good paying jobs. But obviously also, you have to deal with the existential threat of climate change. So we’ve got to go big in climate to the degree that we can deal with health care. We’ve got to guarantee health care for all people as a right. You’ve got to deal with immigration reform. You’ve got to deal with criminal justice and systemic racism. So those are some of the big issues that are out there.

ezra klein

Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you very much.

bernie sanders

Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Thank you to Senator Sanders for being here. Thank you to all of you for being here and tuning in to the show. If you want to support the show, you can send this episode to somebody you know who you think might like it or please take a moment and give us a rating in whatever podcast app you’re currently using. Sounds ridiculous, actually really helps with the show’s discoverability. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]



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