His achievements include the bipartisan VA reform bill: “Frankly, without him, I don’t think we would have gotten it done.”
By Sarah Mimms
In the Senate, Bernie Sanders should be all alone.
Sanders is constantly ribbing Republicans in his trademark condescending Brooklyn-accented tone. He offers up legislation that’s so far to the left that it couldn’t get a vote even under Majority Leader Harry Reid. He’s the curmudgeon in the Senate Democratic conference, rarely satisfied with how far his leadership will go to pursue progressive policies, and not afraid to vote ‘nay’ when his leaders come up short. And none of his Senate colleagues, on either side of the aisle, think he could ever be elected president of the United States; most of them even believe he shouldn’t be.
But rather than earning the frustration and ire of his peers in the vein of other Senate hard-liners such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Sanders has managed to be respected—even liked—by much of the chamber, according to members on both sides of the aisle. The Vermont independent actually has much more in common with Sen. Tom Coburn, the now-retired “Dr. No,” whose hard-line opposition killed many bills in the Senate but also earned him the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Sanders also has been able to work well with his colleagues. He’s passed bipartisan legislation and forged strong relationships with members of both parties in nearly 25 years on Capitol Hill. But most of all, members say, even when Sanders is ideologically an outlier, he lets others know where he stands. He’s not the type to suddenly stab a colleague in the back. And that’s earned him respect both on and off the Hill.
“A lot of people here talk about what they believe in, but they don’t act on it,” Sen. Mark Warner said. “He always acts on what he believes. … We can agree or disagree, but you know where he stands.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Sanders himself, point to last year’s deal to improve the disastrous, scandal-ridden Veterans Affairs Department as a highlight. After weeks of negotiating with a cadre of Republican colleagues, Sanders helped pass the deal on a 91-3 vote in the Senate. “In a pretty dysfunctional Congress I helped pass, in a bipartisan way, the significant veterans bill, which increases health care to veterans and lowers waiting times, and I’m proud of that,” Sanders said. “That was a significant step forward.”
When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation last year that he was “prepared to run for president,” he said he would do so only if it was clear that progressives were enthusiastic about a movement campaign seeking nothing less than “a political revolution.” It was an audacious proposal—but after traveling the country for a year, Sanders decided that the enthusiasm was there and announced in late April as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. There were plenty of doubters then. Two months into the campaign, however, everything about this candidacy—the crowds, the poll numbers, the buzz—is bigger than expected. That says something about Sanders. But it also says something about the prospects for progressive politics. In late June, The Nation sat down with Sanders for several conversations that asked the longtime Nation reader (“started when I was a University of Chicago student in the early 1960s”) to put not just his campaign but the moment in historical perspective for our 150th-anniversary issue:
The Nation: Your campaign for the presidency has surprised people. The crowds are big; the poll numbers are stronger than the pundits predicted. You’re a student of political history. Put what’s happening now in perspective. Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?
Sanders: Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue.
In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.
The Nation: As long as we’re talking about the evolution of public policy, let’s talk about the evolution of a word: socialism. You appeared on ABC’s This Week and, when you were asked whether a socialist can be elected president, you did not blink; you talked about socialism in positive, detailed terms. I don’t believe a presidential candidate has ever done that on a Sunday-morning show.
Sanders: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push “European-style socialism,” and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding…. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?
I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made…. The Danish ambassador, whom I talked to a couple of years ago, said to me that in Denmark it is very, very hard to be poor; you really have to literally want to be outside of the system. Well, that’s pretty good. In Denmark, all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends. Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people. They have a very strong childcare system, which to me is very important. Their retirement system is very strong. They are very active in trying to protect their environment…. And, by the way, the voter turnout in those countries is much higher; in Denmark, in the last election, it was over 80 percent. Political consciousness is much higher than it is in the United States. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.
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