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Sanders says he’s no ‘Johnny-come-lately’ to big issues of the campaign

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

HILLSBOROUGH, N.H. -- Sen. Bernie Sanders is touting his consistency as a virtue as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.

In an interview here over the weekend, Sanders (I-Vt.) rattled off a series of issues -- including the war on Iraq, gay rights and Wall Street deregulation -- on which his views have remained steady over his long service in Congress. And he invited voters to compare his track record to others seeking the nomination, including that of front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“You can come up with any position you want today, but people have a right to know, have you been consistent?” Sanders said. “It is fair to say, ‘Is one a Johnny- or a Mary-come-lately to the issues, or have you been there for the stretch?’ And I think if you look at my record, I’ve been there for a long period of time.”

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As he campaigned across New Hampshire on Saturday and Sunday, Sanders at several points suggested voters go to YouTube to discover his 2002 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives opposing the war on Iraq.

In his speech, Sanders, who served in the House for 16 years before joining the Senate in 2007, warns of the war’s cost and the potential for extremists to rise in the region in its aftermath. Clinton, who was a senator representing New York at the time, voted to authorize the war, a move she has since said was mistake.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a White House contender in 2016, is known for his stances on budget issues and war. Here are his takes on Obamacare, Social Security and more. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

During the interview with The Washington Post, Sanders referenced comments earlier this year by another competitor for the Democratic nomination, former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, who argued that Clinton’s Iraq vote should disqualify her from being commander in chief.

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“Some people say, ‘Should Hillary Clinton be disqualified because she voted for the war in Iraq?’ The answer is obviously not,” Sanders said. “You don’t get disqualified because you made a vote that turned out to be wrong. But I do think that people have a right to know how people assessed the information they received at the critical time when they needed to make those important decisions.”

“I listened to the same information and received the same information as Hillary Clinton did about the war on Iraq,” Sanders said. “I listened to [then-President George W.] Bush, I listened to [then-Vice President Dick] Cheney, I listened to [then-Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, I listened to all the neocons, and I thought they were not telling the truth.”

Like Clinton, Sanders has in recent days been trumpeting last week’s Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

But on the trail over the weekend, Sanders also reminded voters of his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by President Bill Clinton, which defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted by other states.

“It is one thing now for every politician in the world, at least on the Democratic side, to be wildly enthusiastic about gay rights,” Sanders said. “That wasn’t the case back in 1996.”

Sanders characterized his vote as “difficult” but said he concluded it was “absurd to tell gay married people that they couldn’t enjoy the benefit of their marriage in 50 states.”

Sanders supported Vermont’s approval of civil unions in 2000 and its legalization of same-sex marriages in 2009. Hillary Clinton, who called marriage “a sacred bond between a man and a woman” during his Senate tenure, has changed her position in more recent years.

During the interview, Sanders also said that other Democratic candidates are now talking about other issues he has championed for years, including income and wealth inequality.

“It’s easy to say wealth and income inequality is unfair,” he said. “Fine. I’ve been taking on every element of the American ruling class throughout my entire political career. … If you look at my record, it is not one of responding and evolving on the issues. … It’s a record of consistency, of standing up for working families throughout my entire political life, of taking on big-money interests, fighting for justice … That’s been my record.”

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Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” acknowledged during the interview that the label can be a barrier with some voters at first but said he is not advocating anything radical.

“Until people hear me and understand what I mean by it, are there some people who think I’m extolling the virtues of the North Korean government? Yeah, maybe,” Sanders said. “I think it’s fair to say I’m not.”

He also argued that his campaign is a natural fit for former supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who resisted a draft movement to run for president. Sanders called her “an old friend of mine.”

“Our voices are pretty much the same,” he said. “Our views are pretty much the same.”

Sanders also reiterated his distaste for super PACs that have emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and said he is discouraging anyone from forming one to benefit his candidacy.

So far, he said he has been able to raise enough small-dollar contributions to run a strong campaign in the first several nominating states. Sanders acknowledged that it remains an open question how much money he’ll have to compete after that.

“Could we run into problems? It may well be,” he said. “We’re cognizant of that. … The real question is, in this era of Citizens United, can any candidate who does not have the backing of billionaires, who does not have a super PAC, who stands with the working families against the wealthy and the powerful, can that candidate win an election? And I don’t know the answer to that.”