Sen. Bernie Sanders has become a surprise hit on the campaign trail as he competes to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee by running against the establishment and promoting a liberal agenda.
He’s a longshot to unseat front-runner Hillary Clinton for the slot, but Sanders (I-Vt.) is using the race to draw attention to issues he’s been highlighting for years.
Long before Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came on the scene, Sanders was pushing for stronger regulation of Wall Street, higher taxes on the rich and dramatically lower defense spending.
This year, he climbed the party ranks to become the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, a position that gives Sanders greater voice in the debate over how Washington spends money and taxes citizens.
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Sanders recently sat down with The Washington Post to talk about his role on the committee, why he says he’s a real deficit hawk and the economists who would have his ear if he were to win the White House. What follows is a transcript of that interview edited for length.
The top slot on the Senate Budget Committee has typically gone to fiscal hawks in both parties. Your politics aren’t in that same tradition. As an independent and not a Democrat do you feel any pressure to conform to that historical standard?
No, and I don’t think most Democrats are fiscal hawks.
The deficit is a significant issue but it is important to know how we got into a deficit and our national debt. Very often at budget hearings you will hear me say as the major deficit hawk in the committee — and I refer to myself as that because I voted against the war in Iraq, I voted against tax breaks for millionaires, I voted against the Medicare prescription drug program, I voted against the deregulation of Wall Street, which has caused so many problems. The question is how do you do deficit reduction in a way that is fair. I’m a deficit hawk when I say we have to ask the wealthiest people and the largest corporations to pay their fair share. That’s a deficit hawk.
You said you see yourself as a different kind of deficit hawk. Do you agree with Dick Cheney when he says that deficits don’t matter? Is there any truth to that?
Me and Dick? No, haha. I think deficits do matter but there are things that matter more.
The deficit is important and the national debt is important and they’re issues we should address. But what I think is that the disappearance of the American middle class and the reality that millions of people are working longer hours for lower wages is to me enormously important.
Deficits do matter, but there are issues that matter much more.
You have long been critical of the Robert Rubin style of economics that has often dominated thinking among Democrats in recent years. Who would you bring in to change that conversation? Who should have a bigger seat the table?
I’d bring Joseph Stiglitz who is a Nobel Prize winning economist. You’d get people like Robert Reich who is teaching out at University of California. He is a former secretary of Labor who has been very good. There are other progressive economists who are doing a very good job of describing why the middle class is disappearing.
Why do you think they don’t have a bigger role in the Obama administration?
I think the president is probably sympathetic to some of their ideas but they go farther than he does. In other words, the president has asked the top one percent to pay more in taxes. Fine, many of us think you’ve got to go a lot further than that. I think basically the president’s views are not as progressive as many of these economists are. And, certainly, not on trade issues.
You have a much larger and louder microphone now, as ranking member on the Budget Committee and as a candidate for president, than you had even last year. How do you hope to leverage that platform?
I think we raise issues that a lot of folks here in Congress are not comfortable talking about. That is the disastrous nature of our trade policies and the fact in my view that the evidence is overwhelming that NAFTA, CAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China have been disastrous.
Is there any way to fix Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or would you scrap it and move on?
You scrap it and move on and you write a trade agreement which begins to represent American workers instead of multinational corporations.
Sen. Warren has expressed many of the same concerns. How closely do you work together? What is your relationship like?
I’ve known Elizabeth Warren since before she was Elizabeth Warren. I knew her when she was merely a professor of law at Harvard and a very good writer. She came to Vermont to do some town hall meetings with me three or four years ago. I know her very well and we work closely. She has her focus, I have my focus. But generally speaking we’re in agreement on the issues.
Her work on Wall Street has been excellent. I have worked on some issues she may not have focused on and she’s worked on other issues. There’s a lot of work out there that has to be done. I think there’s very little she’s done that I don’t agree with.
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The White House has come to the middle to negotiate with people on the right like Paul Ryan on some budget issues. Ryan has a long-term plan for changes he would like to make to Social Security and other entitlements. Do you anticipate that that wave of thought is going to be a challenge in the years to come?
No. I think we’ve made progress. I put language on to the budget amendments opposing cuts to Social Security. Look, I think the vision of Paul Ryan and the vision of the Republican budget is so, so, so out of touch with the overwhelming majority of the American people, Republicans and Democrats included. The only thing they have going for them is they have the Koch brothers and other billionaires supporting them. Nobody in America supports that.
Some Democrats though have been really willing to work with Ryan and other conservatives on these issues. Do you think that’s the wrong approach?
Of course it is the wrong approach. First of all, I think if we reach out to the American people and do what the American people want us to do, and that’s create jobs and rebuild our infrastructure and raise the minimum wage and deal with pay equity, make college education affordable. If you deal with those issues, you’ll have the vast majority of people on your side and stand up to these people politically they will pay the price.
You have never been shy about standing up to leadership and taking a different position from Democrats. Now you’re in a leadership position on the Budget Committee. What’s your role as a leader in the party?
It’s talking the truth and standing up for working families.
In terms of your relationship with Democrats, as an Independent, do you feel any pressure to come to the middle at all?
No, I’m me and the leadership has been fine about that. That is not a problem. My views are different and there may be differences of opinion or there may not be but the fact that I’m an independent doesn’t matter in this discussion at all.