CNBC Digital Video: Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Sits Down With CNBC Editor At Large John Harwood
WHEN: Tuesday, October 29th
WHERE: CNBC.com’s Speakeasy with John Harwood
As the only self-described democratic socialist in the U.S. Senate and the Democratic presidential race, Bernie Sanders represents a unique figure in American political life. Four years ago, his message of dramatic change to remedy income inequality and other economic ills won a large following in his fight against Hillary Clinton for the nomination of a party he does not even formally embrace. The results encouraged him enough to try again for 2020, even at age 78. This race poses different and perhaps more formidable challenges.
The political independent faces not only a moderate, conventional front-runner in former Vice President Joe Biden, but also a powerful fellow liberal in Sen. Elizabeth Warren brandishing ideas nearly as ambitious as his. In debates and on the campaign trail, Warren has expanded her support this year; polls suggest Sanders has not. Then, on Oct. 1, he suffered a heart attack. After surgeons inserted two stents to relieve coronary artery blockages, Sanders returned home to rest in Vermont as political observers wondered whether he could resume full-bore campaigning.
He ended that speculation quickly. The gruff, rumpled candidate — memorably depicted by the comedian Larry David on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — returned to engage his rivals in a televised debate two weeks later. Like many patients who undergo successful catheterization, Sanders says he has actually benefited from renewed energy. Moreover, campaign finance reports show that Sanders outraised all his rivals in the third quarter of the year, and has more cash-on-hand than anyone else.
Over healthful green smoothies in a Des Moines coffee shop, Editor at Large John Harwood sat down with Sanders to discuss his health, his economic agenda and his hope to become a 21st century version of the president of his infancy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders follows.
To listen to the extended interview, subscribe to the Speakeasy with John Harwood podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.com.
John Harwood: One health question as we start. What you went through, has that affected you emotionally in any way do you think?
Bernie Sanders: As somebody who has had great endurance as a kid — I was a long-distance runner, thank God I’ve been healthy as a horse — it was a little bit shocking to me when the doctor there told me, “Hey, you’re having a heart attack.”
John Harwood: You identify as a democratic socialist. You got the endorsement of Representative Ocasio-Cortez over the weekend, another prominent democratic socialist. When you talk about a value – and political and economic change in the country, how far do you think you can take the United States of America toward democratic socialism?
Bernie Sanders: It depends on what we mean by democratic socialism. What I am trying to do, in many ways, is pick up where Franklin Delano Roosevelt left off. And you may recall in a not widely publicized State of The Union speech he gave in 1944, it was the year before he died toward the end of the second World War, this is what he said in so many words. He said, “You know what, we have political rights. You have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. All of that’s great, but what we don’t have are guaranteed economic rights.” So you can vote, but you also have the privilege of sleeping out on the street. You can protest, which is good, but you also have the freedom to work 60 or 70 hours a week at starvation wages. You have the freedom not to have health insurance, not to be able to send your kids to college. What I’m trying to do in this campaign is pick up where Roosevelt left off and say that economic rights must be considered as human rights.
John Harwood: Do you also embrace the part of FDR that said in 1936 when he was running for re-election that his adversaries, economic and otherwise, “hate me and I welcome their hatred”?
Bernie Sanders: Absolutely I do. You can judge a person by the friends they have. You can judge a candidate for president by the enemies they have. And I uniquely, with all due respect to my colleagues, I am taking on the insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, Wall Street, the democratic establishment. There was a guy who was head of Third Way, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.
He said, “Bernie Sanders is an existential threat to the Democratic Party.” I agree with him. I am. I want to convert the Democratic Party, to break its dependency on big money and corporate interests, like Third Way, and make it into a party of working-class people, of young people, of all people who believe in justice.
John Harwood: One of the big things a president has is appointment power apart from legislation you can get done. Would it be your intention to appoint democratic socialists to big positions in your administration?
Democratic Presidential Candidate: Well, you’re going a little bit too crazy on the word here. I will appoint people who believe in the working class and the working families of this country, who are prepared to stand up to the incredibly powerful corporate interests, that today dominate our economic and political life. I will appoint an attorney general, who for the first time in modern history, will go after white-collar crime, which I believe is rampant. Instead of arresting kids who are selling marijuana, maybe we go after some of the crooks on Wall Street or in other major industries.
I will appoint an attorney general who is prepared to enforce the antitrust laws that are on the books that have been neglected for so very long. So when I talk about democratic socialism – you want to talk “well what does it mean?” let’s be clear, what does it mean? – Let’s not get people overly nervous about it.
What it means is that healthcare is a human right. Not a very radical idea, we are the only major country on Earth that does not allow that reality to take place. That is what I believe in.
John Harwood: Let me take one more crack at the word. I was looking at the DSA website the other day and they said, “We can’t eliminate private corporations in the short term, so we have to confront them.” Would it be your intention or your goal, in the medium or long term, not to have private corporations?
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: No, that’s not my intention. What is my intention, though, is to make sure that workers have representation on those large corporations. We’ve presented recently the Corporate Accountability Act. Which says – again, not terribly radical — it exists in one form or another in other countries, including Germany. So we say that instead of just being a cog in a machine – you know, you’re a worker, you’re coming to work, you’re working for your paycheck – what about giving that worker some power and responsibility in terms of the shaping of that corporation?
Should Wall Street and a handful of members of a board determine whether a factory remains in the United States or whether it goes to China? Should a handful of wealthy board members determine whether or not there is a stock buyback, or whether workers get decent wage increases and decent benefits?
John Harwood: Does this mean you’re not impressed by the statement that Jamie Dimon and the Business Roundtable put out saying that, “We are going to take considerations broader than just profit into our practices.” You don’t think they’re serious?
Bernie Sanders: No. Of course not.
John Harwood: If you require that 45% of the board be workers, if you require more distribution – required distribution of profits to workers, if you ban stock buybacks, do you accept that that would have a slowing effect on economic growth?
Bernie Sanders: It’s not good enough just to look at economic growth. That has been the biblical stature that corporate America has been looking at — we have growth, we have growth. But as I mentioned to you earlier, in the last 45 years despite unbelievable growth, in real inflation accounting for dollars, the average worker is no better off than he or she was 45 years ago. In the last 30 years, the top 1% have seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth. The bottom half of America’s seen a decline in their wealth. Half the people today are living paycheck to paycheck.
John Harwood: Growth is the wrong measurement.
Democratic Presidential Candidate: Of course it is the wrong – what the question is, is our economy working for the people here? Is it working for ordinary Americans? That’s the criteria. Do people feel secure? Do they know that their kids – everything being equal – are going to have a better standard of living than they do?
John Harwood: How do you factor in the significance of the fact that modern global capitalism has substantially reduced poverty in other parts of the world?
Bernie Sanders: When you talk about the global economy, you’re right. Thank God. The terrible, terrible poverty that has been seen in the developing world, some of that is receding. That’s great. On the other hand, you are looking at an unbelievable and grotesque level of global income and wealth inequality. You are also seeing not only massive income and wealth inequality but in many countries a movement toward increased authoritarianism and away from human rights and democracy.
John Harwood: Let me ask a question about real-world governance rather than campaign rhetoric. Joe Biden has said at a fundraiser earlier this year, “nothing really fundamental has to change.” You have proposed enormous changes. What I wonder is, would the practical results of a Biden administration really be that different from the practical results in a Sanders administration, given the fact that there are so many constraints on things getting done in Congress?
Bernie Sanders: John, you’re forgetting one very important thing: I am a different type of politician, and my administration will be certainly unique in modern American history at least going back to FDR. You talk about the fact that nothing much really big ever happens. And there’s truth to that. But what you’re missing is that right now you have a Congress and a White House that are dominated by a corporate elite who have unbelievable amounts of money and influence over the political and economic life of this country.
I’m not going to be dominated by those guys. I will take them on and I’ll beat them. Real change in this country has never taken place without millions of people standing up and demanding that change. That is the history of the labor movement, the history of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, the environmental movement.
And as President of the United States, I have said this before, I will not only be commander in chief of the military, I will be organizer in chief. And when you do that John, then you’re not talking about incremental changes.
John Harwood: But even if you have a successful election and you get elected, even if it’s successful to the point that Democrats win a small majority in the Senate, is Joe Manchin going to vote for your program? Is Jon Tester going to vote for your program?
Bernie Sanders: Yeah. Damn right they will. You know why? And they are friends of mine. Because we’re going to go to West Virginia, which is maybe the poorest state – well one of the poorest states in this country. Look, what happens right now, your average politician sits around and he or she thinks, “Let’s see. If I do this, I’m going to have the big money interests putting 30-second ads against me. So I’d better not do it.” But now they’re going to have to think, “If I don’t support an agenda that works for working people, I’m going to have President Sanders coming to my state and rallying working-class people.” You know what? At the end of the day, the 1% is very powerful — no denying that. The 99%, when they’re organized and prepared to stand up and fight, they are far more powerful.
John Harwood: But if there were a latent political revolution waiting to happen, you’ve been running for President for five years, wouldn’t we see more of it by now than we have seen?
Bernie Sanders: Hey John, let’s talk about that. Think about the ideas that I introduced four years ago. And I’m not taking credit for all of the changes. Millions of people – four years ago, $15 an hour minimum wage — “radical and crazy.” Four years ago, Medicare for All, healthcare as a human right — “Bernie, that’s un-American.” Seventy-one percent of Democrats in the last poll now support that. Public colleges and universities all over the country, climate change is a major threat. You know, democrats disagree about I have the most –
John Harwood: But that’s more people talking about it, that’s not stuff having gotten through the process.
Democratic Presidential Candidate: Well, how’s it going to get through the process when Donald Trump is president, who is beholden to his billionaire friends? And when Mitch McConnell runs the Senate? But the House of Representatives did pass a $15 an hour minimum wage. The House of Representatives did pass significant election reform, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s waiting.
All I’m saying here John is the ideas that I am talking about are by and large supported by the American people. I think that as president, I help bring our country together by talking about issues that Republicans agree on. Republicans think that we should not have a trade policy that sends good-paying jobs to China and Mexico. I agree with that. So I think we can bring people together around an agenda that works for working families, not just the 1%.
John Harwood: Congress has not been able to raise the gas tax by pennies to fix crumbling roads and bridges. You’ve got a wealth tax, which is enormous. Congress has not been able to pass card-check unionization. You’re proposing a huge increase in the clout of organized labor. How are those things even conceivable in 2019?
Bernie Sanders: OK, it’s a good question. It’s a fair question. But you’re looking at status quo politics. I often use a statement that Nelson Mandela made. This is what he said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” And that these ideas the — “Oh my God, it can’t be done.” Imagine everybody in America having healthcare. Duh — that’s what exists in every other country on Earth. Why is that so impossible?
Imagine the United States leading the world in transforming our energy system and saving the planet for our kids and grandchildren. “Oh my God, it’s impossible.” Really? What’s the alternative? So here is what you are not seeing. You’re right in saying that these are big ideas. I concede that. You’re right in saying that we have more or less a dysfunctional Congress. I agree with you.
But where you’re not right is understanding that if you and I were sitting here – and this is one tiny example – if you and I were sitting here 25 years ago, and I said to you, “You know John, I think that gay marriage will be legal in every state in this country”. What would you have said to me? You would have said, “you’re crazy.”
John Harwood: Yes, I would.
Bernie Sanders: So would I. If, going way back – when I grew up at a time when African Americans could not vote, right? Kids could not go to a local school, could not drink at a water fountain. And change took place. Martin Luther King Jr., others, they stood up and they fought. 100 years ago, women did not have the right to vote, because as we all know, women’s place is in the house, they are supposed to have babies. They’re not supposed to vote. 100 years ago — not a long time. Change can take place when you motivate people, when you get people organized when they stand up for justice. That’s what I believe.
John Harwood: If you’ve got a one-shot in your first year and the history –
Bernie Sanders: Wrong question! I know where you’re going. You’re going to ask me to prioritize.
John Harwood: Yes.
Bernie Sanders: No. Once you get moving, you can move. I think that the American people can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. We must save the planet. That’s not an option. So climate change – we have got to combat climate change. America’s got to lead the world. I will demand that every American has healthcare as a human right. I will not allow hundreds of thousands of bright young kids not to be able to go to college because they lack the income or 45 million people to be suffering with large student debt.
John Harwood: You don’t accept that you’ve got to pick one to start?
Bernie Sanders: No. That’s old thinking.
John Harwood: When we did this interview four years ago, you ended it by saying, “John, don’t underestimate me”.
Bernie Sanders: Did I say that, John?
John Harwood: You did.
Bernie Sanders: And you underestimated me.
John Harwood: I confess that I did. But right now, I think a whole lot of people are discounting your chances, or in your view may be underestimating you. What would you say to them?
Bernie Sanders: Well again, when I became mayor of the city of Burlington way back when in 1981 – actually a guy, a local reporter said, “Well the odds of Sanders winning against the five-term incumbent, running as an independent, the odds are about 100 to 1.” I won. The odds of winning in the last time around, taking on the entire Democratic establishment, we ended up winning 22 states and got more young people’s votes than Trump and Clinton combined. The ideas that I talked about four years ago seemed so radical and extreme. Today they’re kind of mainstream ideas, right? Don’t underestimate me.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Sanders: 'A little bit shocking' when doctor said 'you're having a heart attack'
John Harwood: One health question as we start. What you went through, has that affected you emotionally in any way do you think?
Democratic Presidential Candidate: Well I mean, what I went through, is fairly common in America. I think a million procedures like I had and an overwhelming number of people regain their health fully. But you know, as somebody who has had great endurance as a kid — I was a long-distance runner, thank God I’ve been healthy as a horse — it was a little bit shocking to me when the doctor there told me, “Hey, you’re having a heart attack.” I literally did not register. I could not believe that that was the case. Two days later, I was back on my feet and out of the hospital. So doing well now, thanks.
John Harwood: But any effect on how you think about life or what is important or anything like that?
Bernie Sanders: I don’t want to be overly political in saying this, but my life is political. And I was thinking, I had a pain item, discomfort – not a lot of pain, but discomfort. And I walked in, I went into the hospital and I didn’t worry about whether I could afford to pay. I have good insurance. And I’m sitting there, and thinking somebody else here has that same discomfort, and they’re sitting and thinking, “Should I go into the hospital and end up with a large bill? Or maybe it’ll get better tomorrow, maybe I’ll forget about it.” Some of those people die or suffer permanent heart damage. That’s one of those things that I thought about.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Sanders on Warren's past work: "I've never worked for a corporation"
John Harwood: You recently offered to distinguish yourself from Senator Warren — she’s a capitalist to her bones, and you’re not.
Bernie Sanders: Well that’s what she has defined herself as.
John Harwood: Correct. Is that just a marker of you being a little more progressive than her, or do you think that has real practical significance for what you stand for?
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: I think it does. And in a couple of ways. Number one, I personally believe that at this particular moment in history where the average worker has not seen a wage increase – real inflation accounted for wage increase in 45 years despite an explosion of technology and productivity, where you have a political system which is totally corrupt and owned by billionaires, where you have massive amounts of corporate corruption, and I’m only talking about greed here.
But absolute corruption, I think the time is now, if we’re going to save this country, for a political revolution. It’s not just more regulation. But it is about involving millions of people, working people, young people, people who believe in justice, in the political process, to tell the corporate elite in truth that enough is enough.
We’re going to change the system politically, economically. We’re going to change the value system of this country, which says we’re not going to worship corrupt billionaires anymore, we’re going to respect teachers and child care workers and cops and firefighters and small business people. So the goal is to change the value system of this country in a very profound way. That’s what our campaign, uniquely I believe, is about.
John Harwood: Do you have any problem, by the way, with the work that she’s done in the past, advising corporations — Dow Corning, Dow Chemical — on legal problems that they had?
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: I’ll let the American people make that judgment. I have never worked for a corporation myself. I’ve never carried their baggage in the United States Senate. People say, “Well Bernie, you’re old.” Well, you know what, between you and me, it’s true. But the advantage of that is that people have the opportunity to look at my record. It’s not last year, not two years ago — I was for “Medicare for All” when I was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. During my career, I have taken on every powerful corporate interest, whether it’s the drug companies, the insurance companies, fossil fuel, Wall Street. I have been there. So if people want to get a sense of what I will be as President, hey, I’ve been doing this for 30 or 40 years. These are not new ideas to me.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Sanders calls oil, pharmaceutical and Wall Street executives candidates for jail time
John Harwood: Your Corporate Accountability plan – on Wall Street reform, you say you want to end “too-big-to-jail.” You said the other day that Sherman Act violations by monopolists ought to have the potential for criminal indictments. I wonder if you think that principle also applies to cases like the Boeing CEO is testifying on the Hill next week. He’s been stripped of his position as board chairman, the head of the Max airplane was fired. But is that the kind of case where people lost their lives in accidents that criminal law is relevant to?
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: John, let me take it a major step further. This is the kind of discussion that we need as a nation, and that will take place when I’m president. I’ll give you three examples of this. In 2008, when Wall Street drove this country into the worst economic recession in modern history. As a result of that, Wall Street has paid tens and tens of billions of dollars in fines for their illegal activity. Wasn’t a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. They were selling subprime mortgages that they knew were worthless. They paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. How many of these Wall Street executives went to jail as a result of their illegal behavior?
John Harwood: I don’t think any.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: No, and that is why the American people are disgusted with what goes on in Washington, D.C. They see a kid selling marijuana, gets picked up by the cops. That kid will have a criminal record for the rest of his life. And a Wall Street executive that causes a massive tragedy for our economy, no punishment. Give you another example — the pharmaceutical industry. And I’ve dealt with these guys for years. They’re not only greedy, they are corrupt. They are engaged in collusion and in price-fixing. Right now, as you know, state attorneys general are mounting a massive lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers.
What they are saying is, these guys knew exactly what they were doing. They were selling an addictive product all over this country. Many have died. They knew what they were doing. How do you define that behavior? I call it criminal. And I want to give you one more example. How do we define, how do we describe the behavior of the fossil fuel industry? Let’s take a look.
John Harwood: You tell me.
Bernie Sanders: All right, I will tell you. For a very long time, the executives of Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel industries knew that the product that they were producing was causing climate change and in fact helping to destroy this planet. That’s what they knew. And yet what they did was use their –
John Harwood: You put them in the same category as tobacco executives.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: Exactly. If you are producing a product and you don’t know that it’s causing harm, that’s one thing. That’s forgivable. But if you are like the tobacco industry — we go before Congress, we swear that all of our research has shown that there is not a problem with tobacco causing cancer or heart disease. They lied. My father died because he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Millions of people are in the same boat. These are liars. These are criminals. I support and respect business people who produce new products, create jobs. God bless them. I do not respect or support criminals who are killing people, who are harming people, and are lying about what they’re doing.
John Harwood: Just one more on this Boeing case – I know you say you don’t know all the details, but he is about to testify on the Hill. Do you think in a case like that, that a determination should be made that either this was a plane with a problem that they weren’t aware of or if they were, is the criminal law appropriate there?
Bernie Sanders: Yes, that is exactly right. I mean again, if you are a business person and you are producing a new product and you don’t know that it is harmful, that’s one thing. But if in fact it can be proven, as I think can be the case – certainly with the fossil fuel industry and the drug companies – if you are producing a product that is killing people, and you did nothing about it, and people died, of course you are going to be held accountable.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Sanders on the deficit impact of his agenda: "we're trying to pay for the damn thing"
John Harwood: One of the constraints that has limited things that democrats have been able to get done has been fiscal. Senator Warren is producing plans to pay for Medicare for All. You’ve identified revenue sources for about half of it. Do you think it’s important to identify revenue sources for the other half? Or do you believe, as those who say subscribe to modern monetary theory believe, that we’ve been a little bit too constrained by concerns about the deficit and that is not so important to pay for everything?
Bernie Sanders: The fight that I have been waging says that A. healthcare is a human right and we’ve got to join the rest of the world guaranteeing healthcare to all people. And B., I want to do away with all premiums, all copayments, all deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. And I believe through a progressive tax approach, the overwhelming majority of people – you’ve got working class people now paying 15 or 20% of their incomes for healthcare. I’m going to lower the cost of healthcare. And what I understand is what Republicans are good at and some of my Democratic opponents are saying, “Oh Bernie is going to raise your taxes.” But if I am doing away with your premiums, and your prescription drug costs, nobody in America under Medicare for All pays more than $200 a year.
John Harwood: Is it ok with you if deficits go up while that happens?
Bernie Sanders: We’re trying to pay for the damn thing. But I think at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it is my view that the wealthiest people in this country, the top 1/10th of 1% should be paying substantially more than they’re paying right now. You have an insane situation. Let my Wall Street friends there tell me why it makes sense.
John Harwood: You have Wall Street friends?
Bernie Sanders: No, I don’t. That was just a metaphor. I was trying to sound nice. But you know, please, you defend for me Amazon, owned by the wealthiest guy in the country, making $11 billion in profits last year and not paying a nickel in federal income taxes. I want to hear the defense. John, I don’t hear it. There is no defense. And it’s not just Amazon, it’s dozens of these corporations.
John Harwood: So you do plan to propose the other 16 billion in –
Bernie Sanders: Federal taxes are already paying roughly speaking 60% of healthcare costs through Medicare, Medicaid, and other healthcare programs. So we got to –
John Harwood: But you still have more revenue to go to make it fully paid for, yes?
Bernie Sanders: Well, what we have laid out is – look, the fight right now is to get the American people to understand that we’re spending twice as much per capita, that of course, we can pay for it. We’re paying it now in a very reactionary, regressive way. I want to pay for it in a progressive way. That’s my fight. Now, you’re asking me to come up with an exact detailed plan of how every American — how much you’re going to pay more in taxes, how much I’m going to pay. I don’t think I have to do that right now. What I have to say and be honest is to say yeah –
John Harwood: Do you think it’s foolish that Senator Warren is trying to –
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: I’m not saying it’s foolish.
John Harwood: Because some people are saying that. Like why box yourself in with that kind of detail?
Bernie Sanders: All that I’m saying is that what we have laid out are a variety of options that are progressive. We are going to take those. We’ll have that debate. But at the end of the day, we will pay for every nickel of Medicare for All, and it will save the overwhelming majority of the American people, who will no longer pay premiums.
John Harwood: Would you envision that at the end of a Sanders administration, the deficit would not be larger than it is now?
Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: Well I surely, unlike Trump, would not be giving a trillion dollars in tax breaks over ten years to the 1% and large corporations. I surely, unlike Trump, would not be greatly expanding military spending. I surely, would not be providing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
John Harwood: But you think the net of that priority shift would not result in a higher deficit?
Bernie Sanders: Look, I’m not here to tell you – but under Trump, what we have seen is a huge increase in the deficit.
John Harwood: Oh no doubt. For sure.
Bernie Sanders: I think I will do a lot better than Trump.