Seeking Presidency, 'Socialist' Sanders Looks To Elevate Less-Talked About Issues

Apr 29, 2015
Originally published on April 30, 2015 12:49 pm

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running for president, he said Wednesday night. He will be challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and the self-described "Democratic Socialist" will keep the pressure on Clinton to move to the left.

Sanders has lamented for a long time what he thinks has been woefully missing from the national conversation.

"We don't talk about the real issues facing the American people. We don't talk about it. We talk about Hillary's hairdo," Sanders said over a lunch of fried eggs and rye toast at Henry's Diner in Burlington, Vt., last summer. "Or my hairdo!"

This frizzy-haired, 73-year-old Brooklyn native is the only member of Congress who calls himself a Socialist. For months, he has flirted with a possible presidential bid, saying he'd jump in only if no other candidate could force the conversation he thinks Americans need to have about income inequality.

Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination, but he has never identified as a Democrat. He says that party isn't doing enough to come up with real solutions for the middle class.

"It's not just that the middle class is collapsing, and that we have more people living in poverty than any time in America's history," Sanders told NPR during the interview at Henry's Diner. "What you're also seeing is the people on top doing phenomenally well."

Close friends say Sanders has been hammering home the same refrain for decades.

"You know the interesting thing about Bernie is that he's been saying the same thing for 35 years," said John Franco, a lawyer for the city of Burlington when Sanders was mayor of the city in the 1980s. "We used to call it the canned speech on the yellow legal pad. Because he'd get out the yellow legal pad, and he'd write it out and it'd be the same speech. The same speech — stump speech he gives now."

It's a stump speech about the gap between rich and poor, about reducing the power of corporate lobbyists, about government-run healthcare for everyone, about a national jobs program.

A Sanders campaign could force Clinton, the only other declared Democrat in the race to this point, to answer tough questions from liberals in her party. That might pull her further to the left, but it might also help hone her campaign skills during the primaries.

For Sanders, though, the run for the presidency isn't ultimately about Clinton.

"He understands that there are — not just rights to health care, rights to education, rights to food — but that these are obligations people have for one another," said Richard Sugarman, who teaches philosophy of religion at the University of Vermont and has been one of Sanders' closest friends for about 40 years. "This is something that he really believes, and this is very, very basic to him."

Sanders may be a long shot, but there's a long tradition of liberal populists who jump in for the long march to the Democratic nomination — just to give voice to the ideas that propel them.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is the important part of Senator Bernie Sanders' run for president. It's that he will run as a Democrat.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the Senate, Sanders is marked down as Independent. In fact, he identifies as a Socialist. He might've made a third-party run for the White House. Instead, he's expected to formally announce today that he will enter Democratic primaries.

INSKEEP: He can challenge Hillary Clinton and articulate his long-standing concern about the Democratic Party's ties to big business. Here's what Sanders said on this program in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: People look out. And they say, gee, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well. And where are the Democrats? Do people see the Democratic Party standing up to Wall Street - any of these guys going to jail? Not really.

INSKEEP: You can sense right there how Sanders might pressure Hillary Clinton to lean a little bit left. Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Bernie Sanders has lamented for a long time over what he thinks has been woefully missing from the national conversation. Here he was eating fried eggs for lunch in Burlington, Vt. last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SANDERS: We don't talk about the real issues facing the American people. We don't talk about them. We talk about Hillary's hairdo.

CHANG: Or your hairdo.

SANDERS: Or my hairdo, that's right - more to the point, my hairdo.

CHANG: This frizzy-haired, 73-year-old Brooklyn native is the only member of Congress who calls himself a Socialist. For months, he's flirted with a possible presidential bid, saying he'd jump in only if no other candidate could force the conversation he thinks Americans need to have about income inequality. Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination. But he's never identified as a Democrat because he says that party isn't doing enough to come up with real solutions for the middle class.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SANDERS: It's not just that the middle class is collapsing and that we have more people living in poverty than at any time in America's history. What you're also seeing is the people on top doing phenomenally well.

JOHN FRANCO: You know, the interesting thing about Bernie is he's been saying the same thing for 35 years.

CHANG: John Franco was a lawyer for the city of Burlington when Sanders was mayor there in the 1980s.

FRANCO: We used to call it the canned speech on the yellow legal pad because he'd get out on the yellow legal pad. And he'd write it out, and it would be the same speech - the same stump speech he gives now.

CHANG: It's a stump speech about the gap between rich and poor, about reducing the power of corporate lobbyists, about government-run health care for everyone, about a national jobs program. A Sanders campaign could force Hillary Clinton to answer tough questions from liberals in her party. That might pull her further to the left. But it might also help hone her campaign skills during the primaries. For Sanders, though, the run for the presidency isn't ultimately about Clinton. Richard Sugarman is one of his closest friends.

RICHARD SUGARMAN: He understands that there are - not just rights to health care, rights to education, rights to food - but these are obligations people have for one another. It's something that he really believes, and this is very, very basic to him.

CHANG: Sanders may be a long-shot, but there's a long tradition of liberal populists who jump in for the long march to the Democratic nomination just to give a voice to the ideas that propel them. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We mentioned Sanders' long talk with us in November. You can find both parts of that interview on Twitter, @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.