With his white hair in characteristic disarray, Sen. Bernie Sanders is slouching on the couch in his office on the third floor of the Senate Dirksen Office Building between two brass-eagle themed lamps. His left foot is propped on the coffee table in front of him. But the Vermont Independent, and self-described socialist, is no slouch. He’s a man who has achieved a series of improbable victories and who is setting his sights on the toughest yet victory of his long career: the White House.
“When I first ran for office statewide in Vermont, I got two percent of the vote. I ran again, I got 1 percent of the vote. So, last election I got 71 percent of the vote,” Sanders tells TIME in an exclusive interview. “We need candidates who are prepared to represent the working families of this country, who are prepared to stand up to the big money interests, who are prepared to support an aggressive agenda to expand the middle class. And I am prepared to be that candidate. If there are other candidates who come forward who can do it better than me, that's fine. I don't again wake up with a burning ambition to be President of the United States.”
Sanders, who is the longest-serving Independent in congressional history, would have to officially register as a Democrat before he could run in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. But he says he hasn’t yet made up his mind for sure if he’ll run, and he has time yet. One thing he is sure of: He’d make a better President than Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, he says, “is a very, very intelligent person, no question about it. But, I don't know what her political future is, whether she's going to run. I don't know what she's going to say. But, if you talk about the need for a political revolution in America, it's fair to say that Secretary Clinton probably will not be one of the more active people.”
And a political revolution is exactly what Sanders believes this country is crying out for: “What we need is a political revolution in which grassroots America—and that is primarily working people who are fighting for their lives right now economically—have got to come together to make everybody understand that we are the majority of the American people and not the Koch brothers and not Sheldon Adelson, and not the other billionaires today who have huge influence over the economic and political life of the nation. And that's not easily done. It's easier to talk about it than do it.”
In a wide-ranging interview, TIME sat down with the 72-year-old potential presidential hopeful for more than 45 minutes to examine his call to political arms, marijuana legalization (he’d be the first senator to endorse recreational use), the expansion of Social Security and many more issues. Here are some excerpts:
Q. Your $21 billion bill to improve veterans services failed to overcome a filibuster last week, is this another victim of Washington’s hyper-partisanship?
The Republicans are pretty clear about in general making sure that Democrats, the Democratic leadership here, Obama does not accomplish much… And so you see this Congress is not doing anything. Vote for Republicans. Their obstructionism has been unprecedented, and I think we saw that again in this legislation. I'm glad that we got two people who are members of my committee by the way on the Veterans Committee, and I think we can get some others. I had hoped very much that at least on an issue of the needs of our veterans, where historically there has been bipartisan support, that we could have that support. So I was disappointed, but we are certainly not giving up, and I hope to get the three votes that I need.
Q. A lot of the Republicans have complained that since the nuclear option that, you know, the minority rights have been taken away, that the atmosphere is just poisonous. As somebody who has used the filibuster in the past, do you think it's permanently damaged?
The Republicans have gotten it backwards, and the real changing of the functioning of the Senate is not the so-called nuclear option. The real changing of the functioning of the Senate is the fact that the Republicans have used the filibuster in an unprecedented level for the most minuscule things: the appointment so some low level nominee. They have used the filibuster to make it impossible for us to accomplish anything. That's the changing of the rules. And what we did is try to respond to that and say, "We shouldn't spend weeks having to get some assistant secretary or something approved. We should occasionally try to pass serious legislation.’ So I would argue that the rules were changed by the Republicans, that [Majority Leader Harry] Reid responded to those changes in a fairly modest way.
Q. Marijuana legalization in Vermont and indeed in the country is a trend. What do you make of it?
It is a trend, but I think it has a lot of political support from young people especially. It probably will continue to move forward. Colorado led the way. Other states I expect will follow. I have supported the increased use of marijuana for medical purposes, and I can tell you when I was Mayor of the City of Burlington, which includes the University of Vermont, I don't recall that anybody was arrested for marijuana use. And I have real concerns about implications of the war on drugs that has. We have been engaged in for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities.
In Vermont right now we're dealing with a very serious problem with heroin use and use of prescription drugs. We lost over 50 people as a result of overdoses of prescription drugs and heroin. So I am concerned about the overuse of dangerous drugs. And we'll see what's going to happen, but I think that debate will take place in Vermont.
Q. So you don't support the recreational legalization of marijuana in Vermont?
I'm going to look at the issue. It's not that I support it or don't support it. To me it is not one of the major issues facing this country. I'll look at it. I think it has a lot of support and I'll be talking to young people and others about the issues. But there are two sides to a story.
Q. Have you ever smoked pot?
A couple of times when I was young.
Q. Let's talk about the 2016 Democratic primary. What kind of debate does the party need, do you think?
I happen to believe that we are living in a moment in history where the problems facing this country are more severe than at any time since the Great Depression, and in fact, if you throw in global warming, more severe. So these are not normal times. These are times in which the middle class in this country is disappearing and we have more people living in poverty than any time in the history of this country, when despite the huge increases in technology and productivity, the median family income is down by $5,000 since 1999 when almost all of the new income being created goes to the top 1% in the last few years, 95% of all new income went to the top 1%. In terms of wealth, we have the obscenity of the top 1% owning 38% of the wealth, while the bottom 60% owns all of 2.3%. So the gap between the very, very, very rich and everybody else is growing much wider, while millions of kids face the prospect of having a significantly lower standard of living than their parents. And that's the first time we've ever seen that.
What we are also looking at is politically not unrelated to income and wealth disparity is that a billionaire class now is exerting a type of political power that we have also not seen maybe in the history of this country. Where we have seen the very richest people in the country use their money for political purposes in a way that is probably unprecedented. So you have a situation now where one could argue that the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson and the other billionaires now—as a result of this disastrous Citizens United decision—now have more political influence than either the Democratic or Republican Party.
So the way I look at the political structure right now, the process right now is you have a Democratic Party. You've got a Republican Party that has moved far to the right. And then you have aligned with the Republican Party another enormously powerful political grouping of the billionaire class, led by the Koch brothers and Adelson, which may well have more influence on the political process than either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party itself because of their willingness to spend unlimited amounts of money.
And by unlimited, I mean unlimited. We just discovered this this morning that the Koch brothers are the second wealthiest family in America. They're worth about $80 billion. Their wealth went up by $12 billion last year, 6 plus 6: a $12 billion increase in their wealth in one year. So for these guys to spend a few billion dollars on the political process, helping to own the United States government, is what for the average person would be, you know, $100 or $200. It's not significant. When you increase your wealth by $12 billion in one year, what does a few billion dollars mean? But what a few billion dollars means is that you can buy Senate seats and governors seats all over the country and have a heavy role in the next presidential election. Now that to me, that combination of economic power and political power means to me that this country is moving very rapidly toward an oligarchic form of society, where a handful of billionaires control the economic and political life of this country. And the major political task that we have right now is to stop that trend and protect American democracy which from where I come from means one person, one vote.
Q. How do you go about doing that?
[There] is the need to wage a political revolution in this country which brings millions of people into the political process to stand up and fighting for their rights in a way that we have not seen right now. The ideology of the Koch brothers, who funded the Tea Party, who started the Tea Party, I would say honestly reflects maybe the interests of 10-15%of the American people. And we see that when you ask people at polls. You know, the Koch brothers and these guys want to end Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, nutrition programs—either end them or make major cuts in them. They want to do away in a significant way with environmental protections that enable us to have clean water and clean air and safe food. That's what they want.
But if you go to the American people, including working class members of the Tea Party and say, "Do you think we should eliminate Social Security or make cuts in Social Security?" you know what they say? "No, you shouldn't." The Koch brothers and their friends here in the Congress believe in more tax breaks for the rich. Do you know what the average American believes? That the wealthy should be asked to pay more in taxes because they're doing phenomenally well. So their ideology is way out of touch with where ordinary Americans are. They are successful politically because they have endless sums of money. They have significant influence in the media. You know, 95% of talk radio is right wing stuff—Fox Television out there, which Rupert Murdoch and his friends do a very good job pushing a point of view.
And we have got to figure out a way as progressives, as people who are trying to represent the middle class and working families in this country, to counteract that. That is not easy, but it has a lot to do with education. It has a lot to do with organization.
Q. So, who's going to lead the revolution?
Oh, you want a leader?
Well, I don't know. Look around.
Q. Well, is Hillary Clinton that leader?
For that particular political revolution? No, I don't think so. [Laughter] I've known Hillary Clinton for many, many years.
Q. What do you think of her?
I like Hillary. I knew her when I was in the House and she was First Lady, and obviously I knew her when she and I served together in the Senate. So I like her. She's a very, very intelligent person, no question about it. But, you know, I don't know what her political future is, whether she's going to run. I don't know what she's going to say. But I think, you know, if you talk about the need for a political revolution in America, I think it's fair to say that Secretary Clinton probably will not be one of the more active people.
And let me also add this. I don't think it's a question of a leader. I don't think that's the question. It's a question of a coalition of people. It's a question of bringing unions who represent many, many millions of workers, it's a question of bringing minority groups that represent millions of people, women's groups together, environmental groups together. In Vermont, for example, we have a very progressive business community. Business people who understand that you can run a business, that you can make a profit without destroying the environment or exploiting your workers. And there are a large number of especially younger people who are not necessarily part of the Forbes 500 who understand those values. So I think it's a question of bringing together that coalition of people to change -- to educate, organize, and change the priorities of what goes on here in Washington.
Q. Who do you think would make a better President, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?
Bernie Sanders. So you're asking your question more direct. [Laughter] And I think in this particular moment when the problems facing this country are so severe, when we have seen class warfare being waged by the billionaires against the working families of America, when we have seen the billionaire class use its money in an unprecedented way for its political purposes to let more right wing extremists, I think we need people in leadership roles in the House and the Senate and governors' chairs, in the White House, who are prepared to stand up and say, ‘You know what? This country belongs to all of the people: the waiters and the waitresses who are trying to make it on low incomes, they have a right to see their kids go to college and all people, that the United States is going to join the rest of the industrialized world in guaranteed health care to all people as a right and not any longer be the only country, major country on earth that does not guarantee that right, that all kids regardless of income have the right to a college education, that we need a tax system which in fact makes it very clear that the wealthy and large corporations are going to start paying their fare share of taxes, that we're going to have real campaign finance reform so that the Koch brothers and other billionaires cannot buy elections, that we're going to overturn Citizens United.’ Do you think that's Hillary Clinton's agenda? I don't think so.
Q. There are billionaire Democrats, too. So why is it that the left doesn't have this sort of activist, angry Tea Party arm? It's a fair question, and I don't really know the answer. I don't want to see a left created by liberal billionaires. That's not my understanding of how the political process should work. I don't want to see a right Tea Party created by the Koch brothers; I don't want to see a left created by some liberal type billionaire. I want to see a society in which a whole lot of viewpoints are out there and people will join those movements that they want to join but don't have the artificial creation of those movements by billionaires.
Q. Has Obama done enough to fulfill his mandate from the progressives that elected him? I have known Obama for a number of years, served with him here in the Senate a little bit, and he was kind enough to come to Vermont to campaign for me, which I've always appreciated. And I think what you got in Barack Obama is, a guy who is incredibly smart. I'm always amazed, and I've had a chance to hear him in small groups and large groups, and he is very, very smart. And needless to say, very, very articulate.
If you asked him straight to his face, I think he made a statement a couple of years ago. It was on television ... he said something to the effect, he said, ‘You know, people think I'm a Socialist. People think I'm radical. Actually my economic policies are probably like a moderate Republican of, what, the 1980s’ or something. His economic policies [are] I'd say moderate Democrat. They're not conservative. And on some issues I think he's been strong. I've been working very hard on the community health centers, primary health care. He's been very, very good in that.
The much-maligned stimulus package was an enormously important and successful piece of legislation that created two-to-three million jobs when we needed them the most. And the priorities established in that stimulus package of infrastructure, of needs of our kids, of the needs of the elderly, of energy. In Vermont as a result of that we were able to bring millions of dollars to weatherize homes and to establish solar projects and so forth and so on. It could have been better -- bigger. But it was very significant.
So I mean, I'm here. I think the President has done some very good things. I think he has been weak in a number of areas, certainly in terms of Wall Street. So I think you have a moderate Democrat who's a very smart guy. But I think if you go out and you ask environmentalists, ‘Has the President been as strong as he should be in making the United States the leader in the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?’ No. The fact that he is still—after how many years—struggling with this Keystone Pipeline is something the environmental community does not feel comfortable.
The issue of civil liberties. If you go out and you talk to the unions, you know, ‘Has the President been as strong as he should be in terms of making it easier for workers to get into unions, protecting workers' rights?’ No.
It's a mixed bag. I would say probably the major criticism is not just what he has done and has not done. He has done some good things. I think he has done some things that are not so good.
Q. One of the big decisions that he has left is Afghanistan. What do you want to see there? Do you think he should leave any troops there?
Afghanistan is a terrible, terrible quagmire… The fear is that you don't want to see the United States leave and Afghanistan disintegrate and their military incapable of dealing with the Taliban, and Afghanistan once again being a nesting place for terrorists. So if the United States along hopefully with other countries—because terrorism is certainly not just a problem facing the United States, it's facing Europe, as well, and Russia—if we can continue as an international community to work together to give support to the Afghan military, through training, et cetera, I think that would make sense.
Q. So leave troops to do training.
Modest. Modest. Yeah.
Q. Do you believe that expanding Social Security should be a core belief or a core platform statement of the Democratic agenda?
We have gone a long way from those who wanted to cut Social Security. Now what we need to do is to understand that millions of Americans are facing a serious crisis in terms of retirement, in terms of their retirements. Just literally millions of people have almost nothing in the bank. The defined benefits pension plan has been decimated from companies who have done away with that. So you are looking at a situation where huge numbers of people are entering their retirement years with almost nothing. So, of course we've got to keep Social Security vibrant and strong. But the truth of the matter is what Social Security provides is not enough, and there are ways to expand benefits for retirees and for the disabled.