Bernie Sanders Talks With TIME About Winning the White House

15 minute read

After nearly nine months on the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders’ message of political revolution is starting to break through where it counts.

He is locked in a tight race with Hillary Clinton in Iowa little more than a week before the first contest of the presidential primary and beating the former Secretary of State in New Hampshire polls.

Sanders is still a long way from the White House, and Clinton is still the prohibitive frontrunner. The Vermont Senator lacks support from African-American voters, and he’s so far been unable to convince most Democrats he’d make a better candidate against a Republican than Clinton.

The populist insurgent took a moment to reflect on the race for a story in this week’s issue of TIME magazine. He talked taxes (he’d raise them), turning points (he thinks he’s at one) and tuxedos (he’s never owned one).

But the big question for Sanders: Does he have a second act?

Read More: The Case Against Sanders Getting the Nomination

Howard Dean has long said there’s a difference between insurgent candidates, who Democrats tend to love, and the kind of candidates who win the nomination and then the presidency. Is he right?

All I know is that in the polling, for whatever polling is worth, nationally we are defeating Donald Trump, the Republican’s leading candidate, by far more than Hillary Clinton is. And that’s true in the last true national polls and it’s even more true in battleground states like Iowa and New Hampshire. So if the question is, can a Bernie Sanders and what he stands for, and the fight for economic and social justice carry over to the general election and millions of working people? I think the evidence is that it can.

Is there any way that you will have to change your pitch, or your message?

No. No. That’s just media talk. I know they say that a lot, but that’s because they are very far removed from reality.

Look, you got not only Democrats, not only Republicans, not only Independents, You’ve got people all over this country who are struggling economically. Yes, thank you President Obama, we’re much better of today than we were seven years ago. But that doesn’t negate the reality. Media doesn’t like to discuss this but the middle class continues to disappear. Forty-seven million people living in poverty, 29 million people having no health insurance. And yet while the average person works longer hours for low wages, almost all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1%. How do you think the average Republican, Independent or Democrat feels about that? That’s my message.

And then on top of that, what people are looking at is a campaign finance system that is corrupt. They’re going to turn on their TV and there’s some super PAC telling them why their candidate is the worst candidate in the history of the world. And billionaires are spending unlimited money on campaigns. How do you think people feel about that? The message that we have is a message for the middle-class working families, low-income people all over this country who are hungry and crying out for a very significant change in the current economic and political system.

Read More: The Philosophical Fight Underlying the Democratic Debate

John Kasich said at the last debate that Republicans are going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. And Hillary Clinton has been buying ads in Iowa and New Hampshire presenting herself as the candidate who can win in a general election. How do you combat that message?

Well there are two ways. I mean, objectively speaking, polls are polls. Virtually all of the polls have me defeating Trump by bigger margins than Clinton and defeating other Republican candidates.

But here’s the more important fact: Republicans win as they did in November 2014 when voter turnout is low, when people are demoralized when a whole lot of people don’t go in to vote. That’s what Republicans want and those are the conditions they do well in. So if in November 2016 you have a demoralized, un-energetic base in the Democratic Party that says, ‘Eh, I’m not going to come out and vote,’ there is a decent chance that a Republican can win.

If you have an excited Democratic base and Independents who are saying you know what, ‘It’s time for real change in this country. It is time for a political revolution.’ Then, we win. That means not only retaining the White House, that means recapturing the Senate doing well in the House, winning governor’s chairs all over the country.

It’s not just polls, it’s the fact that any objective assessment of this campaign says that the energy and excitement among young people among working people the kinds of turnouts we’re seeing that fact that we’ve seen 2.5 million individual contributions—unheard of! unprecedented!

The energy and excitement is with us. We think that contributes to a large voter turnout, large voter turnout means victory. Not only for me but for Democrats all up and down the line.

Read More: Sanders Breaks Fundraising Record

You seemed at times a little bit stunned by your success. Did you ever think you would be this close to the job?

When I began this campaign, close to nine months ago, media asked me, “Are you in this race to win?” And I answered, “Yeah.” I would not have run if I did not think we have a shot to win. That’s what I believed on day one, and that’s what I believe today.

If you’re asking me has the campaign moved faster and more successfully than I thought it would, the answer is yes. We started this campaign at something like 3% in the national polls way, way behind in Iowa, way, way behind in New Hampshire. Today it is very, very close in Iowa, I think we’re a little bit ahead in New Hampshire. And almost all of the polls show us gaining on Secretary Clinton.

As president you have to preside over state dinners. You have to host the White House Correspondent’s dinner—

Ah! Not that! Oh please—

—you have to wear a tuxedo, and black ties.

Okay, let’s set the record straight. I’m not aware in the Constitution—you may be more of a constitutional scholar than I am— I don’t recall the black ties.

What about pardoning turkeys? Do you have to pardon a turkey?

Turkeys, we can pardon. Let me go on record, you’ve got a scoop, you ready for this? I do not own a tuxedo. Never have I worn a tuxedo.

Read More: Watch Stephen Colbert Ask Tuxedo-Less Bernie Sanders to Prom

Have you ever pardoned a turkey? And would you if elected?

No, I like turkey very much, so I’d eat the turkey.

You’d eat the turkey and pardon another.

I’m not against pardoning turkeys [laughs].

These are things that I know from covering you, I can imagine you find frivolous, extraneous to being president.

I don’t want to shock you. You ready to be shocked again? It’s going to be a rough afternoon for you here. I have been in politics and elected official for 25 years in Congress and eight years before that as a mayor of the largest city in the state of Vermont. So I do know something about what elected officials are supposed to do. These issues are not new to me. I presided over a city for eight years, House for 16, and the Senate for nine so I think I can handle all the ex officio duties that come with being President of the United States.

Would you have given the order to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan?

Yeah. And I applaud the president for doing that. Look, we have people around the world ISIS okay who want to kill Americans and kill our allies. We have got to use the tools that are available to us to take them out. The president has done that a lot of high level officials in ISIS and al-Qaeda have been killed, it’s destabilizing them to some degree.

And you would continue the use of drone strikes?

Drones are a weapon of war. And sometimes they are used poorly and they end up doing more harm than good. If a drone attack ends up killing innocent people at a wedding ceremony and the entire community said why in god’s name did the United States kill innocent men and women that is counterproductive. If a drone attack is precise and takes out an ISIS murderer, that is a positive thing.

Read More: Bernie Sanders: It’s Time To End Orwellian Surveillance

You’ve been elected, you’re sitting in the Oval Office, what are the first things you think have an earnest chance of passing Congress?

The first thing, Sam, is that it’s not just Congress. It is working with the American people. Where my campaign will differ from the others, is that I don’t think any president, not Bernie Sanders or anyone else, is able alone to address the major crises facing this country. What we need and what I am campaigning on is a political revolution that brings millions of people together. Which changes the whole dynamic of politics.

In other words if I’m sitting in a room with Mitch McConnell and I say, you know Mitch, I think it’s important that public colleges and universities be free and we’re going to lower interest rates on student debt and we’re going to pay for it through a tax on Wall Street speculation. Well, I kind of know what Mitch McConnell is going to say. He doesn’t think it’s a great idea.

But if I say Mitch, take a look out the window there are a million young people who are marching, who know what’s going on, who support this legislation, who are not going to vote Republican unless you do the right thing and don’t burden them for half their lives with this outrageous [debt] then Mitch’s thinking changes on that issue. We have to change the dynamic of American politics.

Read More: Where the 2016 Democratic Candidates Stand on College Affordability

So as president you’re calling rallies—

It’s not just rallies, don’t be sarcastic here.

No, but I want to know what practically that looks like.

What it looks like—and that’s a fair question—it’s never been done before. It’s something that’s evolving that I can’t do alone. There are groups all over this country who are grassroots organizations—

Can you name one?

—yeah, CCI in Iowa comes to mind—that have brought farmers together, workers together, young people together, business people together, around a progressive agenda which speaks to economics, social and environmental justice. That’s what we have to develop together.

The fact that at our meetings we have brought out some 450,000 people who are interested in figuring out how we make a political revolution. Who want real change. That is what we have got to do.

I don’t have a magic formula as to how to do it because it hasn’t been done. But essentially we have got to revitalize American democracy. Right now we have a very low voter turnout, and above and beyond that political consciousness is very low. Most people don’t really follow very closely what’s going on. We passed the defense budget, huge pieces of legislation no media discussion at all. I’m the ranking member of the budget committee. Republicans came up with a budget which called for massive tax breaks for billionaires, cuts in every social program almost no discussion about that. And as president we can force that discussion. And when people get involved, things change.

Organizations like Democracy for America? MoveOn? You’d use those?

Absolutely! You have people like Democracy for America, Which I think has some 7-8 million people. They are every single day communicating through social media, involving their people. We gotta to build on that so that millions of people—and not everybody is going to agree with me—but I want people to know what is going on in Congress to voice their opinion.

And here’s the main point, Sam, why I feel confident about a Sanders Administration. If I were coming and I had these really radical ideas, but unfortunately nobody supports my ideas—that would be a problem. Virtually all of the ideas that I am bringing forth are supported by the American people. How does it happen when overwhelming numbers of Democrats, Republicans and Independents want to raise the minimum wage and we can’t get a minimum wage bill on the floor?

Overwhelmingly, people believe in pay equity. Overwhelmingly, people believe in sensible gun safety legislation. Overwhelmingly, people believe the wealthy should be paying their fair share of taxes. So question that you guys have got to ask is, how does it happen that Congress is so far removed from where the American people are. I hope to bridge that gap. And that’s why I’m confident.

It’s not like I come up with some, “Gee, I got a great idea, I know I’m right, unfortunately 98% of the people disagree with me!” That would be difficult. [Laughs.] But all of these ideas are in fact supported by the American people.

Aside from paid family leave what are programs that the middle class should be willing to pay an increased tax rate to support?

I think if we can guarantee healthcare to all people comprehensive healthcare, no copayments, no deductibles, and if we can cut people’s healthcare bill substantially—you know what media sometimes does what my opponent does, what Republicans do, is they really try to take a cheap shot. So if you were paying $10,000 in private health insurance and I said to you, guess what, you ain’t going to pay that $10,000 and more but you’re going to pay $5,000 more in healthcare premiums, you would be jumping up and down for joy. You would save $5,000 on your healthcare bills.

Someone says oh you’re raising taxes by $5,000. No, I am lowering your healthcare costs by $5,000. So you can take a cheap shot, say I’m just trying to raise taxes. That’s a distortion of reality. We are substantially lowering healthcare costs.

Read More: Sanders Open to Raising Middle-Class Taxes for Healthcare

So I take it you don’t like recent attacks from Hillary Clinton. Are those criticisms about taxes disingenuous?

Yes! They’re disingenuous. I’ve heard this my whole life. It’s just untrue. Look, healthcare. Fact: we are the only major country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee healthcare to all people. Fact: we have 29 million people uninsured even more underinsured. Fact: we end up paying far more than another country on Earth for healthcare. We spend almost three times what the British spend. Fifty percent more than the French. More than the Canadians. They have healthcare for all of their people. Why? If Germany can do it, and France can do it, and the UK can do it, and Canada can do it, and Scandinavia can do it, we can’t why we do it?

The answer is, the insurance companies are enormously powerful, the drug companies are enormously powerful. I intend to stand up to them.

You don’t have a traditional resume. You were a carpenter, a filmmaker. Not many members of Congress can say that—maybe Al Franken has a weirder resume than you. You also wrote a few interesting sex essays. You win the nomination, Republicans snatch on something like that. Are there things you have to answer for that will make it inconvenient for you?

You know what, you want to go into your life, we’ll find things.

I don’t want anybody to go into my life.

Well, fine. That’s why people are disgusted with politics. Hillary Clinton when she was a young lady I read someplace she was a Barry Goldwater supporter. Who cares? You think I’m going to run a TV ad saying, Hillary Clinton was a conservative Republican, vote for Bernie Sanders. It’s nonsense! Nobody cares what Hillary Clinton’s views were, 40 years ago.

They’re actually amazing me, digging up stuff I wrote 50 years ago. I’ve been a mayor for eight years, received national recognition for the work I did. Congressman for 16 years, a US senator for nine years. And they’re worried about stuff I wrote 50 years ago. Do I think Republicans will do that? Yes, I think they will. But I think the American people are smart enough to look at my record of public service.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Diane Tsai at and Francesca Trianni at