Q&A: Bernie Sanders on the Future of the Democratic Party

23 minute read

In a wide-ranging interview with TIME for this week’s cover story, Bernie Sanders opened up about his frustrations with Hillary Clinton and laid out a new vision for the Democratic Party.

Speaking on the rooftop of a hotel in San Diego two-and-a-half weeks left before the Democratic primary in California, the Vermont Senator said he still believes he has a slim chance to win the Democratic nomination despite lagging in delegates. He blamed the party’s arcane primary rules for shutting out Independents and hurting his chance at winning the nomination. And he said he wants to completely reform the party even if it means a contentious fight with the Clinton campaign at the Democratic Party’s convention in July.

“To me, a victory is becoming president of the United States, and taking the oath of office in January,” Sanders said. “That’s what a victory is. And right now, whether I win or lose, what I want to see is a transformation of the Democratic Party into a grassroots movement.”

Sanders laid out a series of reforms he wants to see the Democratic Party carry out, including opening primaries to independent voters and reconsidering the role of superdelegates, as well as policy provisions such as Medicare-for-all, free public college and a $15 minimum wage.

He denied that he is hurting Clinton’s bid against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, suggesting that she is a weak candidate in a general election. That a person like [Donald Trump] is actually beating or close to Hillary Clinton in national polls is pathetic,” Sanders told TIME.

He also expressed deep bitterness about the campaign against the Clintons, who he said have repeatedly distorted his record. He had especially harsh words for David Brock, the operative leading the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record.

“What the Clinton people do very well which is what modern politics is about is you spin,” Sanders said. “I don’t think you hire scum of the Earth to be on your team just because the other side does it.”

“They play very dirty,” he added.

Read the interview below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, and the cover story here.

Throughout the primary process you have said that the rules—

Sam, let me start off, and I’m happy to answer those questions. Let me start off with a broader assertion. In my view, when you have in 2014, the last national election we had, 63% of the people not voting, 80% of young people and low-income people not voting, and Republicans winning a landslide victory, it tells me that we need a complete revitalization of the Democratic Party. A remaking of the Democratic Party. One of the extraordinary things I’ve learned throughout this campaign is when I go out and do our events, just yesterday, we were in National City, you know where National City is?

I was there.

Oh, you were at the rally. Good. What would be your guess as to the percentage—what did we have Michael, 7,300, 7,400 people?—what would be your guess as to the percentage of those working class people, Latinos, Filipinos, young people, ever walked into a Democratic Party meeting in their life?

15, 20?

Oh, God, Sam.

Too high?

Way too high. Way too high. You know, I should have actually asked people. And then, this is what takes place all over the country, we are bringing out energy in young people, working class people, people who are prepared to fight to create a better America, a government that works for all people, and then I go to Democratic Party meetings where people are thirty years older, whose income is double that of the people who come to our rallies. And the Democratic Party, the leadership is going to have to make a very simple decision. And that is, do they open the doors of the Democratic Party and welcome those people in. Thank you so much for coming in, thank you for getting involved in the political process, thank you for your willingness to take on Wall Street, and corporate America, the fossil fuel industry and the drug companies. Or does the Democratic Party continue going along its merry way where a great deal of its time and energy is devoted to raising money from wealthy people and putting thirty-second ads on television.

Those people that you’re talking about, do you feel that you have some kind of obligation to them? These people who believe your message and want to see change in the party.

I think you’re asking the wrong question, as I often feel the media is. Do I feel I have a personal obligation to them? Of course. I’ve spent my whole life working for those people. The question is, does the Democratic Party have the obligation to open its doors to those people, to hear what those people have to say, rather than worry about getting money from Wall Street and drug companies and the powerful special interests. Do you follow what I’m saying?

And then when you do that, not only is your public policy the right policy in terms of taking on the fossil fuel industry so we can save this planet from climate change, not only will we be able to lower prescription drug costs, and not only will we be able to end the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, but it’s good politics, too. So what I’m asking of the Democratic Party is good public policy, which translates into good politics, open the doors, stop worrying about your billionaires and Wall Street supporting you, create a vital dynamic political party which represents working families and the young people of this country.

How would you rewrite the Democratic Party’s rules for primaries?

There are some obvious no-brainers to me. Independents, people who classify themselves as independents, are the fastest growing part of American politics. More and more people, especially young people consider themselves independents. They are not enamored with either political party. So the idea that you could go to New York State and compete. And I competed in the New York primary there and 3 million independents were denied the right to vote in either the Democrat or Republican primary is totally absurd given the context of American politics today.

We ended up breaking even in Kentucky, a closed primary. And I think we’re going to end up doing a lot better in California, because it’s going to be semi-open. But in general if you want to win national elections, general elections with the strongest candidate, how do you deny that group of Americans, who are the largest group, from participating? They are going to vote in the general election, right? They have a right to vote in the New York State primary the Kentucky primary and many other primaries. So opening up the primary process to all people seems to me to make a lot of sense.

One of the problems we’re dealing with, Secretary Clinton received the support of over 400 superdelegates before anybody else announced for the race. That’s called an anointment. Then you raise all kinds of money on top of that. You try to end the nominating process before the first ballot is cast. I think they have been shocked that as we sit here in late May we have a shot to win the California primary on June 7. That I think they never believed would happen. They wanted to end this thing before the first ballot was cast. That is totally absurd and it’s absurd for two reasons. It is clearly undemocratic. It is a way for the establishment to push their candidate forward.

I am the strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump. That is objectively the truth. You may like me, you may not like me, but that is the fact. But not to take that into consideration and say, “I support Hillary Clinton,” back in April 2015, that’s a pretty dumb process. I think we have to absolutely rethink the role of superdelegates. I can’t give you a definitive answer, but we have to make that process far, far more democratic. The role of superdelegates, if any, should be discussed. I can’t give you a definitive answer.

Here’s the other area. What I have learned from this campaign is the corporate media is incapable of covering a national campaign in a serious way. The overwhelming amount of coverage, which works to Trump’s advantage because he knows how to manipulate that pretty well, deals with political gossip, polls, fundraising, stupid things that people say, including myself, and staff rather than allowing for a serious discussion on serious issues. Trump has gotten enormous amounts of media coverage because he insults everybody and the media goes after it.

So if I say to you, I think Hillary Clinton is a dash-dash-dash, it would be front page story all over America. But if I say to you I’m concerned about the decline of the middle class and income and wealth inequality, nobody gives a damn. So the Democrats are going to have to figure out—and one of the reasons they’re doing so well with young people—

Does this interest you at all or not? Probably not.

As a young person—

I don’t want to waste my time. Does what I’m saying interest you—

Yes, Senator. I’d like to know what it means—

Alright! I’m getting to what it means. I don’t want to waste my time. You’re part of the corporate media—you’re a nice guy, but I don’t want to waste my time. What I’m saying here is in fact enormously important.

Why do you think we’re doing so well with young people and doing rather poorly with old people? What do you think media has to do with that?

Younger people don’t get their information from CNN.

Younger people don’t watch television. They don’t even read the New York Times. But they do get it through social media. We’re able to communicate effectively through social media. We’re not able to communicate effectively with old media. That breaks my heart because I spent my whole damn life fighting for senior citizens and disabled veterans. So what does that mean? The Democratic Party is gonna have to figure out a way to communicate directly with younger people and working families outside of the context of corporate media, which is incapable for their own vested interest of addressing real issues facing the American people.

Fourthly, candidates including myself, have spent ungodly amounts of money on 30-second television ads. I have done that. I’m not going to apologize for doing that, that’s what you have to do. But I would like to see the Democratic Party invest very heavily in grassroots organizing. In engaging people, figuring out ways to work with unions, work with young people, work with environmental people, and bring them into the process.

What are the top four or five policy proposals you want to convince the Democratic Party to adopt at the convention?

We start off with the assumption that in some areas, there’s going to be broad agreement already. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a debate, frankly, that we need to raise the minimum wage actually to $15 an hour. We don’t have to waste time on that. I think that will probably pass quite overwhelmingly. Secretary Clinton has not come out for the [New York Sen. Kirsten] Gillibrand bill which is in the Senate on paid family and medical leave. I don’t think there’ll be much debate on that. I think we’ll have that as well.

I think the issues of contention will be the understanding that Secretary Clinton has been wrong in supporting virtually every single one of these trade policies. I think what this campaign has shown is that working people understand that NAFTA and CAFTA and PNTR with China have been disastrous for working families. I think there will be some opposition to my point of view but I have the feeling that we’ll win that debate as well.

Secretary Clinton has come up, as usual, with a very complicated and convoluted approach on higher education. You got to spend half your life filling out forms and checking your income every day. I’m not sure that we will not win fairly easily on the issue of making public colleges and public universities part of what we consider to be public education, making it free. I suspect we’ll win that one as well.

I think the real debate will center around how aggressively we take on the fossil fuel industry. I will push for a tax on carbon. Secretary Clinton now opposes that. I think the crisis on clean water is one of the evolving crises in our country around the world. I think you’ve got to ban fracking.

I think a very contentious issue of where there will be a debate—serious debate—and I think we have a shot to win. When I tell you we’re going to have a debate, almost all of my supporters will be supportive and then we can get some of Clinton’s supporters. I don’t think it’s going to be, these votes will come down all Sanders versus all Clinton. And I think, you’ll see, you’ve got progressive people, you’ve got Clinton with the support of some unions there, and some of those people will come over to us on the issues.

I think a contentious issue which we have a shot to win is whether or not we break up the large financial institutions and we create a new financial system not based on a handful of giant Wall Street banks. That will be contentious. If I were a betting guy, I’d think we’d win that. But we may not.

I think the polls suggest that among Democrats there is strong support for a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. And my guess is we’ll probably win that one too. We may not. But I think we’ll win that one as well.

The other issue that will be contentious is tax reform and making sure the wealthy and profitable corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.

So those are a few of the issues. I think we’ll win most of them. I think the Wall Street fight will be a difficult one, it may not be, depending on the wording of tax reform, that will be tough. Medicare-for-all I suspect we’ll win but we may not.

Where do you feel the Clintons have most misrepresented your record? And where do you feel they have crossed the line?

In 1988, coming from [a rural] state, running for the U.S. Congress against a Republican and a Democrat, I was an independent. The gun lobbies said, “Vote for anybody but Bernie Sanders because he wants to ban assault weapons in America.” Now, we lost that election by 3 percentage points. I cannot tell you that was the reason that we lost, but when you take on the gun lobby in the state of Vermont in 1988 way back when because of my opposition to a ban on assault weapons, the idea that I am being called a tool of the NRA, a supporter of the NRA, is really quite outrageous. That’s number one.

Number two, what the Clinton people do very well which is what modern politics is about is you spin. So if I say something to you that is ambiguous and it appears in TIME, the next day it’ll become a 30-second TV ad that Sanders said something which will be taken out of context. You’re familiar with that process?

So I said on a television show, when asked about Planned Parenthood’s support, of Hillary Clinton, I said, you have leadership as opposed to grassroots that sometime provide support. Well then I’m being attacked for—what was the word?—attacking Planned Parenthood. There’s no one in Congress who’s a stronger supporter of Planned Parenthood. I want to increase their funding. I think it’s one of the great organizations in America. So I’m being attacked for the implication is that I don’t support Planned Parenthood.

There was one piece of legislation that came up before the U.S. Senate on the automobile bailout and of course I voted to help the workers of the automobile industry. The bill that Clinton referred to was the Wall Street bailout. Some of that money ended up going to a bailout for the automobile industry. To suggest that because I didn’t vote for the Wall Street bailout that I voted against the automobile bailout and workers of the automobile industry is just an outrageous distortion of my record.

Are those surprising to you?

Well, I’ll tell you something that is something that Clinton campaign is going to have to think very long and hard about which I think offends not only me but a lot of even Clinton supporters.

Clinton named David Brock as the head of the PAC called—what is the PAC called? Priorities? Correct the Record. A super PAC. Now I’m not a great fan of super PACs. We don’t do super PACs. There are a lot of decent people who know how to raise money from rich people. That run a super PAC. But to find somebody who’s claim to fame is as an attack dog, a man who admitted, later apologized for trying to destroy the character of Anita Hill—why would you name somebody like that? And we know that they have a very large opposition research team. And we know that a lot of stuff has been leaked into the papers which are lies and distortions.

Look, we do opp mail, we don’t do that much opposition research, but you know, we’ve attacked Hillary Clinton, we do what other politicians do. But I don’t have anybody on my staff who has spent his life as an attack dog who has gone about trying to destroy political opponents. And I think that should make people. They play very dirty. The Clinton response off the record would be where up against he Republicans, the Republicans do exactly that. I understand that. Believe me. My family has been exposed to that crap. The worst kinds of lies.

And they have been attacked in that way for decades. The Clintons have. By people like David Brock! Before he presumably saw the light. Who lied about the Clintons. And their response is look, that’s the world we live in, that’s what you gotta do. I understand that. I don’t think that’s what you gotta do. I don’t think you hire scum of the Earth to be on your team just because the other side does it. You gotta play in a little bit different way.

Do you feel that you’ve been mistreated by the Democratic Party?

Nobody debates that the entire DNC is supportive of Secretary Clinton. I don’t know how many people we have but the one person we had, Tulsi Gabbard, who was supportive, had to voluntarily resign from the DNC. So all of the DNC, including Debbie Wasserman Schultz, obviously supports Hillary Clinton. That goes without saying. Can I give you many examples where the deck has been stacked against us? Yeah. Of course I can. That goes without saying.

From the very beginning in terms of the debate schedule. People were really laughing out loud at how they worked overtime trying to figure out how to have a series of debates at a time when the fewest possible people would watch that debate. We all know that.

We had this brouhaha over breaches. And she made the incredible action of suspending our access to information we had paid for. I think that was totally unacceptable. What’s happened in Nevada. That’s I think not the DNC but it’s the state people. The conduct of how Nevada was run was clearly stacked in favor of Secretary Clinton. What people don’t appreciate is that in every state that we have participated in, that’s 44 states up to now, we have taken on the Democratic Establishment. In some cases, the establishment has been extremely fair and friendly, and in fact I would say most cases. In some cases that has not been the case.

Howard Dean, who as you know also ran an insurgent campaign, told TIME that you have to at some point switch gears and concede. Party leaders have said it’s time to take on Donald Trump and worry you are hurting Hillary Clinton.

Now we’re shifting gears. We’re off of the DNC being fair. You gotta put a red light on and tell me when you’re going into a new issue. So we’re finished with whether the DNC has been fair, yes? So you’re going into a new question in that Bernie Sanders is the one responsible for a Fox Poll that Hillary Clinton is 3 points behind a guy who is a pathological liar, who has insulted virtually every group in America, who is widely despised, and it is Bernie Sanders’ fault that in some polls Hillary Clinton is now behind. Is that what the question is?

The world that I live in, is that candidates, whether it is Trump or Clinton or Bernie Sanders have got to go out to the American people and make it clear what they stand for and what they are prepared for. The idea that Donald Trump, a dangerous person, a person who has insulted tens of millions of people in this country through outrageous statements about Latinos, and Muslims or women or veterans or African Americans—he was a leader of the so-called birther movement—the idea that somebody who talks about using nuclear weapons, who wants to give hundreds of billions of dollars of tax breaks to the top two-tenths of one percent, a man who thinks climate change is a hoax—that a person like this is actually beating or close to Hillary Clinton in national polls is pathetic.

And I would remind you in poll after poll, including an NBC poll today, we are defeating Trump by fifteen points. How does it happen that in every national poll and virtually every state poll we are defeating Trump by far greater margins than Hillary Clinton? That is the question to ask. Why is that? And the answer is that we have brought a message to the American people and the determination and history that Secretary Clinton has not.

Let me say this also. I think Donald Trump becoming president for this country would be a disaster for the middle class and working families, for the environment. For our position in the world. And I will do everything that I can to defeat Donald Trump. Right now my hope is that I will be in the position to defeat him as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Are you in favor of the superdelegates, even if you are behind in pledged delegates, supporting and are you worried that is a perversion of the democratic process.

Here’s what I think. The rules are what they are right now. And the rules include the fact that we have had to compete in closed primaries. I would say that the election results would be very, very different in many states if all people in those states had a right to vote rather than just people who had registered in New York state months—was it six months—could we have won New York State? I don’t know, maybe not. I’ll tell you it would have been a hell of a lot closer. If you had anything resembling a fair election process. and that is true in many, many other states.

If we end up forty-eight, forty-nine [percent of the delegates], fighting in states where millions of our supporters were disenfranchised and not able to vote, and if we are in a situation where 400 or more pledged delegates—superdelegates for Hillary Clinton—came on board before the first ballot was cast, do I think we have a right to say to those superdelegates, look, your job is not to tell us who you supported months before the first ballot was cast. Your job is determined in these very difficult times which candidate can most clearly defeat Donald Trump. Look at the evidence. And if you conclude that Bernie Sanders is the one to prevent Donald Trump from getting into the White House, do your duty to America and the Democratic Party: support Bernie Sanders. That’s where I am.

Let’s say there’s resistance to your views at the convention. If you are encountered with hardliners in the Party—

I know this is what media likes to do. You want me to speculate, what happens if A, B and C happens, what do I do. Well I don’t know that A, B and C is going to happen. So right now, not to bore you, my job in the next two-and-a-half weeks is to do everything I can to win the nomination and to fight for the strongest possible platform at the convention that supports the needs of the working families.

What do you consider a victory come August if you do not win the primary?

To me a victory is becoming president of the United States, taking the oath of office in January. That’s what a victory is. And right now whether I win or lose, what I want to see is a transformation of the Democratic Party into a grassroots movement which is designed to represent the needs of working people, low-income people, young people, elderly people, rather than having such an extraordinary emphasis on wealthy campaign contributors.

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