The Vermont senator thinks Democrats should punch back on issues like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits and prescription drugs. “Why aren’t Democrats talking about it?” Sanders tells Vanity Fair ahead of an eight-state-swing campaigning for Democratic candidates. “How do you win elections if you don’t talk about those issues?”
Senator Bernie Sanders is annoyed that Republicans are winning the messaging war over the economy.
“It bothers me, bothers me very much that Republicans in poll after poll are actually leading in terms of how people feel each party will respond to the economy, when in fact the Republicans have nothing to say for working families on the economy,” Sanders tells me Monday afternoon. The midterm elections are two weeks away and Democrats, the party Sanders aligns himself with, are at the risk of losing not just control of the House, but also the Senate.
Against this backdrop is a bubbling debate within the party’s ranks—and the pundits around them—about the Democrats’ pitch to voters; will the active and real threats to democracy and the continued assault on women’s reproductive rights draw people to the polls? When Roe v. Wade first fell at the end of June, amid a seemingly never-ending deluge of troubling revelations from the January 6th investigation about Donald Trump and his conspiracy-minded cronies, the hope among Democrats was that they would be. But now, just two weeks out from the election, the Republican Party has regained their edge, according to recent polling. Within the party, the fear is that President Joe Biden’s flagging approval rating and record inflation are albatrosses Democratic candidates might not be able to shake on November 8.
Sanders is among those sounding the alarm. “To my mind, when you have a reactionary Republican Party that is taking huge amounts of money from billionaires, I think we go after them on the economy and contrast our positions,” he said, emphasizing that Democrats should take ownership of the Affordable Care Act, and attack the GOP on wanting to cut Medicare and Social Security (something Kevin McCarthy has said Republicans will do if they win back the House).
Over the next two weeks, the two-time presidential candidate is scheduled to hit eight states—Oregon, California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—in an effort to boost Democratic voter turnout in the final stretch of the election. Ahead of his trip, Vanity Fair spoke with the Vermont senator about the message he thinks Democrats need to adopt to win.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Vanity Fair: I want to talk to you about Democrats’ messaging as we head into the midterms. You’ve been out there stressing the need to focus on the economy. Can you expand on that idea?
Senator Bernie Sanders: This, in my view, is the most consequential midterm election in the modern history of this country. What’s on the line is literally democracy and whether we maintain a democratic form of government. What’s on the line is whether or not we begin to deal effectively with climate change. What’s on the line is a woman’s right to control her own body. But we’re also dealing with some very serious economic issues that have got to be addressed. Okay. The reality right now is that we have inflation of 8%, which means that the vast majority of the workers are falling further behind and Democrats have gotta stand up and understand that and fight for an economy that works for all, not just the few.
It bothers me, bothers me very much that Republicans in poll after poll are actually leading in terms of how people feel each party will respond to the economy, when in fact the Republicans have nothing to say for working families on the economy. Their position on the economy is more tax breaks for billionaires, despite the fact we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality. Their position on social programs is they are quite upfront about saying they want to cut Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.
They are not prepared to raise the minimum wage, not prepared to do paid family and medical leave, not prepared to work on legislation to make it easier for workers to form unions, not prepared to work on universal health care. To my mind, when you have a reactionary Republican Party that is taking huge amounts of money from billionaires, I think we go after them on the economy and contrast our positions.
But to that point, if Republicans don’t really have a message beyond “look at inflation, it is Joe Biden’s fault”—how do you frame a message to counter that, a message that isn’t really there?
Okay, I’ll tell you how you do it. I’ll tell you how you do it. Number one, if inflation in the United Kingdom and in Europe is at 10%, I’m not quite sure that President Biden’s policies have impacted the UK and Europe and other countries around the world. Inflation is a global problem that is worse in other countries than in the United States. Inflation is caused by the breakdown in supply chains because of the pandemic. It is caused by the terrible war in Ukraine. And I’ll tell you what else it is caused by: There are studies now that suggest that half of the price increases in the United States are directly caused by corporate greed.
That is what we are seeing in sector after sector: Corporate profits are soaring at the same time as these corporations are raising prices. At the gas pump, prices are much higher than they should be in order to make sure that these large oil companies enjoy huge profits. The drug companies—huge profits while they’re raising prices on prescription drugs. The food industry—huge profits for the food industry. In fact, for some people who suggest, some studies suggest that 50%—five-zero percent—of inflationary costs in the United States are tied to corporate greed and excessive profits, which is why we need a windfall profit tax. That’s the point the Democrats should be making.
Over the last couple weeks there’s been this talking point some have trotted out—“Stop paying attention to abortion, stop paying attention to these cultural issues—”
No, no, no, no. I don’t think anybody is saying stop paying attention. I certainly am not. Abortion is important. But should it be 80% of your discussion? Or should you start talking about what the American people feel deeply concerned about? Poll after poll says, inflation, economics are at the top of the list of most Americans.
You have seen candidates also take this issue—access to abortion—and frame it as an economic issue. How do you feel about something like the fall of Roe v. Wade and abortion fitting into the economic message that you think Democrats should be pounding home?
Of course it is. Of course it’s an economic issue. But once again, the price of food is an economic issue. It’s an economic issue if you can’t afford your rent. It’s an economic issue if you can’t afford your prescription drugs. It’s an economic issue if you are falling further and further behind because your wage increases are not keeping up with inflation. Of course abortion and Roe v. Wade have a lot to do with economics and what it would mean to poor, lower income women. Of course. But we have got to start talking about the issues that the overwhelming majority of the people are dealing with day after day. You can’t afford rent, you can’t afford to fill up your gas tank, you can’t afford health care, you can’t afford prescription drugs. How do you win elections if you don’t talk about those issues?
Democrats are facing headwinds given that it is midterm election and Democrats are in power. But are there a handful or a few candidates that stand out to you, who are messaging well around a lot of these issues either running for the House or the Senate?
Yeah, I mean there are, I don’t want to go into…there are. I think in the Pennsylvania [Senate race]; [John] Fetterman’s stroke obviously had an impact on the nature of the election in Pennsylvania. But I think Fetterman made it very clear that he was a candidate of the working class, talking about working-class issues, and I think that has worked quite well for him.
Social Security and Medicaid have been major issues that you have focused on throughout your career. It doesn’t seem like they’re a huge part of the conversation right now. Why do you think that is?
That’s a great question and you might want to talk to other people about it. Right now [there are] elderly people who are really struggling, they’re struggling to keep their homes warm in the winter, to buy prescription drugs…very important issues for senior citizens. And yet you’ve got a Republican Party that wants to repeal the estate tax; give a trillion dollars in tax breaks for the top one tenth of the 1%. That’s what they want to do. Give massive tax breaks to the very, very richest people. And then they think we can’t afford to maintain decent policies on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now why aren’t Democrats talking about it? Go out and ask them. I don’t know. I think that’s insane not to be talking about it.
What else do you think people might be missing either in coverage of the midterms or in terms of Democrats’ messaging, more broadly, at this stage in the election?
We’ve got to take ownership of the Affordable Care Act, that’s enormously consequential. [Then] remind people that in the midst of the terrible pandemic and the terrible economic downturn, in the beginning of ’21, Democrats got $1,400 a person, we extended unemployment. We made sure that hospitals did not collapse and that local and state governments were able to maintain their workforce. Nothing to be ashamed about that. We should be proud of what we have accomplished.
The other thing is, I think we have to be honest that there are at least two corporate Democrats who were not prepared to support Build Back Better, which was an enormously popular piece of legislation. We can’t hide that. We couldn’t do that because of two corporate Democrats. And then you have to make it clear, that’s why we need to have at least 52 Democrats in the Senate so that we can pass significant pieces of legislation for working people. Should we make childcare affordable? Yes. Should we expand Medicare, recover dental hearing and eyeglasses? Yes. Should we build affordable housing? Yes. That is what the American people want. And unfortunately we have two Democrats who are not supportive of that. Democrats shouldn’t run away from that issue—be honest with the American people.
Senator, is there anything else you’d like to add while I have you on the phone?
I would just like to say that I understand that because of all of the crises that we’re facing right now—this is a very, very difficult time, a lot of people feel overwhelmed because Democrats are not doing as much as they should be. People are saying, “Why should I go out and vote? It doesn’t matter.” And the answer is it does matter big time. Yes, Democrats are not doing everything they should. No debate about that. But Republicans are going to move this country in a radically right-wing direction in terms of women’s rights, in terms of climate, in terms of democracy, in terms of the fundamental economic needs of working families. So you’ve got to get out and vote, if not for yourselves, vote for your kids, vote for your grandchildren. This is an enormously important election. We don’t have the right to sit it out.