I was watching Charlie Rose on Wednesday night during the GOP confab, when Senator Orrin Hatch appeared and took this recurring shot used by the Republican attack dogs: “In all honesty the two Democrats are very fine people but they both are extremely left. They are both to the left of Bernie Sanders, who is the socialist from Vermont, if that doesn’t tell you something I don’t know what does. If you use the term liberal it really means something here.”

What does it mean exactly Orrin? Nothing like a little tried and true red-baiting to distract attention from the issues and distort people’s records. This isn’t the first time the line has been used either – it’s been used by Pat Buchanan, Bill Bennett, Haley Barbour and Candidate McCainhimself.

I had a conversation last week with Senator Bernie Sanders – the only true Independent in the Senate (in contrast to Joe Lieberman whose “independence” is a matter of political expedience) – about what he makes of this tactic, his own political values, and how the 2008 campaign is playing out.

Q: So, tell me what you think about this GOP line of attack, you know, that ‘Obama and Biden are to the left of the socialist from Vermont’?

A: Well, that started a couple months ago with McCain himself, and then it’s picked up a number of front people, and that’s what it is – it’s what the Republicans do very well. It’s dishonesty, it’s part of their fearmongering, and it’s directly part of a red-baiting effort. Obviously, I should say that as somebody who is strongly supporting Obama and Biden – both of them are good friends of mine, I like them both very much… But the truth of the matter is, for better or worse – whatever the word “liberal” might mean, I don’t exactly know what that word means – they are not more liberal than I am.

And as you know, where all of this comes from, is it comes from a tally by National Journal which tabulated some votes and reached their conclusion. Interestingly enough, do you recall who the most liberal Senator was four years ago? It was John Kerry. I think just on the surface most people would not have believed that four years ago Kerry was the most liberal person in the Senate, and I don’t think anybody really believes that Obama is in the Senate today. Generally speaking, people would think that Kennedy, Boxer, Feingold, Brown, Harkin, myself… on almost all the issues would be far more progressive than Obama or Biden.

But, for the record, if we talk about – deal with the whole issue of what does it mean to be progressive? What does it mean to be liberal? How do you determine that? That’s not easy stuff, that’s pretty subjective. But just, for the record, I have the strongest pro-worker voting record in the United States Congress. After 18 years it’s a 100% record. I doubt very much that Obama or Biden’s environmental record, or record on consumer issues, or women’s rights – you know, mine is in most cases 100%. So I think the more important issue is not tabulating votes because most of the votes that take place in the Senate or for that matter in the House, they deal with pretty perfunctory stuff. What is the liberal voting position on an assistant secretary of commerce? Or some process issue? So many of these votes don’t mean a helluva lot. But, as it happens if you look at people who have the most anti-Bush voting record in the United States Senate, that’s me, it’s not Obama and it’s not Biden.

More importantly, getting beyond votes, because most of the votes don’t really get to the heart of what one believes philosophically or politically. I mean, if you ask for hard questions regarding the kinds of legislation that we introduce, the kind of fights that we are struggling for… I think on economics, if the struggle is for a more egalitarian society which says that there’s something wrong with the richest 1% owning more wealth than the bottom 90%, well this is something that I have been fighting for – a more egalitarian society for my whole political life, I’m not quite sure that you’re hearing Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden speaking out on those issues. On the issues of healthcare, you know I believe in a single payer national healthcare system. Certainly Obama and Biden do not. I’ve introduced the strongest global warming legislation – which, by the way, both Obama and Biden are on [as cosponsors]. The bottom line is that both Obama and Biden are very decent people. I think that they are gonna turn this country in a very different direction from where Bush has led us. I am strongly supporting them. But to suggest that they are quote-unquote “socialists” is totally absurd and part of the scare tactics of the Republicans. I think their worldview is certainly not socialist, it is solidly liberal, which I think is a helluva lot better than the right-wing extremism we have in the White House right now.

Q: As far as this redbating goes, what do you think Republicans are trying to scare people about – about you?

A: First of all, is they assume that when people hear the word socialist what they are talking about is the Soviet Union and communism. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders wants to renegotiate permanent normal trade relations with China – and George Bush just loves it by the way, and corporate America loves and is very proud of investing tens of billions of dollars in China, rather than in the United States, which is an interesting irony. And the Chamber of Commerce is very upset that the Chinese government wants to liberalize labor law in China, interestingly enough. You know, clearly what they are trying to do is what they always do, is confuse the social democratic policies which have been very successful in countries like Finland, Denmark, Sweden, other European countries – which guarantee healthcare to all people through a national healthcare program; which make sure that preschool education is available to all working families regardless of income; where in most cases college education is free or very inexpensive; where workers have more vacation time than they do in the United States; where unions are stronger… So, instead of looking at what goes on in some of the social democratic countries, which have virtually eliminated childhood poverty, while we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world – instead of looking at those policies, what they do is say, “This is socialism.” Socialism we equate with communism, or authoritarianism, and lack of democracy. So, it’s not a new tactic, it’s been going on for about 40 or 50 years.

Q: So, I think it wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that those things that you’re standing for – probably are things that at this point most Americans want?

A: Exactly. And you know, The Nation was there at that town meeting we had with the Finnish Ambassador. If you tell the American people, “What do you think about making sure that we can have free preschool education for all kids in this country, rather than the desperate situation that working families are in right now?” What do you think people would say? I think they would be for it. What do you think about a national healthcare program guaranteeing healthcare to all people? People would be for that. What about free or virtually free college education? People would be for that. What about a more progressive tax system which asks the wealthy and large corporations to pay their fair share? People would be for that. What about investing in sustainable energy rather than giving tax breaks to oil companies? People would be for that. But, you know, obviously the Republican tactic is to simply use the word “socialist” which they have equated for years with authoritarian communism and Stalinism, and hope that that works and that’s what this tactic is about.

Q: What do you think about the charges of elitism? You know, they say Obama is an elitist, Biden is an elitist… you probably….?

A: I’m an elitist, right. Uhm… the wealthiest people in this country – and candidates like McCain – who own 10 homes and are worth tens of millions of dollars, are not elitist… People like McCain who receive more funding from the oil companies and have as their advisors the heads of large multinational corporations are not elitists… But young people who grow up in middle class or lower-middle class families who work their way through college, are somehow elitist. Literally – alright – the truth is that once again what the Republicans are very good at is spin. And [they] are able to turn around the reality that the big money interests in this country, that the largest corporations, that the real economic and political elite of this country are working overtime in support of the McCain ticket, while working families and unions and lower-income organizations are desperately trying to elect Obama and Biden.

Q: And why do you think they are so good and so successful at their spin? Because you’d think we’d all have seen through it by now….

A: Well, for example, I watched the Republican convention for the last two nights and what is absolutely astounding is – and what they do very well – is they take advantage of the lack of political consciousness in this country. The media does an atrocious job in reporting what goes on and why it goes on, and then they take advantage of [it]. So they have the absolute temerity to announce as McCain’s campaign manager said the other day, ” This election is not about issues.” I mean, that is just an absolutely astounding remark – it’s about personality. And what they have successfully done is made politics into a soap opera, or an academy award ceremony, or a football game. “Who do you think is gonna win the Super Bowl and why? Who do you think is gonna become President and why? How do they figure out who can win Virginia?” Rather than saying what are the problems facing America and how do we solve those problems? They don’t even choose to engage in that debate because in truth they have nothing substantive to say other than 4 more years of Bush policies which clearly have been a disaster. So then the debate becomes about – “Was John McCain a heroic and brave person while he served in a prison camp in Vietnam?” The answer is yes, and that should be enough for you to elect him President. We don’t have to know his views on the economy, on healthcare, on global warming, on foreign policy, that’s not relevant. It’s just whether or not he was a brave person in captivity and that’s all that we should know, and that’s what this campaign should be about. And, I think, you know unfortunately we see this every day and they have managed to deflect attention away from real issues and make politics into a personality contest and often they do well in that approach because we don’t talk about real issues and real solutions.

Q: Right. And the mainstream media’s not forcing that conversation….

A: It sure is not. So, I listened last night – the middle class in America is in a state of collapse, there was not a minute of discussion about that reality and how Bush’s policies have contributed to that. [The gap] between the rich and everybody else is wider than since the 1920s – no discussion. 7 million more Americans have lost their health insurance since Bush has been President – no discussion. We are trailing virtually the entire world in addressing global warming because of Bush’s policies – no discussion. Our standing around the world is lower now than it has been in the modern history of America – no discussion. So they managed not to discuss the real issues, talk about over and over again the suffering of John McCain in the POW camp, and want that to be the major issue of this campaign.

Q: Right. Is there anything else on your mind you want to add?

A: The other thing that I would say about the Republican convention is four years ago the same exact cast of characters – the Republican leadership – were telling us how absolutely imperative it was to reelect George Bush and Dick Cheney. And now they do not even allow Bush to be on primetime television, and they send Cheney off to the Ukraine or Georgia. His name has not been mentioned. Meanwhile, the policies that they’re advocating are exactly the same. I think the antidote for what they are doing is simply to keep banging away at the real problems facing the American people, the Bush record and the degree to which McCain will be emulating those policies, and to actively engage working people and young people in the political process.

Also, what we have got to do is understand that politics is not just 30 second TV ads. We have got to do a helluva lot better job in political education than we have done over recent years. Not just through the campaign – but after the campaign. Rush Limbaugh is campaigning, and Sean Hannity, and Fox television, and much of network news are engaged in politics 365 days a year. And [progressives] have not done that. And it pains me very much that we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on 30 second ads, and yet at the end of the day, probably a majority of Americans don’t even know who their member of Congress is or what they are doing in Washington. We need to engage in an ongoing effort to educate the American people about what is going on in this country, why it is going on, how the United States compares to many other countries in terms of healthcare, in terms of the well-being of the middle class, the well-being of our kids… which most Americans don’t know. So that these guys are able to get up and say, “The United States has the strongest economy in the world.” Well, we don’t for the middle class. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty. We’re the only [industrialized] country without a national healthcare program, etc., etc. So we need to engage – and I know The Nation, of course, is one of the institutions that tries to do it. But we’ve got to greatly amplify that effort. I think progressives are beginning to catch onto that understanding, but we’ve got a long way to go.