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Bernie Sanders wants to see a dramatically bolder response to the coronavirus pandemic. He wants to open up a deeper debate about the perils of unfettered capitalism. He wishes he could do this on the campaign trail, as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination—holding the huge rallies and grassroots mobilizations that characterized his 2016 bid and the first part of his 2020 run.
Instead, he is hunkered down in his study in Burlington, Vermont, full of ideas, full of energy. He is, like so many Americans, frustrated by the need for isolation and social distancing. But he still has a phone.
The senator and I spoke for the better part of two hours on the evening of April 1. This was a reasonably open-ended conversation that touched on many topics—including his sense of the transformational moment in which the United States finds itself, his certainty that the government must respond far more boldly to the public health and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the ways in which he is assessing his campaign amid calls for him to quit the race and calls for him to continue. He even described what he’s doing during lockdown. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
John Nichols: Let’s begin by putting things in perspective. What’s your sense of where things stand today?
Bernie Sanders: At this particular moment, we are entering into the most frightening and dangerous period in the modern history of this country—certainly in my lifetime.
We are looking at a global pandemic with Covid-19. We do not know how many people will die in America, but the numbers could be in the hundreds of thousands. We don’t know how many people will be infected, but it will certainly be many, many millions.
There are estimates that there may be as many as 30 to 40 million people, maybe more, losing their jobs. Last week, the number of unemployment applications was the highest, by far, since records have been kept. This week may be even higher.
So you’re looking at an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Going back to the Great Depression, as a comparison, unemployment may actually be higher in this crisis than it was in the 1930s. And we’re looking simultaneously at a massive health care crisis, which could kill hundreds of thousands of people and absolutely disrupt our way of life for all people, including those who are not infected. That’s what we’re looking at.
JN: Beyond the immediate questions that the crisis raises, do you think that there are deeper issues that Americans are now wrestling with?
BS: No one is to blame, not even Donald Trump, for the coronavirus. But the question that we have to ask ourselves is how we, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, find ourselves in such a fragile situation as the crisis and the pandemic scenario reveal. How does it happen that 87 million people are uninsured or underinsured, meaning that there are millions of people who today are hesitant about going to the doctor’s office because they are afraid of the cost that might be involved?
It turns out that the recent stimulus package provided coverage for the cost of the test but not for the treatment. You’ve got people who are going to work today who may well have symptoms of Covid-19, but they have to go to work because they don’t have any paid family or medical leave. How does that happen in the richest country in the history of the world?
Then, furthermore, today—literally today, which is April 1—there are millions of people who are unable to pay their rent, pay their mortgages, pay their credit cards, pay their automobile loans, and they are frightened about what happens to their credit ratings. They’re frightened whether or not they’re going to get evicted, whether they’re going to lose their homes.
JN: Does this moment vindicate some of what you were talking about over the years that was called radical?
BS: I think that what this crisis does is rip away the Band-Aid and say, “Hey, this is the reality.” And the reality is today that there are people going to work in dangerous jobs where they could catch the virus because they have to go to work. They’re making $12 an hour, and they’re scared to death about working in that grocery store or the drugstore or wherever they’re working, but they have to do it. And while rich folks are heading out to their second or third homes, these people are putting their lives on the line in order to take care of their families.
JN: You’re a democratic socialist, and one of the characteristics of democratic socialism as it’s practiced, especially in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia and Germany, is planning. I wonder if you could just take a moment to talk about planning as something that’s underestimated in America.
BS: I think that’s a very valid point. It’s not only planning, but it is priorities.
I would hope that, in this moment, we begin to rethink this current value system that says everybody is in it for themselves and someday you, too, if you cheat and steal and act like a Donald Trump, someday you, too, can be a billionaire.
Now, to do that [rethink], though, requires what you’re talking about. It requires a level of planning, and that is to ask ourselves, “OK, how do we create a health care system that guarantees quality care for all?” Including in rural areas, including in urban areas—the principle being that we treat all people equally and provide all people with the quality care that they deserve and the affordable medicine that they deserve and that we have a public health system. We have to plan for a public health system that works as hard and effectively as it can in terms of disease prevention.
We have to plan for pandemics. Does anybody believe that this is the last pandemic this planet is going to see? Nobody believes that. Clearly, in this country at least, we were totally unprepared for it, and that speaks to poor planning, to say the least.
JN: You’re talking about governance based on values.
BS: That is precisely what I’m talking about. To plan, the question is what are you planning for? You can plan for nuclear war, right? You can plan for tax breaks for billionaires, you know? You can plan for a lot of things.
But you’ve got to know what the hell you’re planning for and have a strong set of principles to begin the planning.
JN: Unfortunately, now we face an immediate crisis. How do we get through the hell we’re in right now? How do we get to the point where we can actually begin to plan for the future?
BS: We’re working on it in two ways. No. 1, God knows that the bill passed [in late March by Congress] is not the bill that I or the progressives would have wished. Among other severe deficiencies, it provides $500 billion to Trump’s administration to be able to allocate to their friends in the corporate world.
The good part, you know, I think, is that we did manage to get a lot of money out in terms of expanding unemployment in a way that hadn’t been done before. Not only will people be getting $600 more than the usual unemployment check, but we expanded it to many workers who were not eligible for unemployment. It’s not enough money, but most of the adults in this country will get $1,200. Children will get $500. There’s a lot of money to prop up small businesses, loans that can be forgiven if they hang on to their employees. There’s a model program that didn’t get a lot of attention, but the airline industry is going to get a significant amount of money to go directly to their employees to protect their families.
What we have to do is to make sure, first of all, that the good provisions in this bill get out to the American people as quickly as possible. You don’t want the bureaucracy hanging it up. You don’t want people not getting what they’re entitled to. So this last week, I’ve been on the phone, very active in this effort to speak to the secretary of labor and the head of the Small Business Administration to make it clear that people get what they are entitled to.
So that’s No. 1. No. 2, what was in that bill is not enough, and we need as quickly as possible, certainly within the next month, to have another piece of legislation to address the growing economic crisis of massive unemployment and more and more people losing their health insurance.
JN: How do you address that issue in immediate terms?
BS: One of the things that we’re not talking about is that when people lose their jobs, they’re losing their health insurance as well. So what we have got to do, I think, is what a number of other countries are doing—Norway is doing it, the UK is doing it, Denmark is doing it—and that is to say to employers, “If you do not fire your employees, we will cover the cost of your payroll.” That’s a radical step, and it will be expensive, but it means that we will do for all workers what we have done for workers in the airline industry, and that is—at least for four months—guarantee their pay even if they are at home not working.
JN: There’s more to what you are proposing.
BS: Yes, there’s a second point. I understand that what Canada is doing now is providing $2,000 a month per person, which is something I’ve wanted for the US. I fought for that. We ended up getting a one-shot $1,200, which is not enough. I think we have got to make sure that in this crisis, people who are self-employed can make it. And we have to make sure they get health care.
Obviously, I am a strong proponent of Medicare for All. You’re not going to get it in a crisis, you’re not going to get it in an economic bill. But what we can do and should do is to say to every American, “During the crisis, you will no longer have to pay out-of-pocket expenses. If you have no health insurance, you will get Medicare. If you are underinsured, Medicare will cover all of your out-of-pocket expenses. If you have private insurance and you have a deductible and you have copayments and out-of-pocket expenses, Medicare will cover that as well.”
So what it is is using Medicare to either cover or supplement all of the insurance programs in this country—the bottom line being that, in this crisis, people should not have to take money out of their pockets for health care.
JN: What are some of the other initiatives you are looking at?
BS: We need to substantially increase funding for cities and states. With the decline in revenue, states and cities are going to be very, very hard-pressed to be able to provide the services that they need to in the crisis. A lot is falling on them. You’ve got police officers and EMT folks who are coming down with the virus, and you’ve got to make sure that cities and states can go forward. And one of the advantages of having Medicare cover the uninsured is that you will take the burden of increased Medicaid costs off the backs of the states.
We also, of course, have got to utilize the Defense Production Act in ways that Trump, for whatever reason, has chosen not to do. That means if we have needs right now, whether they’re for protective equipment for our medical personnel, whether it’s gloves or gowns or masks or whatever it may be, ventilators obviously, we must use the Defense Production Act and tell parts of the private sector they must, in this emergency, produce the products we need, and they will be well compensated.
What we have got to also do—and I worry about this very much—is make sure that everybody in this country has food. It is frighteningly clear to me that today people aren’t feeling confident that they’re going to be able to feed their families. It’s difficult. This is more than the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], because you aren’t asking—in many parts of the country, it might be dangerous to walk into a grocery store, so how do you get food to people? Well, you know, maybe having the National Guard deliver groceries to certain families door-to-door.
JN: Let’s talk about the 2020 presidential campaign. You have said repeatedly in recent interviews and conversations that you are “assessing your campaign.” What does that mean?
BS: Our campaign is different from other campaigns in the sense that, as we’ve said during the campaign, it is not just about me. Obviously, I make the final decision about where we go. But I don’t make it alone.
Now, to be very honest with you, I am reasonably good at arithmetic, and I understand that we are 300 or so delegates behind [Joe] Biden—I think 1,200 to 900, give or take a few—and that our path to victory would be very narrow. I understand also that at least a dozen states have delayed their primaries. And I also understand, believe me, that the nature of campaigning—and this has been very, very painful—has radically changed. It’s changed for Biden. It’s changed for me.
I love to do rallies, and trust me, if this was a normal time, I might very well be in Madison, Wisconsin, tonight, or someplace else in Wisconsin, probably going all over your state and doing rallies, and we would have thousands and thousands of great volunteers going out knocking on doors throughout the state of Wisconsin. We’re not doing that now. We don’t want them to do that. We don’t want them to endanger their health.
So you have a campaign which is put—you know, it’s not just true for me, it’s true for Biden—in the rather strange position of having to campaign via the Internet, via social media, via livestream, and we’re doing that. Every night or every other night, we do livestreams. We just did one a couple nights ago. And we have very good viewership. Just the last one we did, I think we had like 2 million [people join in]. We did one with Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez] where she helped and Ilhan [Omar], which had over 2 million people, which is really quite good. But it becomes a very, very different campaign and one that curtails in significant ways what you can do.
So to answer your question, the bottom line is that there are people within our movement who say, “Look, you know, it’s probably a good idea to sit down with Biden and try to work something out.” There are other people who say, “You know, you’ve got to fight this to the last vote in the convention.” God knows what the convention will look like, you know? It’s not going to probably be a real convention. It’ll be a virtual convention. And the argument there is that, more than ever, we need a voice, especially in this terrible moment in American history, that goes outside of the box and redefines the role of government in our society. And a campaign—winning or losing—is a means to do that.
So I’m hearing from people [with different perspectives on whether to continue], and we’re kind of working on it as best we can.
JN: But it is your anticipation now that you will continue?
BS: As of today, we are in the race. But that’s what I mean by “assessing.” We are listening to our people, and you know, we’ve got to make the best decision that we can. That’s all. It’s an awkward position, and that’s why I use the word “assessing.” Believe me, we are spending a lot of time talking to people, trying to get my supporters’ perspective on what is the best path forward.
JN: Is it hard for you to reconcile that whole challenge of the campaign with this incredible Covid-19 crisis and your obvious desire to identify responses—talking about the German model, the British model, for making people whole in employment. Is it difficult to do that?
BS: This is the moment in which bold ideas must be brought forth, and I believe absolutely that the American people are ready for these bold ideas. And yet the irony of all ironies is that it is hard to do that because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Would I love to be in Madison tonight talking to 15,000 people about exactly where we are about to go, given the economic crisis? I think it’s enormously important that we do that. People are starting to raise these issues, challenging the basic precept of American unfettered capitalism. And yet I am sitting in my study here in Burlington, Vermont, unable to go out and talk about it with people. We can’t bring thousands of people together at rallies. We can’t bring tens of people together because of the health crisis.
So, yes, it is enormously frustrating that—I mean, if you had the economic crisis alone, then I’d be there. But I can’t be there, given the pandemic that we’re experiencing right now. So is it frustrating? It is enormously frustrating.
JN: What are you doing with your days? I know you’re doing policy discussions and thinking about the campaign and all that. But you’re sheltering. You’re in this interesting situation of probably being at home more than you have been for most of your life, and that’s what a lot of Americans are going through. So can you just give me a quick sense of what it’s like?
BS: Well, it’s admittedly very strange. I have never spent this much time in my house as Jane and I are doing right now.
It is painful because I have seven grandchildren—four of them are right here in the city of Burlington, three are a couple of valleys down the road in Claremont, New Hampshire—and I can’t see them. I mean, they come over to the backyard, and we kick a soccer ball around. I talk to them on the phone. But I can’t touch them. I can’t be close to them. And on a personal level, that is very, very painful.
With my kids as well. I talk to the kids. They come to the front door, and they’re very kind and they’ve been delivering some groceries and some baked goods, and they’ve been great and very supportive of their parents. But on a personal level, it is very painful.
I’ve had a very few people come into the house to do the livestream. So I have one or two people coming in and, you know, I have to treat them in a strange way. They stay in another room and so forth. So all of that is very strange.
I like to be around people. I’m not a great fan of the telephone. I’d rather talk to you in person in my office or in the house or a coffeehouse someplace and not on the phone. And I spend an enormous amount of time now on the telephone.
What this moment requires is a kind of discipline, which is not so easy. I try to go out and walk every day and get at least my half-hour [of exercise] in. You know, you’re trying to sleep well, get enough sleep, in this very strange environment, to do everything we can to maintain our health, above and beyond not getting the virus, and to keep talking to people and keep being hopeful and positive. But it is a very frightening and distressing moment.
JN: Are you reading anything? Have you got any books on the table?
BS: I am studying, not reading books. I’m trying to understand more about these pandemics, reading a little bit about that, you know, trying to understand when this goddamn thing ends. You know, [it’s not quite] clear to me. I was expecting a call tonight from one of the leading scientists in the government to help me out on that. I’m reading and reaching out to the best economists that I can and others.
But all in all, I would not be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that, on a personal level, I think this is as difficult for me as it is for tens of millions of other Americans. People want to go to work. They want to be around their family. They want to be with their coworkers. They want to be productive.
I’m in the midst of a campaign and working as a United States senator. I was in the Senate last week voting on the bill. But even then, you’ve got to get in, you’ve got to get out without seeing people. I mean, it’s totally different. You use a handkerchief when you open a doorknob in the Capitol, you know? Look, it’s not just me. It’s a weird and painful experience for me, as it is for everybody in America.
So we’re all going through this thing together, and we’ve all got to do everything we possibly can to get out of this as quickly as we can and to do everything we can to make sure that this never happens again—that we’re better prepared for a pandemic and we’re better prepared for an economic downturn. That’s it.