RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president again. I sat down with the self-styled Democratic socialist last week in his office on Capitol Hill. It's part of our Opening Arguments series, where we talk with major 2020 contenders about their policy ideas. I started by pointing out the obvious.
You lost the Democratic primary in 2016.
BERNIE SANDERS: So I heard.
MARTIN: News you are no doubt aware of.
MARTIN: But you have won a different kind of victory in that the ideas that you championed during that campaign, they are now part of the mainstream conversation on the left, in particular health care.
SANDERS: Not on the left. They are mainstream for the American people. Virtually all of the ideas that we campaigned on are now supported by a majority of the American people and an overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents.
MARTIN: So if we take the Democratic presidential field, you've got candidates now who sound like Bernie Sanders. So why do you need to run?
SANDERS: (Laughter) Well, maybe the more appropriate question is why do they need to run? (Laughter).
MARTIN: There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party right now who are anxious to see someone who, quite frankly, is not an older white man as their nominee. They are clamoring for a more diverse candidate. They think that that is the person who can most authentically reflect their priorities.
SANDERS: Well, Rachel, what I am hearing - first of all, I mean, all of us agree that we want more diversity in our politics. I campaign very hard for women candidates, for African-American candidates, Latino candidates. But when I hear people - Democrats, independents - talking, what they say mostly is, we desperately must have a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump.
MARTIN: I want to ask about an issue that's found its way into the Democratic primary, and that's a conversation about whether or not the U.S. government should come up with some kind of reparations for slavery. You have made economic justice a foundation of your entire political career.
SANDERS: That's right.
MARTIN: Currently, white families in this country hold 20 times the wealth that black families do. Would you support a reparations plan designed specifically to narrow that gap?
SANDERS: Yeah, but not if it means just the cash payment or a check to families. I would not support that. But what I would support - I am sympathetic to an idea brought forth by Congressman Jim Clyburn. And Clyburn is, as you know, the highest-ranking African-American in the House. And he has what he calls a 10-20-30 plan, which says that 10 percent of federal resources should go to communities that have had 20 percent levels of poverty for 30 years; in other words, the most distressed communities in America.
And that means rebuilding infrastructure. You're making sure that all the kids have decent education opportunities, have health care opportunities. That we lower the rate of incarceration. And I think that will address, in a good way, the disparities that we're seeing in distressed communities, whether they're black, white or Latino.
MARTIN: So you're talking about all kids, all people. But is there something special, unique and exceptional that needs...
SANDERS: Well, when I'm talking about...
MARTIN: ...To happen to right the sin of slavery.
SANDERS: When I am talk - well, you're right. The horrors of slavery are horrors that are impacting African-Americans today, and it must be addressed. But I think if you're looking at the distressed, most distressed communities in this country - which is what Representative Clyburn is talking about - unfortunately, they are often African-American communities, often Latino community, sometimes white communities. But I think what we have got to do is end this massive levels of disparity within a country that is already facing enormous disparity.
But the racial disparity has got to be addressed, and I think focusing on distressed communities, making sure that kids in African-American communities get the quality education that they need, which they're not getting in many cases, is important. Doing away with redlining. You are a small businessman, African-American, you can't get a loan today. There is still segregation in terms of housing opportunities. There is racism in terms of job opportunities. We have got to address institutional racism in every part of American society.
MARTIN: I want to get back to the idea of health care because there are a lot of Americans - Democrats - who think about the idea of a single-payer system, and they're not so sure what that means in practice. And a larger percentage of Republicans who say, this is big government in my life, even if I theoretically agree - and polling reflects this - that I should have better health care, that I should pay lower prices for prescription drugs. The idea of a government-funded single-payer system is off-putting.
SANDERS: Well, it reminds me of - some my colleagues tell me about meetings they went to when they have irate conservatives standing up and says, get the government off of my Medicare. Get the government off of my Social Security. In fact, some of the most popular programs in this country are, quote-unquote, "big government." They are social security.
Try messing with Social Security. People will not be responsive. Try messing with Medicare. Try messing with the Veterans Administration. Veterans feel very positive about that. That's all big government.
MARTIN: Does private insurance go away?
SANDERS: Yes, it does because you're not going to have a need for private insurance when, like other countries, comprehensive health care through a "Medicare for All" program covers all of your basic needs. Now, having said that, if you want cosmetic surgery, yes, there will be a need for, I guess, if people...
MARTIN: No, but you're talking about basic needs. What if you need heart surgery? What if you need chemotherapy?
SANDERS: Well, of course. Yes.
MARTIN: Exceptional clinical trial treatments?
SANDERS: Of course all of that is going to be covered in a comprehensive health care. We're going to be covering more. Right now, I mean, you are - many people are in insurance programs where they can't go to the doctor that they want, that's outside of their network. We give and provide freedom of choice with regard to the doctor you want to go to or the hospital that you want to go. Far more choices, if you like, in a Medicare for All program than in the current system.
MARTIN: We've talked about some of the ways in which you see the role of government in American life. I want to ask about the ways you perceive America's role globally. I mean, right now...
MARTIN: ...The United States is engaged in at least seven major conflicts. Are any of those a good idea?
SANDERS: I am not a great fan. I think if you look at the concept of nation building, the unintended consequences have been horrific, whether you think about the tragedy of Vietnam, which I opposed as a young man, or the war in Iraq, where the Bush administration lied to us, and I was one of the leaders in the House in opposition to that war.
So I think we have to be very, very careful in terms of nation building and our involvement in other country's internal issues. But, you know, obviously, you're going to have to look at every country on a case-by-case basis.
MARTIN: Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from the state of Vermont. He's running as a Democratic presidential hopeful. Senator Sanders, thank you for your time.
SANDERS: Thank you very much, Rachel.
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MARTIN: We spoke with Senator Sanders before the news came out that The Sanders Institute, a think tank tied to Sanders' family, is closing down; this after criticisms of impropriety with his family and his business. We asked the senator's team for a statement on the matter and have not yet heard back.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN'S "KOO KOO CYCO LOCO")
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