Borg: Bernie Sanders represents Vermont in the United States Senate, beginning in 2007 and re-elected to a current term ending in 2019. But Senator Sanders may be considering the presidency. He's familiar with political campaigning and he's had his share of disappointments. Running as a third party candidate, twice losing a bid for the U.S. Senate during the 1970s and three times seeking to be Vermont's governor but winning eight terms in the U.S.  House of Representatives before moving to the Senate where he is currently serving. Senator Sanders, welcome to Iowa Press.

Sanders: Thank you very much.

Borg: And I didn't mention being a mayor in a municipality.

Sanders: That's correct, the city of Burlington and also the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.

Borg: We'll let you get the commercial in, thank you. And across the table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator, you have said that you will run for president if you sense a political revolution brewing in the country. What are the measurements you're looking for to judge whether that is happening?

Sanders: Look, I think everybody understands today that our middle class is disappearing and the gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is growing wider. If we're going to be successful in taking on the billionaire class, and that means Wall Street and the insurance companies and the drug companies and military industrial complex, that's a pretty tough fight because these guys have an enormous amount of power. If I run for president I want to do it well and to do it well means to say you need a strong, grassroots movement of people from 50 states in this country. And I have to determine, and will determine, whether or not there is that type of support for a campaign against the billionaire class.

Henderson: That's difficult for an independent to do.

Sanders: It's difficult for anybody to do. Look, I mean there are some people, to be honest with you, Kay, who believe that in a sense the horse is out of the barn, that these guys have so much power. If you go to Washington D.D. and you see the power of the lobbyists, you see these people with all of their campaign contributions, I think the average person says, you know what, who cares about the middle class, who cares about working families, these guys are just too powerful. That may be the case. But what I want to ascertain is whether or not there is the support to say government has got to start working for ordinary people and not just for billionaires.

Obradovich: We've talked about whether you might actually become a democrat and run for the democratic nomination, which of course would include then the Iowa caucuses. And you hadn't made up a decision on what you’re going to do. But why not become a democrat?

Sanders: Well, it's a tough decision for me because as I mentioned to Dean I am the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress, I have always won as an independent in the state of Vermont. Furthermore, I think it's fair to say that there is an enormous amount of anger and frustration against the two party system. I think people see, in most parts of the country, the Republican Party having moved very far to the right, the Democratic Party not doing what it should do in terms of representing ordinary Americans. So, being an independent has many advantages. Many people will say to you oh you're not a democrat, you're not a republican, that's great. But on the other hand, from a political perspective, as you have just implied, running as an independent outside of the two party system means to say you have to set up a political infrastructure in 50 states in America. I happen not to be a billionaire. That's pretty hard to do. So that's kind of what I'm weighing.

Obradovich: Well, democrats seem to be very upset with President Obama and the current administration. Why do you think that is, first of all? And secondly, how could you address that and do something different?

Sanders: I think what most people democrats perceive is that for the last 40 years the middle class has been disappearing. And what I mean by that is since 1999, for example, median family income, that's the family right in the middle of the economy, their income has gone down by $5,000. Male workers are making $700 less in real dollars than they made 41 years ago. So people are working longer hours for low wages and they're saying, what's happening to me, what's happening to my kids. Meanwhile, all of the income is going to the people, 95% all new income goes to the people on top. So I think to answer your question, when people are saying what is government doing? What is the President doing? Is he standing up to the billionaire class? Is he preventing jobs going from China that used to be in Iowa or in Vermont? Do we have a minimum wage which is a living wage? Do we have pay equity? Are we rebuilding our infrastructure? Can kids afford to go to college?

Obradovich: These are all issues that Obama talks about all the time. Are you saying it's just that he has not been able to do enough?

Sanders: Well, there are a lot of reasons why, would probably take more time than we have here. The republican obstructionism in the Senate has been unbelievable, the amount of filibusters. We have tried to raise -- in the Senate a majority of us voted to raise the minimum wage, couldn't overcome the filibuster. We voted for pay equity for women workers, couldn't overcome a republican filibuster. But here's my point and this is what I have said publicly and repeat here, no president no matter how brilliant, great, wonderful he or she may be, will be able to stand up effectively for the middle class, take on the billionaire class, unless there is a grassroots movement. If millions and millions of people would say to Wall Street, sorry guys, you can't have it all, say to the drug companies you can't charge us the highest prices in the world. No president can do it alone, to Congress can do it alone. You need the active participation of the American public.

Borg: Is that fervor beginning right now?

Sanders: That is what I'm trying to ascertain. Look, on the other hand, we just came from an election, republicans won big but I think the even bigger story, 63% of the people didn't vote. 80% of young people don't vote. People are demoralized, they're working really hard, they're worried about their kids, they don't see government doing anything. Whether there is that kind of excitement and willingness to take on the big money interest, that's trying, that's what I'm trying to ascertain.

Henderson: There is another United States Senator who is talking about the issues which you have talked about and that is Elizabeth Warren. If she were to run would you stand aside?

Sanders: Well, I don't want to get involved in hypotheticals. I have known Elizabeth Warren for many, many years. Senator Warren is doing a great job in the United States Senate. She and I really see eye-to-eye on many, many issues. But I don't want to get involved in that.

Henderson: Should she run?

Sanders: You know what, I'll get you her phone number. Give her a ring.

Henderson: Jeb Bush this week made it clear that he plans to run. Hillary Clinton is laying plans to run. In an atmosphere in which maybe you have a Bush versus a Clinton in a general election in 2016 does that make it more likely or less likely that an independent or third party candidate could be successful in that kind of scenario?

Sanders: Well I think what you’re asking is, you know, are the American people content with seeing ruling families continue running for president or being in the White House? My dad wasn't president, he was just a paint salesman who never made a whole lot of money. So maybe that is an advantage when you have two powerful families who are thinking about gaining office.

Obradovich: How do you create a viable, independent campaign in all 50 states given that really the political system is stacked very heavily toward the two party system? The money, the rules in 50 states, it's very, very difficult for an independent candidate --

Sanders: It is very difficult and I have been told, I'm not an expert on this, that there are some states where the system is so rigged in favor of the two party system but it's almost impossible to get on the ballot. And that is one of the issues that we have to consider. But this is what I will say, I think there is a great deal of anger in this country, both among Tea Party people on the right and Occupy Wall Street people on the left who are asking very simple questions. We have seen a huge increase in productivity. Every worker in America is producing more. Why is that worker earning less? How does it happen that the United States has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country? One family, the Walton family that owns Wal-Mart, they own more wealth than the bottom 40% of the American people. And as a result of Citizens United the billionaire class can now buy elections, put huge -- I know here in Iowa you have experienced what money can do in terms of TV ads. These guys have an endless supply of money. So I think what all over the country people are saying maybe enough is enough, maybe we want to restore the middle class and restore American democracy.

Obradovich: The other concern when we talk to voters in Iowa about independent candidates is they're worried that essentially whatever votes that person gets will be taken away from the democratic nominee, you throw the race to republicans and they see that as an unacceptable outcome. How do you get over that as an independent?

Sanders: Well I did, in the state of Vermont I remember when I, the first time I ran for the United States Congress, people said oh Bernie don't run, you're going to be a spoiler because the word you're looking at. And it turns out that I got a lot more votes than the democrat. The next time I ran the democrats chose not to put a strong candidate in and I won by 16 points. But you raise one of the issues that we have to deal with is right now we're living in very uncertain political times. There's a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, people are very unhappy with the two party system. But you raised the question about how you can do it outside of the two party system, which is what I'm wrestling with.

Borg: Well what do you see as the alternative that's going to happen? If it's too difficult to establish a third party or independent structure and you say you can't do it, you're not a billionaire to do it in all the 50 states, then is the alternative that people, as you have already intimated, just won't go to the polls, they're disgusted.

Sanders: Well, this is what I think. Again, I think the major lesson of this last campaign is 63% of the people don't vote. I think unless people have a reason to believe that the pain they are feeling today, that they're working longer hours for low wages, people worried about their kids, if they don't believe that people are going to fight for the middle class and working families I think you are going to see a very low turnout in the next presidential election.

Henderson: Do those 63% of people believe in your vision for government?

Sanders: Only 62.8% of them. Of course they don't, but many do, by the way, but many do not. But I think what we have right now for a variety of reasons is people's, the reality of people's -- what is the reality of people's lives today? People are working, in many cases, longer hours for lower wages, people are terribly worried about their kids. Are their kids going to have decent jobs? Are their kids going to have a decent home to live in? We're seeing young people who have large college debt, they're delaying marriage, not having children. Why? 45 years ago in America we had great public universities. Do you know what tuition was? It was free. Today families can't afford to send their kids to college. Why does that happen? How does it happen again that 95% of all new income generated goes to the top 1%? Does anybody think that's what the American economy is supposed to be about? And what I would argue, Kay, is that what you’re looking at -- I'm one of the few people who will talk about this, you're looking at unbelievable greed and power on the part of the billionaire class. These guys want it all and they want to push down working -- they want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, that is what they want to do. I'm going to do everything I can to stop them. That's what we're up against.

Henderson: The last time anything meaningful at the federal government level was done against monopolies was during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Is that kind of atmosphere, is that the atmosphere you see being created? Or would Congress every countenance that kind of action from an activist president?

Sanders: You're asking a very interesting question. Theodore Roosevelt was a good republican. He was a good republican. We're talking about over 100 years ago. And Theodore Roosevelt had the guts to say that the American economy cannot survive when you have so few that own so much. And here we are right now, over 100 years later, with a concentration of ownership on Wall Street and elsewhere is maybe even worse than it was back then. And you asked the question, does Congress have the guts? And probably not. I do. I will, I have said publicly, let me say it again. You have six financial institutions on Wall Street that have assets equivalent to 60% of the GDP of the United States of America. They are not only too big to fail, they are too big to jail, they're a bunch of crooks who run those institutions, they have got to be broken up, broken up.

Obradovich: You talk about breaking up banks, but if Congress wouldn't do it after the big crash, why would we think that they would do it now?

Sanders: They wouldn't but the American people will, which gets back to the point I made earlier. Look, let me, again, tell you what most of your guests will not tell you. Some bad news. Are you ready for this? Big money, to a very significant degree, owns and controls what goes on in the United States Congress. You may have seen last week in the appropriations bill that there was a provision put in repealing language which protects the American taxpayers from another bailout of Washington. Who do you think put that in? You think the farmers of Iowa put that in? I don't think so. That was what Wall Street does. They are enormously powerful. So you're asking me, what you're really asking me is can these guys be defeated? And the answer is maybe they can't, maybe they are too powerful. I will try.

Obradovich: The other concern that comes up when we start talking about breaking up the power and influence of big corporations, Wall Street, etcetera, is that power and influence will essentially be replaced by an overreaching, too powerful government. How do you address those concerns? You call yourself a Socialist and --

Sanders: Democratic Socialist.

Obradovich: Democratic Socialist. So how do you address those fears that essentially government will just rush in to fill any sort of power back in?

Sanders: In terms of Wall Street, for example, you have six financial institutions that have assets of almost $10 trillion dollars, equivalent to 60% of the GDP. If you break them up what you will do is start getting financial institutions to lend money to small and medium sized businesses who actually can provide goods and services and create jobs. That is what we have got to do. In terms of the role of government, I'll give you an example of what I believe. I think our trade policies, NAFTA, CAFTA, permanent normal trade relations with China have been an absolute disaster. I think we have got to use the government to say sorry American companies can't shut down here, move to China and bring their products back. We need to rebuild manufacturing in America.

Henderson: Closer to home in Iowa there are people who see monopolies in the ag industry. Do you see them as well?

Sanders: Yeah. I mean, virtually -- it's not just financial services and Wall Street, it is agriculture. You almost -- it is media, by the way. It is fewer and fewer large conglomerates control what we purchase and I think that is a very serious problem. Your point about Teddy Roosevelt is a good point. I think we need to remember what he did.

Borg: Kay, do you have another?

Henderson: The last time monopolies were broken up in the country were the Bells.

Sanders: The what?

Henderson: The Bells.

Borg: AT&T.

Henderson: What happened after that, is that an example that you could point to as something that could happen in the banking industry?

Sanders: The essence of banking is to get money out into the productive economy, to the companies that produce products and services and then create jobs, not for Wall Street to be an island unto itself coming up with these crazy derivatives which put at risk the entire economy.

Borg: Let me take you to another cartel, the oil cartel, OPEC. They have been in control of the world oil markets. They're losing that control right now, trying to regain it, even though there's a world oil glut, by keeping the price of oil down and suppressing, some speculate, suppressing the American initiative to become oil independent through fracking and so on and becoming energy independent. Is this an opportunity, you say restore economic vigor, is this an opportunity? And what should Congress, or our government, do to assist if indeed you agree that should be done?

Sanders: Oil production?

Borg: Yes.

Sanders: Let me back it up and say this. I happen to be, I know not everybody agrees with me, but I happen to be, as a member of the Environmental Committee, one of those who believes what the scientists are telling us. And what 97% of the peer reviewed articles and scientific journals tell us is that climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, it is already causing devastating problems. So I have to say that before we talk about oil production I think the necessity that we face is transforming our energy system away from oil and fossil fuel to energy efficiency and to sustainable energy. So I am not a great fan. I'm opposed to the Keystone pipeline. I am not a great fan of more and more oil production. I think we have to transform our energy system. And by the way, congratulations to the people of the state of Iowa. My understanding is that some 30% of your electricity is now coming from wind and it's going to go up. You are being a model for America and congratulations.

Borg: Or ethanol too. Are you a supporter of ethanol?

Sanders: That's something I'm going to have to look at a little bit more deeply.

Obradovich: What are your concerns about ethanol?

Sanders: Well, that among other things it drives up food prices. You want people around the world to have enough food to eat. But I think bottom line here is that in terms of energy I think we are facing a moral imperative and that is the need to move away from fossil fuel and move to energy efficiency, where my state is doing a pretty good job, and to sustainable energy like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. I think that's imperative that we have got to address.

Borg: You said you had to look into ethanol a bit more before you comment. But on the face of it, do you believe that our government should be subsidizing the production of ethanol?

Borg: I believe that it is proper for government, I believe very strongly and I'm worried about this, that it is proper for government to be subsidizing sustainable energies, yes I do. And in fact people don't appreciate the fact we are heavily subsidizing nuclear right now, we are heavily subsidizing fossil fuel. So I think it is proper that in terms of climate change and other areas that the government does in fact say yeah, we're going to be supportive of this or that form of energy.

Henderson: For the next two years you will be a voting member of Congress being led by republicans, a White House controlled by a democrat. Are there issues on which you believe there can be movement in that environment?

Sanders: Yes. I think there are a number of republicans who understand that the infrastructure of the United States, our roads, bridges, dams, airports, rail, are collapsing and that's what the American Society of Civil Engineers are telling us. And I think you have a number of republicans who understand that it is important for us to invest in rebuilding this crumbling infrastructure and that when we do that we can create millions of jobs. So I think there is a partnership over there.

Henderson: Where does the money come from?

Sanders: Well the money is going to have to come from the same place that it came from to fight a war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into. In other words, if the attitude of republicans is we can't spend any more money, we can't invest in education, we can't invest in infrastructure, then the future of this country is very bleak. Where the money comes from is asking the wealthiest people in this country to begin paying their fair share of taxes.

Borg: What about the investment in defending this country?

Sanders: I voted against the recent appropriations bill for a number of reasons, for the Wall Street giveaway, for the attack on pensions but also for the fact that I think that while we need a strong defense I do not believe that 60% of our discretionary money should go into the Defense Department. So I think we can cut defense. But mostly right now you're looking at a situation where a significant number of large corporations that aren't paying a nickel in federal taxes, many wealthy people are paying an effective tax rate lower than middle class people. We need tax reform and the wealthy have got to start paying their fair share.

Obradovich: Do you think that the drop in gas prices at the pump gives an opportunity to raise revenue in order to fix roads and bridges in the country?

Sanders: Well the problem is, as you know, the way the gas tax is structured and one of the reasons that we're having problems with infrastructure is the cars are getting better mileage per gallon and as a result of that less revenue is coming in. So I think we need to figure out a way to raise revenue for infrastructure but it is absolutely imperative. I'm a former mayor and let me tell you infrastructure does not get better by itself. You’re going to have to invest in it. There are ways to raise that money and I think the republicans who disagree and are going to allow our infrastructure to collapse are very, very wrong. The fastest way, by the way, to create new jobs in America is rebuilding our infrastructure and I believe in that very strongly.

Obradovich: Beyond infrastructure you're the new ranking member of the Budget Committee. What are your biggest priorities on that committee? And do you think the White House will have your back on those?

Sanders: I think the White House will have my back. This is what my priorities are, as you may recall for a number of years now many republicans, and some democrats, have said well we need entitlement reform. Entitlement reform is code language for cutting Social Security and Medicare. I will do everything that I can not only to prevent cuts to Social Security and Medicare but in fact to increase Social Security benefits. How do you do that? Right now you have a situation where the cap on taxable income is at $117,000 going into Social Security. You lift that cap, start at $250,000. We can not only raise a significant amount of money to extend the life of Social Security, we can expand benefits. You have a whole lot of seniors out there who are trying to get by on $12,000, $13,000 a year, they can't do that, we need to expand benefits. So that is one area. I will fight the republican effort to end Medicare as we know it, to make it into a voucher program and I will also, as a member of the Budget Committee, look for progressive ways to raise revenue, i.e. doing away with these tax havens in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, corporations stash their money there, we're losing $100 billion a year. We've got to end that.

Henderson: Are you among those who regret the Affordable Care Act's birth and wish it had been handled in a different way?

Sanders: I think it should have been handled in a different way, no question. And I think the layout of the Internet was clearly a disaster. But let's back up a little bit and understand this. Many people may not know this. There is one major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right. That country is called the United States of America. So as of today despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act you've got 40 million people with no health insurance. Many people have high premiums, high deductibles, cannot afford to go to the doctor. Frankly that is a national disgrace. So my own view is that we should take Medicare as it is right now, expand it for all, right now it's just for seniors, you expand it for all people. You have Medicare for all single payer program guaranteeing health care to all people and we could provide health care far, far more cost effectively than we do now.

Borg: And how do you pay for that? Medicare right now is not financially stable.

Sanders: You know how we pay for it? The good news is you're not going to have to pay any private insurance. Your company that you work for is not going to have to pay any private insurance. Look, we are the only major country on Earth that allows private insurance companies to make huge sums of money off of health care, which I believe is a right. So what you're doing is doing a transfer, you're saying sorry private insurance companies, you're not going to be making huge profits, you're out of the business and we are going to have a Medicare, which is a government program, health insurance program for all people. I think if you talk to most seniors, and Medicare needs some improvements, but most seniors feel pretty good about Medicare. Let's expand it to everybody.

Obradovich: As you talk about the presidency and a message for America, we've had a lot of democrats here since the 2014 elections saying we need to have a more positive message for America, we need to be more optimistic and we need to have a message with a smile. You have been talking a lot about anger and frustration and things that Americans should be worried about. Is your message something that you think that voters are going to respond to in a way that motivates them?

Borg: And we're short on time.

Sanders: The answer is look, as a nation we have made enormous progress that we should be very proud of in the last many years in overcoming a lot of racism, a lot of sexism, 30 years ago there probably wouldn't be women on this show, dealing with disabilities. You have Senator Tom Harkin has helped lead the effort to bring disabled people into the mainstream in America. Gay rights and so forth and so on. There's a lot that we should be proud of. But where we should not be proud of is living in a system where so few have so much and so many have so few. And the power of the oligarchy is very, very strong. I believe now is the time to take them on.

Borg: Thank you for being our guest today.

Sanders: Thank you for having me.

Borg: Well next week we'll be convening political journalists for a roundtable discussion closing 2014 and previewing politics of the New Year. Usual times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 

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