Bernie Sanders Has Stuck To The Same Message For 40 Years

Dec 11, 2015
Originally published on December 14, 2015 6:56 pm

There are many ways to describe Bernie Sanders: a democratic socialist, an independent senator, a Democratic presidential candidate. But the best adjective may just be: consistent. No matter how you label it, Sanders' worldview is locked in.

Over 40 years, Sanders has built his political career on a very focused message about what he calls a "rigged economy."

Now he's running for president, which typically means reacting to what's happening in the world, in real time. But even in the wake of terrorist attacks by ISIS, Sanders' primary focus is still where it's been since the 1970s.

The "1 percent"

On the advantages enjoyed by the richest Americans, over the years, the numbers Sanders cites have changed. But the intensity and message have not.

Income inequality

It's a theme that runs through every speech Sanders gives. And over the course of a decade, the way he describes the "unfair distribution of wealth" has changed very little. In a 2005 speech on the House floor and 10 years later at his campaign kickoff rally in Burlington, Vt., this past spring, he delivered essentially the same line.

Voter turnout

Listening to speeches and debate performances going back to 1976, another theme emerges: his concern with voter turnout.

Sanders attributes this to politicians not talking about the real issues facing the working people of America, kowtowing to corporate interests instead of helping the poor and middle class get ahead.

Their needs and struggles have been a near single-minded focus of Sanders since his earliest days in politics.

"His concerns have always been about families and their economic problems, and when people say that Bernie is consistent, that is what he's consistent about," said Huck Gutman, one of Sanders' oldest friends from Vermont.

Gutman spoke about his friend in a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, as Sanders prepared to kick off his campaign. And Gutman said the laser focus isn't just there when the cameras are rolling.

"When we talk, that's what he talks about all the time," said Gutman.

Asked if he ever tries to change the subject to something like sports, Gutman said it doesn't work.

"I bring up things sometimes. It doesn't stay there very long," said Gutman. "Bernie and I go for walks every weekend. We have long talks. And it's always about economics and politics."

The question now is whether this consistency, this focus, is an asset or a problem for Sanders' candidacy. His supporters say that's one of the things they love about him. They don't want him to get distracted by the latest news.

Sanders held an event this week in a Baltimore neighborhood where riots broke out in April. His press secretary asked reporters to keep the questions to the issues the senator was there to discuss — poverty, unemployment and the criminal justice system. "Don't ask about ISIS today," said Symone Sanders, the campaign's press secretary. So, as the press conference was wrapping up, a reporter asked Bernie Sanders if there was a reason he didn't want to talk about ISIS.

Sanders scoffed.

"What I have said is that obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue that we've got to address, but so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care," said Sanders. "So is the need to protect working families. And I will, I will continue to talk about those issues."

That's what he's always done. Whether that continues to work for his presidential campaign depends on whether voters' top concern remains the economy or if it is displaced by fear of terrorism and ISIS.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn to a person running for office in this country. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has built his political career on a very focused message about what he calls a rigged economy. Now, he is running for president, which means reacting to what's happening in the world in real time. But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, even in the wake of terrorist attacks by ISIS, his primary focus is still where it's been for the last 40 years.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There are many ways to describe Bernie Sanders - a democratic socialist, an independent senator, a Democratic presidential candidate. But the best adjective may just be consistent. No matter how you label it, Sanders' world view is locked in. Here he is earlier this year at his campaign kickoff rally in Burlington, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.

KEITH: And here he was nearly 40 years earlier in a Vermont gubernatorial debate in 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: The fundamental issue facing us in the state is that one half of 1 percent of these people - the richest one half of 1 percent - earn as much as the bottom 27 percent and the top 3 percent earn as much as the bottom 40 percent.

KEITH: That audio comes from the Vermont Historical Society. Over the years, the numbers Sanders cites have changed. But the intensity and message have not. Here he was in 2005 in a speech on the House floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: While the middle class shrinks, poverty increases. The richest people in America have never had it so good.

KEITH: Income inequality is a theme that runs through every speech Sanders gives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: In America today, we have the most unfair distribution of wealth and income in the history of our country and of any major country on Earth.

KEITH: That was 2005. And we hear virtually the same line a full decade later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: In America, we now have more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on Earth. And the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider.

KEITH: Something else that has bothered Sanders since the '70s is voter turnout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Eighty percent of the people in the state of Vermont don't even bother to vote anymore.

You know that in the last congressional elections in 1990, 65 percent of the American people didn't vote.

In the last midterm election, some 63 percent of Americans did not vote, including 80 percent of young people.

KEITH: The reason he says - politicians aren't talking about the real issues that face working people in America. Their needs and struggles have been a near single-minded focus of Sanders since his earliest days in politics. Huck Gutman is one of Sanders' oldest friends from Vermont.

HUCK GUTMAN: His concerns have always been about families and their economic problems. And when people say that Bernie is consistent, that's what he's consistent about.

KEITH: And Gutman told me earlier this year it's not just when the cameras are rolling.

GUTMAN: When we talk, that's what he talks about all the time.

KEITH: So do you ever say, like, Bernie, can we just talk about the Red Sox?

GUTMAN: I bring up things sometimes. It doesn't stay there very long. Bernie - Bernie and I go for walks every weekend. We have long talks. And it's always about economics and politics.

KEITH: The question now is whether this consistency, this focus, is an asset or a problem for Sanders' candidacy. His supporters say that's one of the things they love about him. They don't want him to get distracted by the latest news. Sanders held an event this week in the same Baltimore neighborhood where riots broke out in April. His press secretary asked reporters to keep the questions to the issues the senator was there to discuss - poverty, unemployment and the criminal justice system. Don't ask about ISIS, she said. So as the press conference was wrapping up, a reporter asked if there was a reason he didn't want to talk about ISIS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: What I have said is that obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue that we've got to address, but so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care, so is the need to protect working families. And I will. I will continue to talk about those issues.

KEITH: That's what Sanders has always done. Whether that continues to work for his presidential campaign depends on whether voters' top concern remains the economy or if it is displaced by fear of terrorism and ISIS. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.