Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) held a live town hall Monday night in Washington, DC, moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and announced several ambitious policies that set him apart from his competitors in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Throughout the hour-long town hall, Sanders made five particular statements that will likely be further fleshed out as the first primaries and caucuses draw closer.
1. Sanders Rules Out Military Intervention in Venezuela (More or Less)
Bernie Sanders: “My view is that whether it is Saudi Arabia, which is a despotic regime, or whether it is Venezuela, I think we’ve got to do everything we can to create a democratic climate, but I do not believe in US military intervention in those countries.” #SandersTownHall pic.twitter.com/W6nTSl8V4c
— CNN (@CNN) February 26, 2019
Sanders dismissed the idea of military intervention to change Venezuela’s regime, pointing to America’s troubling history with American military interventionism in the past, particularly in Chile. Instead, Sanders called for international political and diplomatic strategies to change the status quo in Venezuela. Also, in Saudi Arabia, which he made sure to put in the same breath as Venezuela when discussing dangerous regimes.
“My view is, whether it is Saudi Arabia, which is a despotic regime, or whether it is Venezuela, I think we have got to do everything we can to create a democratic climate,” Sanders said. “But I do not believe in U.S. military intervention in those countries.”
Attempts to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela on the part of Colombia and Brazil have been met with hostility, but not all aid has. China, Russia, Bolivia and others have provided material and geopolitical support to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. And Bolivia has argued that aid from US-backed proxies is a tool of regime change.
But ruling out American military intervention doesn’t exactly rule out intervention. Many of America’s geopolitical interventions have involved proxy wars, and with America’s geopolitical enemies backing Maduro it could make Venezuela a modern-day Afghanistan.
Still, Sanders’ response to the young woman’s question about Venezuela Monday night was a stark contrast to a tweet he sent from his official Senate account last weekend, in which he appeared to be on the side of allowing President Trump’s “humanitarian aid” to enter the country despite international standards that aid be provided while abiding by the principles of “neutrality, impartiality, independence, humanity, and doing no harm.”
2. Sanders Calls for FDR’s Second Bill of Rights
Answering a question on what democratic socialism means, Sanders cited the 1944 State of the Union address where President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of a bill of economic rights to go hand in hand with the political rights promised under the Constitution.
“In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident,” said FDR. “We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”
FDR called for a number of policies that modern progressives champion from the right to healthcare to a job guarantee. However, the four-term president died before his proposals could become law. An economic bill of rights like that, Sanders argued, is democratic socialism.
“You go to countries in Scandinavia, of course, health care right is a right. Higher education is free. They have strong preschool programs. They make sure that their elderly folks can retire in dignity. These are not radical ideas,” Sanders said. “So what democratic socialism means to me is having, in a civilized society, the understanding that we can make sure that all of our people live in security and in dignity.”
3. Sanders Calls for Statehood for Washington, DC, Gets Applause from DC Town Hall Audience
Bernie Sanders discusses DC representation in Congress: "I strongly support statehood for DC … The size of this community is larger than some states. Why don't they have senators and a member in the House?” #SandersTownHall pic.twitter.com/ZbW6OUjXdA
— CNN (@CNN) February 26, 2019
One particular question from the DC town hall audience got rousing applause when attorney Beau Finley asked Sanders point-blank whether or not he supported allowing Washington, DC to have the full rights of statehood, including representation in Congress.
“Every Texas resident has two senators and a member in the House. Every Florida resident has two senators and a member in the House… I live in Washington, DC and have no such representation,” Finley said. “What will you do to help me and my fellow 700,000 Washingtonians do to receive representation?”
Sanders responded that he came from the state of Vermont, which has a population of just over 626,000 residents compared to DC’s 702,000 residents. But, the Vermont senator added, even though DC residents pay federal taxes and have to register for selective service, they don’t have federal representation.
“It would be a little bit hypocritical for me to suggest that Washington, DC should not become a state. I support statehood for DC,” he said.
In 2016, DC residents completed the first of three steps toward becoming a state when its residents overwhelmingly passed a referendum in favor of statehood. However, as Sanders noted, steps two and three are Congress passing a resolution to make DC a state, and for the president to sign that resolution into law, and those steps are dependent on Republicans who don’t want to allow a jurisdiction to send what will likely be two Democratic U.S. senators to the capitol.
4. Sanders Calls for Tuition-Free Public College and Universal Pre-K Education
Bernie Sanders on affordable education: "We make public colleges and universities tuition-free and we substantially lower the outrageous levels of student debt. … We’re going to pay for that by a tax on Wall Street speculation." #SandersTownHall https://t.co/aYTul5ggvA pic.twitter.com/3AnSRf3pZy
— CNN (@CNN) February 26, 2019
George Washington University student Yunjung Seo told Sanders during the town hall that she paid $73,000/year in annual tuition, and then asked Sanders his plan for making education more affordable. The Vermont senator responded by saying it was “crazy” that the U.S. expects to grow its economy while simultaneously making it financially impossible to attain a college education, which he argued was necessary to make Americans competitive for good jobs.
“A higher education today is the equivalent of what a high school education was 40 or 50 years ago,” Sanders said during the town hall. “And that means we make public colleges and universities tuition free and substantially lower the outrageous levels of student debt.”
Sen. Sanders added that he would pay for his plan to make college tuition-free by taxing Wall Street speculation. When Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders what he would do about the high cost of tuition at private universities, Sanders suggested those schools stop spending millions of dollars on expensive sports stadiums and compensation packages for coaches.
And in a tweet sent from his campaign account, the Vermont senator clarified that he “absolutely” would fight for universal pre-K education as well.
Do I support universal pre-K at a time when it is unaffordable for working class Americans?
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 26, 2019
5. Sanders Frames His Agenda as Centrist, Not Radical
Bernie Sanders on why he thinks he’s the most qualified to beat Donald Trump: “I think the message of our campaign is that we’ve got to…bring our people together around an agenda that creates a government that works for all of us." #SandersTownHall https://t.co/aYTul5ggvA pic.twitter.com/eGHHppe3xY
— CNN (@CNN) February 26, 2019
Near the end of the CNN town hall, Sanders was asked how he would be able to win over voters in “Trump country,” how he planned on selling his policy platform in states Trump won in 2016, and why he was uniquely qualified to unseat the president. Sanders didn’t flinch, promising that his platform was popular in both red and blue states, specifically citing Oklahoma and Missouri as two red states where audiences agreed with him on issues like Medicare for All and tuition-free public college.
“We’ve gotta bring our people together — black and white and latino — bring our people together around an agenda that creates a government for all of us. That we deal with the horrific trade policies that we have. That we raise the minimum wage. We make education available to working families. Childcare available. Guarantee healthcare to all people. I think that that is a message that will resonate… in many of the states that Trump won.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) — a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign — piled on during the town hall, tweeting poll results of Sanders’ top policies showing that they were popular with a majority of the American public. Chief among those was the 70 percent support for Medicare for All among Americans polled by Reuters in August of 2018 (including 51 percent of Republicans).
The truth is that Americans on both sides of the aisle support @BernieSanders’ platform:
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) February 26, 2019
Sanders appears to be the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination at this point in the race, easily winning a 2020 Daily Kos straw poll with 44 percent support. The second-place finisher in the poll was Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) — who placed first in the group’s initial straw poll prior to Sanders’ entry — garnering just 15 percent support.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.