Sen. Bernie Sanders’ appearance on the Political Party Live (PPL) podcast in Cedar Rapids on Friday night was a mixture of the familiar and the new.
Elizabeth Moen, who had performed at the beginning of Sanders’ March rally at the IMU in Iowa City, performed before PPL co-hosts Stacey Walker and Simeon Talley, along with guest co-host Lauren Beaumont, took the stage at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium.
Almost half the audience appeared to be college age, a slight decline in that demographic from Iowa City rally. There was also an overall decline in audience. In March, after the Main Lounge of the IMU reached its capacity of 1,300, another 500 people watched the candidate’s speech on a TV monitor in an overflow room. On Friday, only about two-thirds of the 1,090 seats in Sinclair were occupied.
But when Sanders came out to join the PPL hosts, the Vermont senator received an enthusiastic standing ovation, just like he did at IMU.
The interview format gave the senator a chance to demonstrate his dry wit, which is usually missing from his speeches, but most of what Sanders said was familiar from his speeches, both those delivered this year and those delivered in his 2016 primary campaign. In fact, Sanders’ responses to the first two questions were essentially sections of his current stump speech delivered while seated, complete with the hand gestures that typically accompany his speeches.
The third question broke a little new ground.
Talley, who has demonstrated a talent for asking presidential candidates very sharp questions in a disarmingly friendly manner (Sanders is the fifth candidate to appear on the podcast this year), basically asked the 77-year-old Vermonter why Democrats should vote for an elderly white man in 2020.
“You’ve talked about how this younger generation is the most progressive generation that’s ever existed,” Talley began. “A lot of folks, when they look at the Democratic field, they think it’s time for a different generation of political leadership — particularly a younger generation of political leadership.”
“How do you respond to people that say that it’s time for some younger leaders to step up?”
Sanders has faced versions of that question before, but on Friday, he responded with a much fuller answer than he typically has.
That’s a very fair question, and it’s a good question. I think — and maybe it’s a little bit self-serving, I admit that — but I think it’s not just the age of the person, or the color of a person’s skin, or the gender of a person. It’s what a person believes in.
There is a woman governor in Alabama — a woman governor — she just signed the most restrictive, horrific anti-choice legislation in the history of this country. Are we proud that she’s a woman? I don’t think so.
So what we want, of course, is for our government and business community to reflect the realities in the demographics in American life. We want half of the people, or more, who are elected to office to be women. We want African-American representation, Latino representation, Native American, Asian American — that’s what we want, that’s what we’re striving for.
Sanders said that people should consider not just his age, but his experience. He listed the offices he’s held: mayor of Burlington, Vermont; member of the House of Representatives; and for the past 13 years, a member of the U.S. Senate.
“And look at a record that is one of the most progressive records in Congress,” Sanders said. “Look at somebody who opened up the debates that didn’t previously exist.”
The exchange points out both a major liability for Sanders in the 2020 race and one of his greatest strengths.
If he wins the primary, Sanders would the oldest major party candidate for president ever. His first run for elective office was 47 years ago, when he ran for governor Vermont as the candidate of the Liberty Union Party of Vermont, a small, democratic socialist party. After three more unsuccessful runs as a Liberty Union candidate (two for the U.S. Senate, as well as one more try for the governor’s office), Sanders quit the party and has been a registered independent ever since (even though he ran in the Democratic primary for president in 2016 and is doing so again this year).
But as Anand Giridharadas points out in his recent Time profile of Sanders, people are attracted to Sanders, because he’s had a long public career in which he’s been remarkably consistent in his political beliefs over half a century of public life.
But this year, Sanders, who has earned his reputation for speaking bluntly, is changing the way he states some of his beliefs. That was evident in his response to Walker’s question about reparations.
Sanders wasn’t a supporter of the reparations for slavery in 2016 (neither was Hillary Clinton), and he still isn’t. He has been criticized during his current campaign for exhibiting a dismissive attitude toward the idea.
“What does that mean?” he said when asked about reparations during a CNN town hall in February. “What do they mean? I’m not sure anyone’s very clear.”
During a March appearance on The View, Sanders was pressed on the issue, and responded, “I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”
Giridharadas recounts how Sanders reacted at a Detroit town hall in April when a woman asked him about a legislative proposal to study the legacy of slavery and how to approach reparations.
Before she could finish, Sanders cut her off, undermining the proposal by reminding people that it is merely for a ‘study.’ She tried to complete the question, and again Sanders jumped in. ‘Well, I’ve said that if Congress passes the bill, I will sign it. It is a study.’
Sanders took a different approach when Walker asked him about the issue.
Let me say a word about reparations. What I support is — Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina has an idea, which he’s had for a long time that I think is perhaps, in a general sense, the best way forward. And what he says, his legislation called 10-20-30.
Ten percent, which is a lot, of federal funding should be going to those communities in America which have seen long-term poverty, distressed communities in America. So in other words, right now what we have got to do is pour federal funding into the most distressed communities in America, which are very often black or brown communities, to make sure that those kids are getting the education they need, that people get the health care that they need, that we deal with the housing crisis, that we create the jobs that people need.
So we have for a variety of reasons, not the least of which going back to slavery, we have got to do everything we can to address the incredible racial inequities that exist in this country, racial disparities that exist.
To anyone unfamiliar with Clyburn’s 10-20-30, it sounded like Sanders endorsed reparations.
Clyburn is an outlier among black leaders in Congress. He considers reparations to be impractical, if not impossible. First introduced in 2013, 10-20-30 is a general anti-poverty program. It would require certain federal government programs to direct a minimum of 10 percent of their total investments to counties were 20 percent or more of the population has had incomes below the federal poverty level for at least 30 years.
It does not aim to address the structural inequalities that are part of the legacy of slavery, which Ta-Nehisi Coates examined in his influential essay, “The Case for Reparations.” That essay has been the basis for all serious discussions of reparations, since it was published in 2014, and Walker cited it in his question to Sanders.
(Clyburn hasn’t endorsed any 2020 candidate, but has said he appreciates Sanders promoting his plan. In 2016, Clyburn endorsed Clinton. He announced his decision in a speech at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, in front of an audience of students, many of whom supported Sanders. After his speech Clyburn was asked about student support for Sanders, and he replied, “I was once young.”)
In his profile of Sanders, Giridharadas reported the senator, who rarely talks about himself, is being urged by his campaign staff to add more personal touches to his campaign, in order to inject a note of warmth in Sanders’ typically brusque speaking style and connect with voters on an emotional level. There was a flash of that on Friday night at Coe.
Responding to a question from Beaumont about low-wage workers, Sanders said, “I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, so I know a little bit about what that’s about.”
But the new personal approach has its limits. After that one mention of his family, Sanders returned to his familiar policy-focused approach for the rest of the podcast.
Editor’s note: Little Village is a media partner for Political Party Live.