Bernie Sanders on socialism, taxes and why he thinks fossil fuel executives are 'criminals'

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders, in a wide-ranging chat with CNBC's John Harwood, discusses personal issues, his economic agenda and his hope to become a 21st century version of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Like many patients who undergo successful catheterization, Sanders says he has actually benefited from renewed energy.
  • Sanders also likens fossil fuel executives to tobacco executives: "These are liars. These are criminals."
Bernie Sanders on his agenda: 'Let's not make people overly nervous about' socialism
Bernie Sanders on his agenda: 'Let's not make people overly nervous about' socialism

As the only self-described democratic socialist in the U.S. Senate and the Democratic presidential race, Bernie Sanders represents a unique figure in American political life.

Four years ago, his message of dramatic change to remedy income inequality and other economic ills won a large following in his fight against Hillary Clinton for the nomination of a party he does not even formally embrace. The results encouraged him enough to try again for 2020, even at age 78.

This race poses different and perhaps more formidable challenges. The political independent faces not only a moderate, conventional front-runner in former Vice President Joe Biden, but also a powerful fellow liberal in Sen. Elizabeth Warren brandishing ideas nearly as ambitious as his. In debates and on the campaign trail, Warren has expanded her support this year; polls suggest Sanders has not.

Then, on Oct. 1, he suffered a heart attack. After surgeons inserted two stents to relieve coronary artery blockages, Sanders returned home to rest in Vermont as political observers wondered whether he could resume full-bore campaigning.

He ended that speculation quickly. The gruff, rumpled candidate — memorably depicted by the comedian Larry David on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" — returned to engage his rivals in a televised debate two weeks later. Like many patients who undergo successful catheterization, Sanders says he has actually benefited from renewed energy. Moreover, campaign finance reports show that Sanders outraised all his rivals in the third quarter of the year, and has more cash-on-hand than anyone else.

Over healthful green smoothies in a Des Moines coffee shop, I sat down with Sanders to discuss his health, his economic agenda and his hope to become a 21st century version of the president of his infancy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

Sanders: 'A little bit shocking' when doctor said 'you're having a heart attack'
Sanders: 'A little bit shocking' when doctor said 'you're having a heart attack'

John Harwood: One health question as we start. Has what you went through affected you emotionally, how you think about life or what's important?

Bernie Sanders: As somebody who has had great endurance as a kid — I was a long-distance runner, thank God I've been healthy as a horse — it was a little bit shocking to me when the doctor there told me, "Hey, you're having a heart attack." I could not believe that that was the case.

I don't want to be overly political in saying this, but my life is political. I went into the hospital and I didn't worry about whether I could afford to pay. I have good insurance. And I'm sitting there, and thinking somebody else here has that same discomfort, and they're sitting and thinking, "Should I go into the hospital and end up with a large bill? Maybe it'll get better tomorrow, maybe I'll forget about it." Some of those people die or suffer permanent health damage. That's one of those things that I thought about.

Sanders on Warren's past work: "I've never worked for a corporation"
Sanders on Warren's past work: "I've never worked for a corporation"

John Harwood: You recently distinguished yourself from Senator Warren — she's a capitalist to her bones, and you're not.

Bernie Sanders: That's how she has defined herself.

John Harwood: Is that just a marker of you being a little more progressive, or do you think that has real practical significance?

Bernie Sanders: I think it does, in a couple of ways. At this particular moment in history — where the average worker has not seen a real inflation accounted for wage increase in 45 years despite an explosion of technology and productivity, where you have a political system which is totally corrupt and owned by billionaires, where you have massive amounts of corporate corruption, I think the time is now, if we're going to save this country, for a political revolution.

It's not just more regulation. It's about involving millions of people, working people, young people, people who believe in justice, in the political process, to tell the corporate elite that enough is enough. We're going to change the system politically, economically. We're going to change the value system of this country. We're not going to worship corrupt billionaires anymore, we're going to respect teachers and child care workers and cops and firefighters and small business people. That's what our campaign, uniquely I believe, is about.

John Harwood: Do you have any problem with the work that she's done in the past, advising corporations — Dow Corning, Dow Chemical — on legal problems?

Bernie Sanders: I'll let the American people make that judgment. I have never worked for a corporation myself. I've never carried their baggage in the United States Senate.

People have the opportunity to look at my record. It's not last year, not two years ago — I was for "Medicare for All" when I was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. During my career, I have taken on every powerful corporate interest, whether it's the drug companies, the insurance companies, fossil fuel, Wall Street. I've been doing this for 30 or 40 years. These are not new ideas for me.

John Harwood: You identify as a democratic socialist. You got the endorsement of Representative Ocasio-Cortez over the weekend. How far do you think you can take the United States of America toward democratic socialism?

Bernie Sanders: It depends on what we mean by democratic socialism. What I am trying to do, in many ways, is pick up where Franklin Delano Roosevelt left off. In a not widely publicized State of The Union speech he gave in 1944, this is what he said in so many words: "We have political rights. You have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. All of that's great, but what we don't have are guaranteed economic rights."

So you could vote, but you also have the privilege of sleeping out on the street. You can protest, but you also have the freedom to work 60 or 70 hours a week at starvation wages. You have the freedom not to have health insurance, not to be able to send your kids to college. What I'm trying to do in this campaign is say that economic rights must be considered as human rights.

John Harwood: Do you also embrace the part of FDR that said adversaries hate me and I welcome their hatred?

Bernie Sanders: Absolutely. You can judge a person by the friends they have. You can judge a candidate for president by the enemies they have.

There was a guy who was head of Third Way, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. He said, "Bernie Sanders is an existential threat to the Democratic Party." I agree with him. I am. I want to convert the Democratic Party, to break its dependency on big money and corporate interests, and make it a party of working-class people, of young people, of all people who believe in justice.

John Harwood: Would it be your intention to appoint democratic socialists to big positions in your administration?

Bernie Sanders: Well, you're going a little bit too crazy on the word here.

I will appoint people who believe in the working class and the working families of this country, who are prepared to stand up to the incredibly powerful corporate interests, that today dominate our economic and political life. I will appoint an attorney general, who for the first time in modern history, will go after the white-collar crime, which I believe is rampant. Instead of arresting kids whether they are selling marijuana, maybe we go after some of the crooks on Wall Street or in other major industries. I will appoint an attorney general who is prepared to enforce the antitrust laws that are on the books, that have been neglected for so very long.

So when I talk about democratic socialism, let's be clear, what does it mean? Let's not get people overly nervous about it.

John Harwood: The DSA website said, "We can't eliminate private corporations in the short term, so we have to confront them." Would it be your intention, in the medium or long term, not to have private corporations?

Bernie Sanders: No, that's not my intention. What is my intention, though, is to make sure that workers have representation on those large corporations. We've presented the Corporate Accountability Act. Not terribly radical — it exists in one form or another in other countries, including Germany. Instead of just being a cog in the machine, what about giving that worker some power and responsibility in terms of the shaping of that corporation?

Should Wall Street and a handful of members of a board determine whether a factory remains in the United States or whether it goes to China? Should a handful of wealthy board members determine whether or not there is a stock buy-back, whether workers get decent wage increases and decent benefits?

John Harwood: You're not impressed by the statement that Jamie Dimon and the Business Roundtable put out saying that, "We are going to take considerations broader than just profit into our practices." You don't think they're serious?

Bernie Sanders: No. Of course not.

John Harwood: If you require that 45% of the board be workers, a required distribution of profits to workers, if you ban stock buybacks, do you accept that would have a slowing effect on economic growth?

Bernie Sanders: It's not good enough just to look at economic growth. That has been the biblical stature that corporate America has been looking at — we have growth, we have growth. The average worker is no better off than he or she was 45 years ago. In the last 30 years, the top 1% have seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth. The bottom half of America's seen a decline in their wealth. Half the people today are living paycheck to paycheck.

The question is, is our economy working for the people here? Is it working for ordinary Americans? Do people feel secure? Do they know that when they get sick, they can go to a doctor in a hospital? Do they know that their kids, everything being equal, can have a better standard of living?

John Harwood: How do you factor in the fact that modern global capitalism has substantially reduced poverty in other parts of the world?

Bernie Sanders: When you talk about the global economy, you're right. Thank God. The terrible, terrible poverty in the developing world, some of that is receding. That's great. On the other hand, you are looking at an unbelievable and grotesque level of global income and wealth inequality. You are seeing in country after country, the incredible power of large multinational corporations and Wall Street in determining the future of those countries. You're also seeing in many countries a movement toward increased authoritarianism and away from human rights and democracy.

Sanders calls oil, pharmaceutical and Wall Street executives candidates for jail time
Sanders calls oil, pharmaceutical and Wall Street executives candidates for jail time

John Harwood: On Wall Street reform, you say you want to end "too-big-to-jail." You said the other day that Sherman Act violations by monopolists ought to have the potential for criminal indictments. I wonder if you think that principle also applies to cases like the Boeing CEO. He's been stripped of his position as board chairman, the head of the Max airplane was fired. Is that the kind of case that criminal law is relevant to?

Bernie Sanders: This is the kind of discussion that we need as a nation, and that will take place when I'm president. I'll give you three examples.

In 2008, Wall Street drove this country into the worst economic recession in modern history. Wall Street has paid tens and tens of billions of dollars in fines for their illegal activity. Wasn't a mistake. They were selling subprime mortgages that they knew were worthless.

How many of these Wall Street executives went to jail?

John Harwood: I don't think any.

Bernie Sanders: No, and that is why the American people are disgusted with what goes on in Washington, D.C. They see a kid selling marijuana, gets picked up by the cop. That kid will have a criminal record the rest of his life. And a Wall Street executive that causes a massive tragedy for our economy, no punishment.

Another example — the pharmaceutical industry. They're not only greedy, they are corrupt. They are engaged in collusion and in price-fixing. Right now, as you know, state attorneys general are mounting a massive lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers. What they are saying is, these guys knew exactly what they were doing. They were selling an addictive product all over this country. Many have died. How do you define that behavior? I call it criminal.

One more example. How do we define, how do we describe the behavior of the fossil fuel industry?.

John Harwood: You tell me.

Bernie Sanders: All right, I will tell you. They have known, for a very long time, the executives of Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel industries knew that the product that they were producing was causing climate change and in fact helping to destroy this planet.

John Harwood: You put them in the same category as tobacco executives.

Bernie Sanders: Exactly. If you are producing a product and you don't know that it's causing harm, that's forgivable. But if you are like the tobacco industry — we go before Congress, we swear that all of our research has shown that there is not a problem with tobacco causing cancer or heart disease. They lied. My father died because he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Millions of people are in the same boat. These are liars. These are criminals. By the way, they're still selling their bloody products all over the world. Same thing with fossil fuel.

We need as a nation to do something we have never done before, and say to these corporate executives who have so much power, we're tired of your greed and we are tired of your corruption. I support and respect business people who produce new products, create jobs. God bless them. I do not respect or support criminals who are killing people, who are harming people, and are lying about what they're doing.

John Harwood: Let me ask a question about real-world governance rather than campaign rhetoric. Joe Biden said earlier this year, nothing really fundamental has to change. You have proposed enormous changes. Would the practical results of a Biden administration really be that different from the practical results in a Sanders administration, given the fact that there are so many constraints on things getting done in Congress?

Bernie Sanders: John, you're forgetting one very important thing: I am a different type of politician, and my administration will be unique in modern American history at least going back to FDR.

You talk about the fact that nothing much really big ever happens. And there's truth to that. But what you're missing is that right now you have a Congress and a White House that are dominated by a corporate elite who have unbelievable amounts of money and influence over the political and economic life of this country. I'm not going to be dominated by those guys. I will take them on and I'll beat them.

The way we beat them is with the understanding that real change has never taken place without millions of people standing up and demanding that change. That is the history of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay movement, the environmental movement. I will not only be commander in chief of the military, I will be organizer in chief. I will be organizing with a strong grassroots movement.

We already have the nucleus. It'll be involving the labor unions, the African American communities, the Latino community, the young people of this country. All people who believe in justice, working-class people, who are prepared to stand up and fight and take on the corporate elite. And when you do that, John, then you're not talking about incremental changes.

John Harwood: But even if you get elected, even if it's successful to the point that Democrats win a small majority in the Senate, is Joe Manchin going to vote for your program? Is Jon Tester going to vote for your program?

Bernie Sanders: Yeah. Damn right they will. You know why? We're going to go to West Virginia.

Your average politician sits around and he or she thinks, "Let's see. If I do this, I'm going to have the big money interests putting 30-second ads against me. So I'd better not do it." But now they're going to have to think, "If I don't support an agenda that works for working people, I'm going to have President Sanders coming to my state and rallying working-class people."

You know what? The 1 percent is very powerful — no denying that. The 99%, when they're organized and prepared to stand up and fight, they are far more powerful.

John Harwood: You've been running for president for five years. If there were a latent political revolution waiting to happen, wouldn't we see more of it by now?

Bernie Sanders: Let's talk about that. Think about the ideas that I introduced four years ago. Four years ago, $15 an hour minimum wage — "radical and crazy." Four years ago, Medicare for All, health care as a human right — "Bernie, that's un-American." Seventy-one percent of Democrats now support that. Climate change is a major threat.

John Harwood: That's more people talking about it, not stuff having gotten through the process.

Bernie Sanders: How's it going to get through the process when Donald Trump is president, who is beholden to his billionaire friends? And when Mitch McConnell runs the Senate?

But the House of Representatives did pass a $15 an hour minimum wage. The House of Representatives did pass significant election reform, et cetera, et cetera. So it's waiting. The ideas that I am talking about are by and large supported by the American people.

As president, I help bring our country together by talking about issues that Republicans agree on. Republicans think that we should not have a trade policy that sends good-paying jobs to China and Mexico. I agree with that. We can bring people together around an agenda that works for working families, not just the 1%.

Sanders on the deficit impact of his agenda: "we're trying to pay for the damn thing"
Sanders on the deficit impact of his agenda: "we're trying to pay for the damn thing"

John Harwood: One of the constraints has been fiscal. Senator Warren is producing plans to pay for Medicare for All. You've identified revenue sources for about half of it. Do you think it's important to identify revenue sources for the other half? Or do you believe, as those who subscribe to modern monetary theory believe, that we've been a little bit too constrained by concerns about the deficit?

Bernie Sanders: We're trying to pay for the damn thing. At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it is my view that the wealthiest people in this country, the top 1/10th of 1% should be paying substantially more than they're paying right now. You have an insane situation. Let my Wall Street friends there tell me why it makes sense.

John Harwood: You have Wall Street friends?

Bernie Sanders: No, I don't. That was just a metaphor. I was trying to sound nice.

But you know, please, defend for me Amazon, owned by the wealthiest guy in the country, making $11 billion in profits last year and not paying a nickel in federal income taxes. I want to hear the defense. John, I don't hear it. There is no defense. And it's not just Amazon, it's dozens of these corporations.

John Harwood: But you still have more revenue to go to make it fully paid for, yes?

Bernie Sanders: The fight right now is to get the American people to understand that we're spending twice as much per capita, that of course, we can pay for it. We're paying it now in a very reactionary, regressive way. I want to pay for it in a progressive way.

You're asking me to come up with an exact detailed plan of how every American — how much you're going to pay more in taxes, how much I'm going to pay. I don't think I have to do that right now.

John Harwood: You think it's foolish that Senator Warren is trying to?

Bernie Sanders: I'm not saying it's foolish. All that I'm saying is that we have laid out a variety of options that are progressive. We'll have that debate. At the end of the day, we will pay for every nickel of Medicare for All, and it will save the overwhelming majority of the American people, who will no longer pay premiums.

John Harwood: Would you envision that at the end of a Sanders administration, the deficit would not be larger than it is now?

Bernie Sanders: Under Trump, what we have seen is a huge increase in the deficit. I think I will do a lot better than Trump.

Every major proposal that we have brought forth — whether it's Medicare for All, dealing with climate change, transforming our energy system, making public colleges and universities tuition-free and eliminating all student debt in America — that's all paid for.

John Harwood: Congress has not been able to raise the gas tax by pennies to fix crumbling roads and bridges. You've got a wealth tax, which is enormous. Congress has not been able to pass card-check unionization. You're proposing a huge increase in the clout of organized labor. How are those things even conceivable in 2019?

Bernie Sanders: OK, it's a good question. It's a fair question. But you're looking at status quo politics. I often use a statement that Nelson Mandela made: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

These ideas — "Oh my God, it can't be done." Imagine everybody in America having health care. Duh — that's what exists in every other country on Earth. Why is that so impossible?

Imagine the United States leading the world in transforming our energy system and saving the planet for our kids and grandchildren. "Oh my God, it's impossible." Really? What's the alternative?

You're right in saying that these are big ideas. I concede that. You're right in saying that we have more or less a dysfunctional Congress. I agree with you.

But where you're not right is understanding that if you and I were sitting here 25 years ago, and I said to you, "You know John, I think that gay marriage will be legal in every state in this country". What would you have said to me? You would have said, "you're crazy."

John Harwood: Yes, I would have.

Bernie Sanders: I grew up at a time when African Americans could not vote, right? Kids could not go to a local school, could not drink at a water fountain. And change took place. Martin Luther King Jr., others, they stood up and they fought. 100 years ago, women did not have the right to vote, because as we all know, women's place is in the house; 100 years ago — not a long time.

Change can take place when you motivate people, when you get people organized when they stand up for justice. That's what I believe.

John Harwood: If you've got a one-shot in your first year …

Bernie Sanders: Wrong question! I know where you're going. You're going to ask me to prioritize.

John Harwood: Yes.

Bernie Sanders: No. Once you get moving, you can move. I think that the American people can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time.

We must save the planet. That's not an option. We have got to combat climate change. America's got to lead the world.

I will demand that every American has health care as a human right. I will not allow hundreds of thousands of bright young kids not to be able to go to college because they lack the income or 45 million people to be suffering from large student debt.

John Harwood: You don't accept that you've got to pick one to start?

Bernie Sanders: No. That's old thinking.

John Harwood: Last question. When we did this interview four years ago, you ended it by saying, "don't underestimate me".

Bernie Sanders: Did I say that, John?

John Harwood: You did.

Bernie Sanders: And you underestimated me.

John Harwood: I confess that I did. But right now, I think a whole lot of people are discounting your chances, or in your view may be underestimating you. What would you say to them?

Bernie Sanders: When I became mayor of the city of Burlington way back when in 1981, a local reporter said, "Well the odds of Sanders winning against the five-term incumbent, running as an independent, are about 100 to 1." I won. Last time around, taking on the entire Democratic establishment, we ended up winning 22 states and got more young people's votes than Trump and Clinton combined.

The ideas that I talked about four years ago seemed so radical and extreme. Today they're kind of mainstream ideas, right?

Don't underestimate me.

— Disclosure: NBC and CNBC are divisions of NBCUniversal.