It doesn’t seem too surprising to me that Bernie is pretty happy these days. The Democratic Party’s mainstream has pretty much adopted much of his agenda!
Let’s say I’m someone on the left who supported you in 2020. I’m looking at the American Rescue Plan and I see the $15 minimum wage got dropped, paid family leave got dropped. The child tax credit, which is my favorite part of the bill, it’s only temporary. Convince me that I should be excited about this. Why do you think it’s so significant?
I don’t have to convince you. We have already convinced 75 percent of the American people that this is a very good piece of legislation. And I think progressives out there understand that given a fairly conservative Congress, it is hard to do everything that we want to do.
I was bitterly disappointed that we lost the minimum wage in the reconciliation process as a result of a decision from the parliamentarian, which I think was a wrong decision. But we’re not giving up on that. We’re going to come back, and we’re going to do it.
But in this legislation, let us be clear we have gotten for a family of four — a working-class family struggling to put food on the table for their kids — a check of $5,600. Now people who have money may not think that’s a lot of money. But when you are struggling day and night to pay the bills, to worry about eviction, that is going to be a lifesend for millions and millions of people.
We extended unemployment to September with the $300 supplement. We expanded the child tax credit to cut child poverty in America by 50 percent. Now, that’s an issue we have not dealt with for a very long time — the disgrace of the U.S. having one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. Well, we did it, and we hope to make it permanent. That is a big deal.
And obviously, we invested heavily in dealing with the pandemic, getting the vaccines out to the people as quickly as possible to save lives. In terms of education, billions of dollars are going to make sure that we open our schools as quickly and as safely as we can. We tripled funding for summer programs so the kids will have the opportunity to make up the academic work that they have lost. Tripled funding for after-school programs so when kids come back next fall, there will be programs the likes of which we have never seen.
So this is not a perfect bill. Congress does not pass perfect bills. But for working-class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s. And I’m proud of what we have done.
However, it is clear to me — and I think the American people — that we have more to do. This is an emergency bill that says, in America families should not go hungry. People should not be forced out of their homes.
Now we have to deal with the long-term structural problems facing our country that have long, long been neglected way before the pandemic: rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, address the existential threat of climate change, create many millions of decent-paying jobs, build the millions of units of affordable housing that we need.
In terms of the social issues: fight structural racism, immigration reform, fight against the growing trend of authoritarianism. We’re living in a nation today where 30 percent or 40 percent of the American people have given up on democracy — a worldwide problem. How do we combat that? We got to deal with voter suppression and the effort of Republicans to make it harder and harder for people of color, lower-income people, to vote.
I’m not going to lay out all of our strategy that we’re working on right now. But what I repeat is that this country faces huge problems. The American people want us to address those problems. And we cannot allow a minority to stop us from going forward.
Do you think a byproduct of how the Republican Party has changed is that it puts less emphasis on economic issues than it used to? I was struck by how much more energized Republicans were the week that the American Rescue Plan passed by the debate over Dr. Seuss’s books than by this $1.9 billion spending bill.
Look, the energy in the Republican Party has nothing to do with tax breaks to the rich. Republicans are not going into the streets, the Trump Republicans, saying: We need more tax breaks for the rich, we need more deregulation, we need to end the Affordable Care Act and throw 30 million people off their health care. That’s not what they’re talking about.
What Trump understood is we are living in a very rapidly changing world. And there are many people — most often older white males, but not exclusively — who feel that they’re losing control of the world that they used to dominate. And somebody like Donald Trump says: “We are going to preserve the old way of life, where older white males dominated American society. We’re not going to let them take that away from us.” That is where their energy is.
One of the gratifying things is the American Rescue Plan had a decent amount of Republican support — 35 percent, 40 percent. But among lower-income Republicans, that number was 63 percent.
So I think that our political goal in the coming months and years is to do everything we can to reach out to young people, reach out to people of color, reach out to all people who believe in economic and social justice, but also reach out aggressively to working-class Republicans and tell them we’re going to make sure that you and your children will have a decent standard of living. We’re going to raise the minimum wage for you. We’re going to make it easier for you to join a union. We’re going to make sure that health care in America is a human right. We’re going to make sure that if we do tax breaks, you’re going to get them and not the billionaire class.
I think we have a real opportunity to pick up support in that area. And if we can do that — if you can get 10 percent of Trump’s support and grow our support by addressing the real issues that our people feel are important — you’re going to put together a coalition that is not going to lose a lot of elections.
Since everyone wants to relitigate 2016 forever, people, both left and liberal, mischaracterize Bernie. He was always far more realistic than his followers wanted or believed. He’s a standard left-liberal Democrat. Meanwhile, the hard-core Hillary backers still often see him as anathema, the man who prevented the first woman president. This is also ridiculous. Bernie has his weaknesses, no question, none more so than just not really getting race very well. But Hillary also had massive weaknesses, both as a candidate and as a politician. We can’t tell what would have happened had Bernie got behind her from the very beginning or never ran his race at all, but any assumption that he is the reason she’s not president is pretty disconnected from reality.
In any case, Bernie’s influence on moving the Democratic Party back to the left on key issues, especially economic issues, is enormous and for this, he deserves all the accolades.