As Bernie Sanders’ popularity surges, Democrats question socialist label
The self-described democratic socialist, fends off tough questions as fellow Democrats in Congress continue to endorse Hillary Clinton
As he surges in the polls, closing the gap on Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is being taken increasingly seriously as a potential presidential candidate.
In a 10-minute interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Sanders – an independent senator from Vermont running for the Democratic nomination as a self-described “democratic socialist” – fended off tougher questions about that identification than he had previously been asked.
Repeating a familiar line from his campaign and TV appearances so far, he said his popularity was in part due to the fact that ordinary American voters wanted a candidate who was willing to take on the establishment.
Since Clinton was part of that establishment, she had received endorsements while he had not, he said, adding that that was why he was now coming under attack from Democratic members of Congress.
“It’s very clear to say that Secretary [Clinton] is the candidate of most of the members of Congress, is the candidate of the Democratic establishment,” Sanders said of the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
By drawing as many as 10,000 people to a rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday and holding a series of well-attended events in Iowa, Sanders has put pressure on Clinton. On Independence Day weekend, as she campaigned in New Hampshire, Clinton defended her track record on progressive issues and the size of crowds at her events.
“I take a backseat to no one when you look at my record in standing up and fighting for progressive values,” she told an audience of about 1,300 in Hanover, New Hampshire , on Friday.
Clinton’s lead in New Hampshire and Iowa has shrunk in the past couple of weeks. Since Vermont is a neighbor state of New Hampshire, Sanders enjoys more name recognition there. The latest CNN poll in the state shows Clinton only eight points ahead of Sanders. In farther-flung Iowa, where Sanders spent Independence Day, Clinton’s lead has fallen from 45% to 19%.
Prior to Sanders’ surge in the polls, the Missouri senator Claire McCaskill told MSNBC Clinton was going to win the nomination but that nonetheless, the media needed to apply similar scrutiny to Sanders as it did to other candidates.
“I think everybody wants a fight and I think they are not really giving the same scrutiny to Bernie Sanders that they’re giving certainly to Hillary Clinton and the other candidates,” McCaskill said , adding that she “very rarely” read that Sanders identified as a socialist.
“Any other candidate that has the numbers that Hillary Clinton had right now would be, you know, talked about as absolutely untouchable,” McCaskill said. “And all of a sudden, ‘Oh, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.’ I think Bernie is too liberal to gather enough votes in this country to become president.”
In response, Sanders told Bloomberg : “I find it surprising that she says that the media doesn’t refer to me as a socialist. There’s no article that I’ve seen that doesn’t refer to me as a democratic socialist. I am.”
On Sunday, asked about McCaskill’s comments, Sanders chose instead to point out the issues on which he is campaigning – strengthening the middle class, increasing wages, healthcare and campaign finance.
He also defended his record on gun control. Confronted with his past support for legislation regarded by activists as “pro-gun”, Sanders said his most recent grade from the NRA was a D- and added that he voted to ban semi-automatic assault weapons and in favor of instant background checks.
“We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades with very little success,” he said.
“I come from a state that has basically no gun control, but the people in my state understand pretty clearly that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles.
“In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they are used by kids in gangs killing other kids, people shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people.”
Sanders said 99.9% of gun owners obeyed the law. He suggested the only way that the US would see real action on guns was if it managed to reject extreme positions on both sides of the debate.
“I think I can bring us to the middle,” he said.
That might be difficult, however, when his own state’s gun-rights group does not support him.
“We, in Vermont, consider him anti-gun,” Gun Owners of Vermont president Ed Cutler told Politico .
Despite the presidential election being months away, on Sunday Tapper also pressed Sanders on what his cabinet would look like if he were to be elected.
“I will appoint people to deal with the issue of youth unemployment, which we don’t talk about at all,” Sanders said. “Youth unemployment in this country, for the African-American kids is over 50%, for Hispanic kids over 30% and the same for white kids.”
Sanders said his cabinet would not be filled with those looking out for the interests of Wall Street, but added that it was too early to be having such a conversation.
“It’s a little bit too early, I must think, to be appointing a cabinet,” he said. “Let me get elected first.”
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