Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at times Monday sounded like he was already running against President Trump in a general election, rather than the crowded field of Democrats he must first do battle with in the 2020 primary.
During a televised town hall on CNN, Sanders criticized Trump for abandoning working Americans, promised to campaign in “Trump Country,” and even gave a nod to a county in Pennsylvania that voted for Trump after backing Barack Obama twice.
Story Continued Below
“Trump told working people that he was going to be on their side. He is not on their side,” Sanders said. “By the end of this campaign, I suspect that a number of people who voted for Donald Trump will understand that he is not their friend and that the agenda that we have, which is prepared to take on the billionaire class, is the agenda they will support.”
Sanders said he believes he can defeat Trump in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, four swing states that were key to the president’s victory in 2016. He referenced a locomotives business in Erie, Pa., that began requiring mandatory overtime and paying lower wages after merging with another company, he said, while at the same time handing out lavish bonuses to high-ranking officials.
“That is what’s going on all over this country — large corporations cut health care and benefits to their workers and the CEOs make 300 times what their workers make,” he said. “You go to Trump Country and ask people there whether they think that makes sense.”
Sanders’ message may reflect his position in the race: Among the Democratic candidates who are running, he is at the top of the the polls. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not announced yet whether he’ll campaign for the presidency, is the only candidate ahead of Sanders in most surveys.
It also may be a strategy to win over the many primary voters who are most concerned with ousting Trump: A majority of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters said they value the ability to defeat Trump over political ideology, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
Sanders was asked on CNN about three problems facing his 2016 campaign: alleged sexual harassment by his staffers, mistrust among some African-American voters, and questions about his tax returns.
Sanders, who said he was “very upset” to learn of the sexual misconduct claims, promised his 2020 operation would have strong protocols in place to prevent employees from being mistreated, require significant training of workers, and give victims the ability to speak with a third party outside of the campaign.
The Vermont senator said Monday that he won over young voters of color in 2016 and is “doing quite well with the African-American community” in current polls. But he acknowledged that “maybe I haven’t been as strong on” the issue of racial disparities “as I should be.”
“The wealth gap between a white family and a black family is 10 to 1,” he said. “Black kids are leaving college more deeply in debt than white kids.”
Asked about reparations, which other presidential candidates such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro have embraced in some form, Sanders said he backs anti-poverty legislation expanding the “10/20/30” plan. That plan is designed to ensure more federal funds are targeted toward communities with persistently high levels of poverty.
He said it was unclear what other 2020 contenders meant when they said they are for reparations. His opponents have released few details of their reparations plans, and the Associated Press reported that “except for long-shot candidate Marianne Williamson, no Democratic White House hopeful has called for financial remuneration for blacks.”
“What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure that anyone’s very clear,” he said, adding, “I think we must do everything that we can to address the massive level of disparity that exists in this country.”
At the CNN event, Sanders talked about his well-known agenda of Medicare-for-All, free college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage, as well as a foreign policy that is anti-interventionist. And he said the “message of our campaign is that we’ve got to bring our people together, black and white and Latino, bring our people together around an agenda that creates a government that works for all of us.”
Sanders also promised Monday to release 10 years’ worth of tax returns during his campaign for president, but he didn’t say when he would make them public.
“Our tax returns will bore you to death,” Sanders said, adding that they would come out “soon.”
In the 2016 presidential election, Sanders released his 2014 tax returns. They showed that he had an adjusted gross income of $205,271 and that he paid $27,653 in federal taxes.
Sanders faced criticism at the time for not releasing more of his tax returns. His plan for his tax returns was initially reported by the National Journal.