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This year, even as he surged in the polls, Bernie Sanders still hadn’t done several things in a dedicated speech: define democratic socialism, the specifics of his health care policy, or how he would approach foreign policy.
Those questions have hung over Sanders’s candidacy. And on Thursday, he tried to answer one of them — and shoehorned in some foreign policy in for good measure.
So, does Bernie Sanders, the self-described Democratic Socialist, want to nationalize businesses if he becomes president?
“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow, remember this: I don't believe the government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production,” Sanders said in a speech he delivered at Georgetown University Thursday. “But I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
What about terrorism? Sanders doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience and he applied to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Can he take on ISIS?
“To my mind, it is clear that the United States must pursue policies to destroy the brutal and barbaric ISIS regime, and to create conditions that prevent fanatical extremist ideologies from flourishing. But we cannot — and should not — do it alone,” Sanders said in the second portion of the speech’s prepared text, which he largely stuck to at Georgetown save for a few ad-libs.
“We must create an organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century — an organization that emphasizes cooperation and collaboration to defeat the rise of violent extremism and importantly to address the root causes underlying these brutal acts,” he went on. “We must work with our NATO partners, and expand our coalition to include Russia and members of the Arab League.”
The United States and Russia have been increasingly at odds over the last decade.
The speech was designed to answer those two major questions about Sanders as the Democratic presidential nomination race prepares to enter the homestretch to the Iowa caucuses in early February.
The senator was wildly successful in the early months of Democratic race despite not being an official member of the party and being one of the few unabashed socialists in American politics. He has tried on several occasions to say his ideology is not fundamentally different than that of many Democratic voters.
Back in September, Sanders used a joke to make the point.
"Does anyone here think I am a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government?" Sanders said at a town hall in New Hampshire. "I want all of you to be wearing similar colored pajamas! That's my campaign — I don't like all these colors that we got here. Flannel pajamas for everyone. Same color!"
On Thursday, he tried wrapping himself in the legacy of one of the Democratic Party’s most revered figures.
FDR “acted against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists,” Sanders said, according to his prepared remarks. Roosevelt used massive government spending and new programs in a way that “redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country,” Sanders said, creating a new political power for the middle class.
“And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called ‘socialist,’” Sanders said.
Anecdotal evidence on the ground in early states as well as some polling has shown the “democratic socialist” label may not be as tough a sell to Democratic voters as the party establishment might think. Democrats overwhelmingly favor entitlement programs and new laws mandating paid leave for illness and childbirth. The Sanders campaign is pretty confident both publicly and privately that “democratic socialism” can be easily turned into an asset.
And his team also feels that Sanders’s grasp of foreign policy — set against a foreign policy experience candidate, Hillary Clinton, who spent an hour talking about no fly zones, European banking, and the Turkish-Syrian border in New York on Thursday morning — isn’t viewed properly by the media when it comes to Democratic voters.
Hours after the Paris attacks, the senator’s campaign quietly uploaded video of Sanders’s floor speech urging Congress to vote against the Iraq war in 2002 to the campaign’s YouTube account. On the debate stage with Clinton, Sanders deployed the contrast with Clinton on Iraq (she voted for the war) in a moment seen inside the campaign as successful.
But it’s clear foreign policy is not what Sanders wants to talk about. At a campaign rally in Cleveland last week, Sanders tacked on a chunk about the refugee debate onto his normal, economically-focused stump speech.
“There are those, including many Republicans, some in the media, who say that because of this horrific attack that the only thing that we should focus on is defeating ISIS,” Sanders told the Cleveland crowd. “And what I say is, yes, we will lead the world in defeating ISIS. But at the same time, we will rebuild the disappearing middle class of this country.”
At Georgetown, Sanders tried to put the foreign policy question to bed again, this time tacking talk of ISIS on the end of his long speech about democratic socialism. His call for a new NATO was a freshly-formulated version of an idea he’s been talking about for months, and his foreign policy message remained essentially the same: namely that he won’t make the mistakes that politicians in the recent past (read: Clinton) made. As Sanders is wont to do, he went deep into progressive criticism of American foreign policy to make the case that he has a different sensibility than establishment picks.
“Our response must begin with an understanding of past mistakes and missteps in our previous approaches to foreign policy. It begins with the acknowledgment that unilateral military action should be a last resort, not a first resort, and that ill-conceived military decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq, can wreak far-reaching devastation and destabilize entire regions for decades,” Sanders said in the prepared text. “It begins with the reflection that the failed policy decisions of the past – rushing to war, regime change in Iraq, or toppling Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or Guatemalan President Árbenz in 1954, Brazilian President Goulart in 1964, Chilean President Allende in 1973. These are the sorts of policies do not work, do not make us safer, and must not be repeated.”
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