Bernie Sanders had two goals Thursday afternoon when he stepped on stage for his major speech at Georgetown: to finally offer an explanation of what he means when he describes himself as a “Democratic socialist,” and to prove his bona fides on foreign policy issues.
Trying to accomplish them together made for a slightly strange event with what felt like two distinct parts—and that juxtaposition highlighted the challenge Sanders has in justifying his usually-singular focus on economic-populist issues in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Sanders said that to him, Democratic socialism means simply that the American economy benefits not only the billionaires he frequently rails against.
“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” he said.
Drawing on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and recalling New Deal-era reforms, Sanders said that people are only “truly free” if they have a sense of economic security. He named access to health care (as a “right,” not a privilege), minimum-wage increases, Wall Street reform, and tuition-free college, among others, as key tenets of his “Democratic socialist” beliefs.
“Real freedom must include economic security,” he said. “That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved—and it is time that we did.”
Though many of Roosevelt’s proposals were criticized as “socialist” at the time, Sanders continued, they form the basis of American society today. The same can be said of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to implement Medicare and Medicaid, he added.
“Almost everything [Roosevelt] proposed was called ‘socialist,’” he said. “Social Security … the concept of the minimum wage … unemployment insurance … the 40-hour workweek, collective bargaining … strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as ‘socialist.’”
Sanders said conditions for lower- and middle-class Americans contribute to the increase of political apathy. “You know why people are angry? They’re angry because they’re working terribly hard … but they’re earning less,” he said. "They’re looking all over and saying, ‘What’s happening?’”
The Vermont senator acknowledged that he has—and will again—come under fire for embracing the term “socialist,” but that his ideas are by no means radical.
“So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow, remember this: I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living,” he said.
After almost an hour on that topic, Sanders transitioned to foreign policy—and sought to link the two parts of his speech together with another quote from Roosevelt, this time explaining that without fixing problems at home it will be difficult for the United States to effectively engage abroad.
“For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world,” he said, quoting Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union.
A similarly divided agenda was on display in Cleveland Monday night, when Sanders spoke at his first post-Paris rally. There, he opened with about 10 minutes of foreign policy discussion—which threw the crowd of 7,000, who were expecting Sanders’s normal stump speech on economic issues, for a loop. At the time it seemed misplaced, and his transition between foreign policy and the usual topics was awkward. “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,” he said in Cleveland. “We can accomplish both.”
As he has in the past, Sanders on Thursday appeared far less comfortable discussing foreign policy issues than the economic issues that are the foundation of his campaign. Throughout the first portion of his speech, Sanders frequently diverged from his prepared remarks, adding in asides or throwing in additional statistics. When talking foreign policy, he stuck much more to the speech in front of him.
Sanders again touched on the importance of learning lessons from history, and he noted that American actions abroad often have “unintended consequences.
“I’m not running to pursue reckless adventures abroad, but to rebuild America’s strength at home,” he said. “I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will never send our sons and daughters to war under false pretenses or into dubious battles with no end in sight.”
He called on Arab nations—including Qatar, which he called out for spending $200 billion on World Cup facilities but giving insufficient help in the fight against ISIS—to step up their involvement.
“A new and strong coalition of Western powers, Muslim nations, and countries like Russia must come together in a strongly coordinated way to combat ISIS, to seal the borders that fighters are currently flowing across, to share counterterrorism intelligence, to turn off the spigot of terrorist financing, and to end support for exporting radical ideologies,” Sanders said.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.