SANDERS: I think you can make that case. You could also say it was an expensive and inefficient way of doing some good things. We can’t ignore the fact that at a time when 50 million people have no health insurance, after Obamacare we’re going to provide insurance, in a rather complicated way, to 30 million more through Medicaid and access through exchanges. That’s not anything to sneeze at.
PLAYBOY: So Obamacare in your view is a plus?
SANDERS: Well, as a matter of fact, it’s no great secret that early on the president made a deal with the drug companies to get them onboard, saying there would not be an effort to lower the cost of prescription drugs. On financial issues the president is a moderate, not very progressive at all.
PLAYBOY: Do you respond to politicians who say they’re patriots and they support the troops but then vote to cut veterans’ benefits?
SANDERS: People who give great speeches about the need to go to war and years later talk about gutting benefits for vets or ignoring their needs? As somebody who has always been antiwar—I’m not a pacifist but I’ve always understood war is the last recourse—I also understand the cost of war. Some people think more Vietnam vets committed suicide than were killed in Vietnam. Lives were just totally destroyed. Right now, as a result of this war in Iraq, which I voted against, there are an estimated 50,000 veterans suffering from minor to moderate traumatic brain injuries. These are folks you would not recognize walking down the street. This is not somebody who has had half his head blown off. These are folks who are functioning but have been exposed to multiple explosions; maybe they have had many, many concussions. We don’t know what that will mean over the years. We don’t know its impact on depression, on other emotional attributes, on behavior.
PLAYBOY: How would you assess the country’s nation-building efforts around the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan?
SANDERS: If you want to talk about nation building, I know a great nation that needs to be rebuilt. It’s called the United States of America. I would rather invest in this country than in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our roads and bridges and railroads and water systems and schools need rebuilding. We have been at war now for more than a decade. Our troops have done a tremendous job, but it is time for the people of Afghanistan to take full responsibility for their country and for waging the war against the Taliban. And in Iraq, I think it’s clear that nation building didn’t work very well.
PLAYBOY: There has been a debate about the president’s use of drones, particularly whether any president can order the killing of an American citizen without due process. What’s your view?
SANDERS: The way the drone program has been handled is a major reason I voted against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Of course we must defend ourselves against terrorism, but I am not convinced Brennan is adequately sensitive to the important balancing act required to make protecting our civil liberties an integral part of ensuring our national security. Drone attacks that kill innocent people are immoral and create an enormous amount of anti-Americanism.
PLAYBOY: Do you think international terrorist attacks at home are a serious threat requiring more surveillance, less privacy or other actions? Do we need a London-style network of cameras on public streets? How active should the NSA be?
SANDERS: I think we can fight terrorism without undermining the Constitution. That is why I voted against the so-called Patriot Act. In my view, that surveillance law gives the government far too much power to spy on innocent U.S. citizens and provides for very little oversight or disclosure.
PLAYBOY: What role does religious fundamentalism play in conflicts today in the world and at home, whether it’s fundamentalist Islam, Christianity or Judaism?
SANDERS: I have real problems with people who believe they have a direct line from God and can commit any act, no matter how horrendous, because it is “God’s will.” There is no simple answer to combating religious fundamentalism. It’s a question of education, of bringing people together to discover their common humanity and working toward more tolerant and democratic societies.
PLAYBOY: If you had the power, how would you negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where fundamentalism is so strong?
SANDERS: The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples. We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace, security and statehood rather than to empty rhetoric and violence. A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.
PLAYBOY: And what role, if any, do you see for the U.S. in Syria?
SANDERS: With regard to Syria, it is my strong opinion that Bashar al-Assad has to go. He is a terrible dictator at war with his own people. The difficulty for the United States is to make certain the opposition groups we support in Syria are not extremists working with Al Qaeda.
PLAYBOY: Is the deficit a challenge to be addressed slowly over time, as Paul Krugman and others argue, or an immediate crisis that puts the country at grave risk and requires immediate deep cuts, as others say? Do you see a price for inaction?
SANDERS: Congressional action has already resulted in a major reduction of the deficit, and I expect that in years to come those reductions will continue. Our focus has to be on the economic crisis facing the working families of this country. We need to address the reality that real unemployment today is around 14 percent and higher for young people and minorities. We need to invest significantly in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. When we do that we make the country more productive, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create millions of jobs. We cannot continue to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.
PLAYBOY: Yet people go out every two or four years and vote for those two parties. Incumbents keep doing those things, and they keep getting reelected.
SANDERS: I think a lot of that has to do with people voting for what they perceive to be the lesser of two evils. A couple of years ago, not long after President Obama was elected, I had the opportunity to be in the Oval Office with him. What I said to him—I won’t tell you what he said to me—was “Now is the time not for another Bill Clinton but for an FDR. People want to know why their standard of living is going down, why they’re getting battered. They want to know who is responsible, and they want to know what we are going to do about that.” That’s what the American people want to hear. Why is the standard of living for the average American going down? Why is the gap between the rich and the poor getting wider? Why is Wall Street able to get away with murder? People want to know why.
PLAYBOY: How would you describe the differences between FDR and Bill Clinton?
SANDERS: Well, Clinton was and is a very smart guy, but he is the guy who signed NAFTA. I like Bill Clinton, I like Hillary Clinton, but they live in a world surrounded by a lot of money. It’s not an accident that Clinton is doing a fantastic job with his foundation. Where do you think that money is coming from? The point being that Clinton was a moderate Democrat who was heavily influenced by Wall Street and big-money interests, and Obama is governing in that same way.
PLAYBOY: And compared with FDR?
SANDERS: The difference is FDR had the courage and the good political sense to understand that in the middle of terrible economic times the American people wanted to know what caused their suffering, who was the cause of it, and they wanted somebody to take these guys on, so he was very aggressive in his rhetoric in taking on the money interests. He said, “Of course they’re going to hate me, and I welcome their hatred. I’m with the working people of America. We’re going to take on the money interests, and we are going to create jobs through a variety of government programs.” If you’re prepared to deal with class issues, as Roosevelt did, if you’re prepared to take on the big-money interests, you can rally the American people, and I think you can marginalize the Republicans.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a favorite Republican, dead or alive?
SANDERS: Abraham Lincoln, of course. George Aiken, a former governor and senator of Vermont, was a smart and progressive politician. Teddy Roosevelt fought to break up big corporations. Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex and built the interstate highway system. One of the great tragedies of today’s politics is that the Republican Party is now a right-wing extremist party in which none of these leaders would be welcome.