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“We Must & Can Aim High”: Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich on Endorsing Bernie Sanders

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We speak with Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997, about his decision to formally endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for president on the Democratic ticket. “What worries me about other candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, is that the message seems to be we cannot aim high, or we must not be ambitious, we must not try to be bold, because we can’t get there. That, to me, is exactly the wrong message,” Reich says. “In terms of mobilizing Americans and organizing and getting the kind of response we need from Americans to push Congress, to change Congress, to get a government that is responsible for us, the message should be we must and can aim high. We can do it. And we’ve done it before in this country.” This comes as four top economists and former advisers for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have issued an open letter to Senator Sanders criticizing his economic platform. Reich is the author of many books, mostly recently, “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn right now to the Democrats, we’re going to turn now to an endorsement that might surprise many. We continue today’s show on Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day in the presidential race, as we turn to the Democratic race between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Following her commanding win in South Carolina, Clinton now leads Bernie Sanders in six of the 11 states voting today—in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Sanders, meanwhile, has an overwhelming lead in Vermont. And four remaining states are up for grabs—Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado—as well as the territory American Samoa.

About 880 delegates are at stake in today’s contests. Clinton has secured 91 regular delegates; Sanders has 65. But Clinton vastly leads Sanders in pledged support from superdelegates—the congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who are free to support either candidate and who often represent the Democratic Party elite. According to The New York Times delegate tracker, Clinton now has the support of 455 superdelegates, while Sanders has only 22 superdelegates. Now, again, those superdelegates can flip at any point. They are not obligated to stick with their original endorsement.

Well, on Friday, one of the former members of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet made headlines when he announced he is supporting Bernie Sanders. Robert Reich is the former labor secretary and author of many books, mostly recently, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. Although Secretary Reich served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, he broke with his support for the Clintons, writing, quote, “This extraordinary concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the very top imperils all else.”

Robert Reich, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us from the University of California, Berkeley, studios, the University of California where you teach.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, talk about this official endorsement, that may have taken many by surprise.

ROBERT REICH: Well, I don’t know why it should take anybody by surprise. I’ve been talking about the increasing concentration of income and wealth, and the political power that comes with increasingly concentrated income and wealth, for many, many years. And the problem is that it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse, unless we have a mobilization, a real movement, to get big money out of politics and to cure up—to kind of deal with this, this imbalance in our economy. It’s not going to be remedied on its own. And that’s why I support Bernie Sanders. He’s leading a movement to reverse what we have seen in terms of income and wealth at the top, and also leading the same kind of movement—and it really is the same thing—to get big money out of politics.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a quote of a letter that was released by a number of economists. I want to read from an open letter to Senator Sanders from four of the former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Earlier this month, they wrote, quote, “We are concerned to see the Sanders campaign citing extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan—claims that cannot be supported by the economic evidence. Friedman asserts that your plan will have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax cut proposals.

“As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic. These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.”

Can you respond to what they’ve said?

ROBERT REICH: Well, they’re entitled to their opinion, Amy, but I respectfully disagree. Bernie Sanders is claiming—and Gerald Friedman, professor Gerald Friedman, an economist, backing him up, is claiming—that he could, because of his proposals, such as a single-payer plan, get economic growth up to 5.3 percent—that’s not out of the historic dimension of what’s possible; in fact, in the early 1980s, we had 5.3, almost 5.4, percent economic growth—and also get unemployment down to 3.9 percent or 3.8 percent—again, not out of historic possibility. In fact, that’s what was the approximate rate in the late 1990s.

And the reason that Bernie Sanders is claiming this, and the reason this is credible, is because a single-payer plan would have extraordinarily positive effects on the economy. We are now paying—well, healthcare is about 18 percent of the entire economy. If we actually did move to the single-payer plan, that would generate huge productivity increases that would free up resources in our economy and generate the possibilities for economic growth and also low unemployment of a sort that we see in that plan’s projections.

AMY GOODMAN: The people who wrote this, Austan Goolsbee, University of Chicago Booth School; Alan Krueger, Princeton; you have Christina Romer from your school, University of California, Berkeley, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, 2009 to '10; and Laura Tyson, as well, also from your school. You're saying they’re all wrong?

ROBERT REICH: I’m saying I disagree with them. I mean, it’s not just me. Professor James Galbraith of the University of Texas, who was the executive director of the Joint Economic Committee in Congress—and that is the corresponding unit to the Council of Economic Advisers—agrees with Gerald Friedman and me that these projections are within the range of possibility, for exactly the reasons I gave you, that when you’re talking about a very large and ambitious program—in this case, a single-payer plan—you can get those kinds of very, very large and positively ambitious results.

AMY GOODMAN: In February, I interviewed Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont for three terms, from ’85 to ’91. She wrote the book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family. And I asked her about her op-ed in The Boston Globe. It was headlined “When Bernie Sanders Ran Against Me in Vermont.”

MADELEINE KUNIN: I agree with what he says in principle, but how do you make it a reality? You know, how do we have an effective president of the United States? The word “revolution” is beautiful. You know, I’d like a revolution myself. I mean, the title “revolution” is in my book, The New Feminist Agenda, about women’s issues. But I think you have to say, “Who’s going to make it happen? Who can have the temperament to be president? Who can have the networks? Who can be collegial?”

You know, research has shown that women—and you see it in the United States Senate—they work well with each other. They work across party lines. They do their homework. And, you know, I’ve been involved in the women’s movement all of my life. And when—you know, we were told, to make it in the man’s world, you’ve got to play the game, while you’re changing how the game is played. And that’s what she is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to Governor Madeleine Kunin?

ROBERT REICH: Well, I’ve heard Governor Kunin and others say that this kind of radical change, a revolutionary change in our politics that Bernie Sanders is calling for, is not possible, or it is wishful thinking. I’ll tell you my response. And if you look at the civil rights movement, you look at way back in our history, the movement of women to get the vote, look at any major change in the power structure of America, or even the movement to end the Vietnam War, they were all movements. They were all mass mobilizations. People in the United States decided that they had had enough and they were going to change the structure of power in the United States. Bernie Sanders is leading exactly that kind of movement to get big money out of politics.

And, Amy, I don’t know how else to do it. I mean, I was there. I was in the Clinton administration; I have been in a Cabinet. I can tell you that unless good people outside the United States—rather, good people outside Washington are mobilized and organized and energized to make change happen, it doesn’t matter how good the people are in Washington, nothing is going to change, because the special interests are going to dominate. You need that kind of mobilization in order to get change. And Bernie Sanders is doing exactly that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guest is Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Clinton, now professor at University of California, Berkeley, author of many books, most recently, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. This is Democracy Now! It’s Super Tuesday. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “O Fortuna” performed by Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg and Kurt Prestel. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Super Tuesday. I want to turn to a clip from the Sanders-Clinton debate earlier this month in Milwaukee. During one exchange about healthcare, Hillary Clinton continued to press the idea that Bernie Sanders’ single-payer healthcare system would undo the Affordable Care Act.

HILLARY CLINTON: Last week in a CNN town hall, the senator told a questioner that the questioner would spend about $500 in taxes to get about $5,000 in healthcare. Every progressive economist who has analyzed that says that the numbers don’t add up. And that’s a promise that cannot be kept. And it’s really important, now that we are getting into the rest of the country, that both of us are held to account for explaining what we are proposing, because especially with healthcare, this is not about math, this is about people’s lives. And we should level with the American people about what we can do to make sure they get quality, affordable healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton in a debate with Bernie Sanders. We’re joined by Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. And certainly, Robert Reich, this was an issue that Hillary Clinton was dealing with through the Bill Clinton presidency. Can you talk about her criticism of Bernie Sanders around pushing for single-payer healthcare?

ROBERT REICH: Yeah, well, I think that criticism centers around the worry that it is somehow going to lead to the destruction of the Affordable Care Act. I frankly don’t understand that, Amy. In fact, there are states like, for example, Vermont, that are and have considered putting a single-payer plan on the exchanges that people use under the Affordable Care Act—that is, using the Affordable Care Act as a launching pad for a single-payer plan.

Many health economists, many of us who do policy, think that a single-payer plan is almost inevitable in this country, because it is so much more efficient, because it reduces costs and also provides very high-quality care. Most other advanced nations have it. We are paying so much in this country for a healthcare system based on private, for-profit insurance, where so much of that money goes to advertising and promotion and administration and billing and CEO pay. This is absurd.

And as baby boomers get older and need more medical assistance, we’re not going to be able to afford the kind of healthcare system we have right now. And that’s why a single-payer plan is critical. That’s why Bernie Sanders wants to move to it. And it’s not going to jeopardize the Affordable Care Act. There can be just—you can make, as Barack Obama almost did, a kind of Medicare-for-all or a single-payer option.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to Bernie Sanders in that same debate with Hillary Clinton.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Here’s the reality, folks: There is one major country on Earth that does not guarantee healthcare to all people. There is one major country, the United States, which ends up spending almost three times per capita what they do in the U.K. guaranteeing healthcare to all people, 50 percent more than they do in France guaranteeing healthcare to all people, far more than our Canadian neighbors, who guarantee healthcare to all people. Please do not tell me that in this country, if—and here’s the “if”—we have the courage to take on the drug companies and have the courage to take on the insurance companies and the medical equipment suppliers, if we do that, yes, we can guarantee healthcare to all people in a much more cost-effective way.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Senator Sanders talking about Medicare for all. But the question, Robert Reich, is—and this goes to the whole attack Hillary Clinton has waged against Bernie Sanders around, you know, waging a revolution, but how do you get there—how do you get there from here? How do you get to Medicare for all? If he were president, could he actually accomplish this? And you’ve been in the government. You were under the Clintons. Can you talk about how this would—what the pathway would be?

ROBERT REICH: I think the pathway, Amy, is very much the same pathway of getting big money out of politics. It is mobilization of people outside Washington. It’s getting the public to focus on what is important, and it is exercising that kind of leadership—also, aiming high. What worries me about other candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, is that the message seems to be we cannot aim high, or we must not be ambitious, we must not try to be bold, because we can’t get there. That, to me, is exactly the wrong message. The message should be—in terms of mobilizing Americans and organizing and getting the kind of response we need from Americans to push Congress, to change Congress, to get a government that is responsible for us, the message should be we must and can aim high. We can do it.

And we’ve done it before in this country. We’ve had some very, very ambitious—and vicious—changes. You know, I lived through the civil rights era. I saw what activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and presidents like Lyndon Johnson were able to do. And we have to—you know, the urgency right now with regard to everything we consider important, from Black Lives Matter and the kind of discrimination, structural discrimination, we’re seeing, all the way through climate change, nothing can change unless we get big money out of politics, unless we return the United States from being almost an oligarchy to a true democracy once again. That’s what Bernie Sanders is talking about. I can’t understand why anybody would find that difficult or objectionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, Robert Reich, you have an inside view of the Clinton administration. You were the labor secretary for years. Can you talk about the power of Hillary Clinton within that? I mean, there are a lot of presidencies where the president, who is the husband—you don’t know really what the wife’s views are. How powerful was Hillary Clinton within the Bill Clinton presidency?

ROBERT REICH: She was his chief adviser. I think that Hillary Clinton was as powerful, if not more powerful, than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. And Hillary was continuously helping Bill Clinton make very, very fundamental decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: At a South Carolina fundraiser in Charleston, a young African-American woman, Ashley Williams, criticized—interrupted the fundraiser. A friend had paid the $500 for her to get into this protest. And she was saying, “I am not a superpredator.” And this goes to the whole issue of criminal justice under the Clinton presidency. Can you talk about this and mass incarceration and the number of African Americans in prison, and how that relates to the Clinton presidency? This goes also to Michelle Alexander, who has written extensively about this and wrote a major piece in The Nation against Hillary Clinton, saying that it was under the Clintons—and held both responsible—that mass incarceration, we saw such an escalation, because of the policies put in place.

ROBERT REICH: Yes, I want to say, Amy—first of all, I want to say that I don’t think it’s entirely fair to hold somebody responsible, even if they are first lady, and even if they were a powerful first lady, for what their husbands did in office 20 ago. I think that’s a little bit of a stretch. There’s no question that Bill Clinton, on mass incarceration, that crime bill, also on welfare reform—so-called, which really was a very draconian welfare program, that subsequently showed itself to be very cruel to a lot of poor people in America—and thirdly, on some of the foreign policy that Bill Clinton got into—I think it’s unfair to hold Hillary responsible, even though she was a very powerful adviser. We don’t know which way she argued in those particular cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on the issue of superpredators, she herself admits—and, of course, there’s video of her talking about superpredator children.

ROBERT REICH: Yeah, well, undoubtedly, on certain of those, she was—she was helping her husband. All I want to say is that I think that she’s got to be evaluated on her own merits, in terms of what she has done and what she has accomplished, what she has not accomplished, what she has said in this campaign, what we understand about her values. And I’ve known here, you know, for 49 years. I met her when she was 19 years old. I have a lot of confidence in her abilities. I think she’s very, very experienced.

I don’t think—you know, I think if she is president, she will do a job a thousand times better than any of the Republican clowns who are now running. But I think we do have a choice on the Democratic side between two people who are very different in terms of their ambitions with regard to remaking our democracy and remaking American politics, and also attacking this kind of economic oligarchy we now have.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Reich, what do you see—

ROBERT REICH: And I don’t think Hillary is willing to take that on.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see is Bernie Sanders’ pathway to the presidency right now?

ROBERT REICH: He said last night that he is going to continue to take this all the way to the convention. And I believe that he sees himself as a vehicle for this movement. In other words, this campaign is less about Bernie Sanders, for Bernie Sanders—and he would be the first to admit this—than it is about a movement against American oligarchy and against big money in politics. And he, therefore, by saying that he’s going to take it all the way to the convention, I think he means he’s going to take this movement all the way to the convention. And hopefully it’s going to be, regardless of what happens, regardless of whether he has enough convention delegates, it is going to be a very vocal and very important movement in the future.

Amy, finally, let me just say, the superdelegate problem is a huge kind of symbol of what we are up against in this country. The Democratic Party has all these insider superdelegates. You’re right, they could change their mind at any time. But merely having superdelegates, who are insiders, who will play such a significant role at the convention, is testament to the fact that the Democratic Party still doesn’t quite get it, in terms of this antiestablishment era we are now entering in America, where most Americans are saying the political establishment has not worked for us.

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