Bernie Sanders’s New Campaign: Taking On Big Pharma and Starbucks
Senator Bernie Sanders had a full schedule last Thursday. In the morning, he presided over his first hearing as the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, his old-school Brooklyn accent ringing out across the hearing room. At lunchtime, he held a press conference with a group of labor-union officials to demand paid sick leave for railway workers, a cause he has long championed. Speaking from his office that afternoon, he told me he was amped up about heading the health committee, a position previously held by Senator Patty Murray, of Washington.
“I think the first thing we have to do is to talk to the American people about what is going on in our economy, and that is something Congress or the media does not do very often,” Sanders said. Then he went into a familiar spiel, similar to the ones he delivered in 2016 and 2020, about how the American health-care system is “dysfunctional and broken,” nearly twice as costly as the systems in other industrialized countries, yet leaving eighty-five million Americans uninsured or underinsured. “Meanwhile,” he went on, “the insurance companies make tens of billions a year in profit.” Sanders also castigated Big Pharma, noting that, earlier in the day, he had spoken to someone from Finland, who had told him that drug prices in that country were, in some cases, a tenth of the prices in the United States. “So we have to pick on the incredible greed of the pharmaceutical industry, who make huge profits every year and pay their C.E.O.s huge salaries and compensation packages,” he said. “That’s something we are going to go into big time.”
Chairing a Senate committee isn’t new to Sanders, who has been in the Senate since 2007. In 2013 and 2014, he helmed the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where he worked with the Republican John McCain to successfully reform the health-care system for veterans. From 2021 to 2023, he was the head of the Senate Budget Committee, where he helped to craft the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Act, a bill he has described as the most significant piece of legislation for working-class people since the Great Depression. Subsequently, Sanders played a prominent role in the Democratic effort to enact most of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda in one huge spending bill, and lamented its demise. Chairing the health committee, it seems, has reënergized Sanders and given him a new platform that he relishes, one from which he can address many of the everyday economic issues that he has always felt passionately about.
In January, he wrote to Moderna and rebuked the company for raising the price of its covid vaccine. Last week, he and other Democrats on the committee asked Howard Schultz, the C.E.O. of Starbucks, to testify next month about his company’s efforts to suppress union-organization efforts at its shops. “Starbucks has been cited dozens and dozens of times by the National Labor Relations Board for breaking the law,” he told me. “They are attempting to break the unions, and it happens to be illegal to do that.” I asked when we should expect to see the top executives of Amazon and other companies that have fought against unionization campaigns following Schultz up to the Hill. “We’ll see, we’ll take them one at a time,” Sanders replied. “But right now we’ve got around to Starbucks.”
As a politician, Sanders has three great strengths. First, he is always on message. Second, the pathologies of twenty-first-century American capitalism insure that message continues to resonate broadly. Third, at the age of eighty-one, he still exudes energy and enthusiasm for the task at hand. (“I just turned thirty-four, and he runs circles around me every day,” Mike Casca, his communications director, told me.) In 2020, Donald Trump caricatured Sanders’s political philosophy as communism. Actually, it’s a lot closer to Scandinavian social democracy, and it also contains a distinctly American strain of moral outrage, which can be traced back to the Wobblies and Eugene V. Debs, as well as to the Progressives and William Jennings Bryan. Later this month, Penguin Random House is publishing a book, which Sanders and the journalist John Nichols co-wrote, titled “It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism.” He’s going on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to promote the book, then flying to England for an event in Oxford.
Sanders is also planning to get members of the health committee out of Washington and onto the road, at a series of public hearings that he will hold around the country. “I am excited about that,” he told me. “Look, one of the great political crises facing this country is that many millions of working-class people no longer believe that government is capable of responding to their needs.” He continued, “We’re gonna hear from workers about what’s going on, the wages they are earning. We are going to talk to senior citizens about the high cost of prescription drugs, talk to young people about the affordability of college and what student debt is doing to them. We’ll talk to parents who can’t afford to send their kids to child care.”
That seems to be a good idea, but will it help facilitate the passage of legislation to tackle some of these problems? In the past, some of Sanders’s own Democratic colleagues have questioned his record as a legislator. The Republican Mitt Romney, who sits on the Senate health committee, recently dismissed Sanders’s style as “a lot of storm and fury” and predicted that “very little will reach the floor.” During our conversation, Sanders freely conceded that he doesn’t have the votes to get through the Senate a Medicare for All bill of the sort that he has long supported. But he insisted that he could work with Republicans on such issues as expanding nonprofit community health centers and reducing the cost of prescription drugs.
“The primary health-care system is even more broken than the general health-care system,” he said. “You have tens and tens of millions of people who, even if they have insurance, can’t find a doctor. Hospitals are shutting down. We don’t have enough doctors. We don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough dentists or mental-health providers.” In 2010, Sanders and Jim Clyburn, the Democratic congressman from South Carolina, championed a provision of the Affordable Care Act that provided eleven billion dollars to build and expand community health centers, including in rural regions. Since then, the program has been expanded, but it needs reauthorization later this year. Sanders wants to renew and further expand it, with a long-term goal of securing basic health coverage for all Americans. “Community health centers have a long bipartisan history, and in many Republican areas it is very hard for people to access the medical care they need,” he said. “I think the Republicans understand it, so that is definitely an area where we can get Republican support.”
Building on last year’s Inflation Reduction Act—which included a landmark provision that empowered Medicare administrators to negotiate a very limited number of prescription-drug prices—is another Sanders goal. “Generally speaking, Republican voters are older, and they are getting crucified by the cost of prescription drugs,” he noted. Right after saying this, however, Sanders pointed out that there are more than seventeen hundred registered lobbyists in Washington for pharmaceuticals and health products. When I asked if he could defeat this highly paid army of corporate-privilege defenders, he replied, “These guys are enormously powerful—so I am not predicting victory, but I am saying that they will know they have been in a fight.”
Sticking it to the corporate plutocracy may be what many of Sanders’s admirers will remember him for (that, and Larry David’s timeless impersonations of him during the 2016 campaign). But he’s also hopeful that history will credit him with something more lasting: shifting the terms of the political debate inside the Democratic Party. “I take pride in the fact that we have, to a significant degree, changed the conversation as to what is achievable in this country,” he said. “I’m very proud of the fact that large numbers of young people and working-class people are prepared to think big and not small.” If, as is often said, Joe Biden occupies the very center of the Party, Sanders surely helped to move that point leftward. He didn’t do it alone, of course. But, in one example of how things have changed, the Biden White House last year proposed an annual wealth tax on billionaires—a proposal that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigned on in the 2020 Democratic primary, and which Biden called for again in his State of the Union speech.
When I suggested to Sanders, only partly in jest, that Biden had sounded a bit like him, he replied, “I wouldn’t go that far, but I thought it was one of the better State of the Union speeches I have heard.” Since attacking each other during the 2020 primary, Sanders and Biden have established a good working relationship. Sanders appreciated Biden’s efforts to reach out to his supporters after he won the nomination: he included some of them in a policymaking task force that endorsed some progressive goals. A couple of weeks ago, Sanders told me, he went down to the White House and chatted with the President for an hour about his agenda for the health-and-labor committee.
Despite this cordiality, there has inevitably been some speculation about Sanders’s intentions for 2024, and whether he could possibly launch a third Presidential bid. When I brought this up, Sanders had a scripted answer. “Right now,” he said, “my assumption is that President Biden is running for reëlection, and, if he is, I will be supporting him.” Biden is expected to confirm his candidacy soon. Meanwhile, Sanders is focussing on matters that he insists are more important. On Monday, he joined Warren and other Democrats in both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would expand Social Security benefits by twenty-four hundred dollars a year and fund it for the next seventy-five years from higher payroll taxes on the rich. Later in the day, he held a town-hall meeting in Washington about the “teacher pay crisis in America.” On Thursday, he will preside over a hearing on the shortage of doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers. The senator from Vermont is as busy as he’s been since he was first elected to the House as a forty-nine-year-old independent socialist in 1990—and he seems to be revelling in it. “There is an enormous amount of work to be done,” he told me.
John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.
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