Sanders unveils plan to tax companies with high-earning CEOs

Sen. Bernie Sanders. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Holly Otterbein writes:

Bernie Sanders has a new plan to reduce the widening gap between the rich and poor.

The presidential candidate and decadeslong crusader against income inequality unveiled a proposal Monday to raise taxes on businesses whose CEOs make at least 50 times more than their median workers.

The boost in corporate taxes would be imposed on companies that bring in $100 million or more in annual revenue.

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Bernie Sanders won’t kiss your baby, but he feels your pain

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By Holly Otterbein

The famous curmudgeon shows his emotional side.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Bernie Sanders is getting warm and fuzzy. 

The Democratic presidential candidate who wouldn’t be caught dead kissing babies or flipping burgers at state fairs has figured out a way to engage in retail politics on his own terms — and there’s evidence it might be working. 

Over the past month, Sanders has held a series of small, share-your-pain town halls and other events, in which he’s asked voters to respond to prompts such as “Talk about your health care experience" and "Anybody in the room trying to make it on less than $15" an hour? People have told wrenching tales of not being able to afford treatment for PTSD after surviving a mass shooting, losing their home, and their boyfriend killing himself after being kicked off Medicaid, as the candidate offers sympathy and encouragement. At times, Sanders has cut himself off during a talk or ditched a planned speech to segue into a conversation with voters. 

“How do you do well in school if you can’t hear what your professors are saying?” Sanders said at one event after a 19-year-old college student discussed having to pay more than $5,000 for a hearing aid. “And this is a story we hear a hundred times."

The emphasis on intimate, personal interactions with voters is a departure from the early days of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, when he often spoke uninterrupted for long periods of time at large rallies. When he held smaller town halls, Sanders would sometimes take a few questions from the audience and be done. 

The more emotive style of campaigning — emotive for Sanders, at least — coincides with a small polling upswing for him after he stalled in some surveys in the early summer months. The Vermont senator had notably slipped in a handful of polls of the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where retail politics is paramount. 

“He does retail, it’s fair to say, in his own way,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said after a Q&A with rallygoers in Iowa this month. “Particularly when you’re campaigning and winning votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada, it’s critical that he hears people and they hear him. It is truly a conversation.”

Though Sanders began holding smaller town halls and events months ago, his aides said he started making them more participatory at the beginning of August. The new format was on display during his 10-stop, three-day swing in Iowa last week. For instance, he was delivering his stump speech for about 15 minutes at a rally at his campaign office in Sioux City, Iowa — and then stopped. 

“Let me take a break here and ask some of you a question,” he said. “I want people to tell me, if they could, tell me what they’re paying for health care right now. Anyone want to volunteer that?”

All across the room, hands shot up. “I just got hit by a car,” one man said, adding that he owes $4,000 for the trip to the ER and lives on money from Social Security. “I got rejected from Medicaid,” a woman said, adding she has paid more than $5,000 so far this year in out-of-pocket expenses. 

Sanders’ advisers said they understand that campaigning with a personal touch is critical in early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But it isn’t always easy to persuade Sanders to put that knowledge into practice: For years, he had resisted his aides’ advice to tell his personal story on the stump. Then he relented this winter and placed his biography at the center of his kickoff rallies, only to largely let it recede after his launch.

In recent months, though, Sanders has increasingly participated in “selfie lines,” a practice Elizabeth Warren popularized. He took photos with supporters at almost every stop in Iowa last week, including at several events with actress Susan Sarandon, one of his most high-profile surrogates, and her dog, Penny.

Dave Johnson, a former Iowa city councilor who has endorsed Sanders, said it's critical for presidential candidates to engage in retail politics in his state because the hourslong caucuses are so demanding.

“With a caucus, it’s very important that your supporters are enthusiastic. Because unlike a primary, it’s not a 10-minute process where you go in and you vote and you leave,” Johnson said as Sanders snapped pictures with fans in his backyard after an ice cream social. “When people get photos with him or even donate $5 to him, it’s like an investment into this idea, this political revolution. It’s theirs now, and they’re much more likely to come out and caucus because of it.”

Sanders has especially high expectations in Iowa: He came within nearly a third of a percentage point of defeating Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016, and caucuses have a reputation of favoring liberal candidates. But many Democratic activists and operatives have named Warren’s Iowa team as the most organized, and Joe Biden has hired the biggest staff.

Sanders has spent six days in Iowa in August, more days than in any other state this month. While Sanders fell to fourth place in Iowa in Monmouth University and USA Today/Suffolk University surveys this summer, he's polling better in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Sanders’ team said it has nine campaign offices open in Iowa, with three more on the way by the end of September, and employs 51 staffers in the state, with plans to hire at least another 25 soon.

On the trail in Iowa last week, Sanders opened up in other ways: He took questions from reporters twice, something he rarely does. He brought his wife, grandson and son to a softball game between his campaign and members of the media. When his staff told reporters to give him some space while he was practicing before the game, he said, “You guys want to stay, they can stay.” 

Sanders’ aides said his intimate town halls have helped them recruit more volunteers in Iowa and other states. They’ve also spread his message that the nation’s health care industry is failing and workers are suffering through the mouths of everyday voters. His social media team often quickly clips the interactions and shares them on social media.

Unlike some other parts of campaigning, Sanders’ aides also said he enjoys hearing the life stories of working-class Americans — and is energized by them.

"We’ll get in the car and he’ll tell me, ‘Did you hear that one? Did you hear this one?’" Shakir said. "They stick with him."


Stalled Sanders campaign orchestrated reboot after first debate


The senator is betting that a renewed focus on his signature proposal — 'Medicare for All' — is the key to jump-starting his candidacy and overtaking Joe Biden.

Holly Otterbein and Alex Thompson report:

DES MOINES — A little over a month ago, despite putting on a brave face publicly, Bernie Sanders’ aides privately concluded that a shakeup was needed for his presidential campaign.

The Vermont senator had neglected to practice in mock sessions before the first 2020 debate, and failed to aggressively take on former Vice President Joe Biden on stage. On the trail, he was sticking to the old hits: His stump speech sounded remarkably similar to the one he delivered in his first presidential bid, and he gave a major address touting democratic socialism that mirrored his talk on the same subject in 2015. Even some of his diehard supporters wondered how he would distinguish himself in a crowded field of candidates, especially when many claimed to embrace his left-wing ideals.

Now, Sanders and his team have settled on a new strategy designed to make him stand out in the massive field: They’re betting that a renewed focus on his signature proposal of "Medicare for All" is the key to jump-starting his candidacy and overtaking Biden as the race ramps up this fall.

Sanders has raised more money and has more donors than any other candidate in the Democratic primary — upwards of $36 million from over 850,000 people. But as support in some national and early-state polling stalled or gradually eroded after Biden jumped in the race, it became clear that what worked in 2016 in a one-on-one primary against a moderate wouldn't necessarily succeed in a multi-candidate race with more than one progressive.

Over the past several weeks, his staffers have organized a flurry of events centered around the failures of the current health care system and highlighting his role as the author of the main Medicare for All proposal in the Senate. His aides also brainstormed before the second debate to establish a game plan to put Medicare for All at the center of the showdown.

Sanders told POLITICO he is now talking about Medicare for All more than ever before and that he sees it as the “defining issue” of the 2020 campaign. 

“It could be the winning issue for me in the primary, it will be the winning issue for me in the general election,” he said. “I’m campaigning on the legislation that I wrote. As you know, I wrote the damn bill,” he added, referencing his quip from the second debate that went viral.

Campaign staffers argue the new tack is working, pointing out that Sanders received the biggest polling bump (1.8 percent) of any candidate after the second debate, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. That was especially encouraging given that health care dominated much of the conversation. 

But the focus on Medicare for All does come with risks. Some recent polls show that a public option — essentially an ability to buy into Medicare, which Biden supports — is more popular than the sweeping single-payer proposal that Sanders backs. Several 2020 rivals have also argued that any candidate who supports Medicare for All is unelectable given the disruption it would cause for people who like their private insurance.

But the Sanders campaign believes they are seizing on his natural strength. Primary voters already see Sanders as the strongest Democratic candidate on health care, usually followed by Biden and Elizabeth Warren, according to recent polls by Morning Consult, Reuters-Ipsos, Washington Post-ABC News and CNN.

“Health care is the No. 1 issue with voters, especially Democratic primary voters, and Bernie is the most trusted candidate on health care,” Sanders’ pollster, Ben Tulchin, said in an interview. “So it became increasingly clear over the last few months, as the campaign talked more and more about it, that health care was a real strength and opportunity for us to focus on. And as a result of doing that, we’ve gained in the polling.”

Nina Turner, a co-chair on the Sanders campaign, said his team was by no means ignoring Medicare for All earlier in the primary. “But it's his signature issue and he needs to go all in on that, and the polling shows that,” she said The strategy has begun to take form over the past several weeks. Sanders has rallied with protestors in Philadelphia over a hospital closure, given a high-profile speech about Medicare for All in Washington, D.C., and traveled across the border into Canada with two buses full of reporters and diabetic patients looking to buy lower-cost prescription drugs.

"To be honest, I wasn't taking notice of Bernie Sanders before," said Rachael Lockwood, a Michigan-based mother of three diabetic children who rode with Sanders to Canada but hasn't decided yet who she is voting for in the Democratic primary. "I'm definitely paying attention now.”

The Sanders campaign is also considering doing additional Medicare for All events, such as health care-focused town halls in the early states. “I wrote the damn bill” — his rejoinder at the second debate to criticism of Medicare for All — has become a campaign rallying cry, fit with printed stickers

Beyond playing to the candidate’s sweet spot, Sanders’ team believes that Medicare for All provides a sharp contrast in a large field — and is an issue he knows inside and out — at a time when several surveys show health care is a top concern among voters. Though he has pushed for Medicare for All for decades, his aides think it is critical to remind voters of that fact — and that they can use his health care-related campaign events to shape media coverage of the race.

Advisers also say the new focus especially allows Sanders to distinguish himself from Biden, who is opposed to Medicare for All, and could eat into Biden’s support. Despite coming from opposite wings of the Democratic Party, polling shows there is significant demographic overlap between Biden and Sanders backers, particularly among white voters without a college degree. Biden’s voters often list Sanders as their second choice.

"The health care discussion allows us to highlight a number of differences between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders. “Obviously health care, but it's also a willingness to take on special interests and a willingness to act decisively to lower prescription drug prices by half, and speaks to broader themes of whose side people are on."

The new strategy was put to use in the second debate late last month. The campaign’s plan was to use John Delaney and John Hickenlooper as anti-Medicare for All foils. They served as stand-ins for Biden, too. And by making his health care-focused trips to Canada and Philadelphia before the second debate, as well as battling with Biden over Medicare for All, Sanders’ aides believe they made it more likely that moderators would focus on the issue.