Questioned on funding for healthcare and free university tuition, the democratic socialist presidential candidate appears stymied in HBO interview
The comedian, political commentator and talkshow host Bill Maher put Bernie Sanders under pressure on Friday night, over how the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination would pay for his “socialist” agenda for the nation.
Appearing on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Sanders walked on stage to rapturous cheers from a traditionally liberal studio audience. Maher began softly, by declaring that he supported the 74-year-old independent Vermont senator for the Democratic nomination.
But in a surprise move, Maher then challenged Sanders to explain exactly how he would raise the money for policies such as universal healthcare and free tuition at public colleges.
Maher accused Sanders of merely “preaching to the converted” with his radical message, at large rallies that have won him between 25% and 30% of Democratic support in national polls.
Sanders is running in second place, behind former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is polling around 47%. Sanders has led Clinton in early battleground states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Maher began by asking Sanders to help him “undemonize” the word “socialist”. Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist”, a label which opponents have sought to use against him as he runs on a platform of taxing the nation’s wealthiest and leading corporations.
This week, Donald Trump, the real-estate billionaire and Republican frontrunner, told the Guardian Sanders was “the next step”, meaning he was “even worse” than a socialist.
On Friday night, Maher said: “The tax revenue that you would get just from taxing the people who I think your fans think you’re talking about, the people who own a yacht, doesn’t come close to covering what you want to pay for.”
Sanders looked surprised.
“Not true, not true,” he said. “There have been articles out there that have been really unfair and wrong.
“For example, what they are suggesting is that if we move to a Medicare-for-all, single-payer programme, which guarantees healthcare to all people, it would cost a lot of money. That’s true.
“But what they forget to tell you is it would be much more cost effective than this dysfunctional system we have right now, which is the most expensive per capita on earth.”
Sanders won applause. Maher responded.
“But it couldn’t even work in your home state of Vermont,” Maher said. “They were going to institute it, and the governor said, ‘It’s going to cost too much money. We just can’t do it. It would be the entire budget.’ That’s true.”
Sanders seemed unsure how to respond.
“No … well, it’s not…” he stammered. “I’m not the governor from the state of Vermont, I’m the senator from the state of Vermont …”
Perhaps to buy time, Sanders asked Maher to explain why his healthcare plan did not add up.
“Because they control both ends of it,” said Maher. “If you’re saying that the government is going to pick up the tab but not make the insurance companies, the hospitals and the doctors not gouge people, then we are going to break the budget.
“It has to work both ways. So you’re going to make the hospitals do that? Because that is socialism.”
Sanders appeared thrown. He returned to his base message about the US being “the only major country on earth that allows private insurance companies to make huge profits on the healthcare system”.
Undeterred, Maher ran down Sanders’ political shopping list.
“You want to increase social security,” he said.
Sanders responded: “And you know how we do that? We pay for it. We say that somebody who’s making $10m should not end up paying the same amount as someone making $118,000. Lift the cap. We can extend and expand social security.”
Maher asked Sanders about his wish for the government to pay for college places.
Sanders said: “Not free college – free tuition at public colleges and universities. You know how we pay for that? Through a tax on Wall Street speculation.”
That brought applause. Maher was not done.
He asked: “So you’re saying we can pay for all this without raising taxes on anybody but the 1%?”
“We may have to go down a little bit lower than that,” Sanders replied. “But not much lower.
“And what people have to understand is right now people can’t afford to send their kids to college, and people are graduating school deeply in debt. Do I think we should join Germany and many other countries and encourage young people to get the education that they need, and make the country stronger? I sure do.”
Maher walked away to attend to his next guests, leaving Sanders alone in his chair on the stage.
The latest polls in New Hampshire show that since the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, Clinton has edged ahead of Sanders and is leading in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
On Friday, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll showed a technical dead heat but Clinton just ahead on numbers, at 37% to Sanders’ 35%.