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

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.


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.