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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters at a breakfast in Washington about his 2016 agenda. (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders doesn’t like labels, perhaps because he’s so often asked to explain his particular brand of political thinking in a single word, but can’t.
Sanders, elected as an independent, caucuses with Senate Democrats and calls himself a “Democratic socialist.” And now that he’s running for the White House, he’d like to keep busting categories and take back a key phrase from Republicans and redefine it for the 2016 election: “family values.”
At a breakfast with reporters in Washington Thursday, Sanders previewed what he said will be a major theme of his campaign.
“I will be talking about family values, but not the family values that my Republican colleagues talk about, which for them means that a woman cannot have the right to control her own body or that gay people should not have the right to get married or that women should not have access to contraception. That is what their concept of family values are about. That’s not my concept,” Sanders said at the breakfast, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in downtown D.C.
“My concept of what family values is about is that the United States should not be the only major country on earth that does not guarantee paid family and medical leave when a woman has a baby. So that right now we’re seeing a situation where a woman is having a baby and a week later is forced to go back to work because she doesn’t have the income to stay at home and bond with her child,” Sanders said.
He then outlined three family-oriented policies that would be at the center of his “Family Values Plan”: making sure that all American have 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, paid sick leave and 10 days a year of paid vacation time.
As he explained his agenda, based loosely on programs that already exist in European countries, Sanders’ voice took on the impassioned populist tone that has helped him draw bigger than expected crowds — “I have been surprised by the size,” Sanders admitted Thursday — in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“It is beyond comprehension that again the United States of America, our great nation, is the only nation on earth that does not guarantee sick leave. Sick leave!” Sanders exclaimed.
“Today, in McDonalds and Burger Kings all over this country, there are people who are sick, who are handling our food, who should be at home. There are mothers who are sending their kids to school because they don’t have paid sick leave to take care of their kids. That is a family value,” Sanders continued. “That when a husband comes down with cancer, that a wife has a right to spend some time with him at home. That is a family value.”
Of course, it won’t be easy to wrestle the “family values” mantle from GOP candidates who have long used the term to promote their conservative social platforms. It will be especially difficult because of Sanders’ long odds to emerge victorious in a Democratic primary, where former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has a large lead in the polls.
On Thursday, Sanders talked about how he ideally would like to see debates between candidates of both parties during the primary season so that candidates could argue their points of view both within their own parties and against members of the opposing one. There is, of course, some self-interest in that position: currently the Democratic National Committee has confined its primary debate calendar to six events and has threatened candidates who seek outside opportunities to debate with forfeiting their place on the official party-sanctioned stages.
But Sanders’ focus on “family values” also highlights one of the unique features of his early candidacy, one that differentiates him from Clinton: He is completely unafraid to state his opinion or to confront the other party on any issue — even stealing their words to do it — and comes off as authentic in the process.
Sanders talked about his travel across the country since soft-launching his campaign in April from the Capitol , as part of his push for 10 days paid vacation leave for all U.S. workers. “People are stressed out? You know that?” he declared.
The catch for Sanders will not be whether voters can agree with his ideas in principle — 10 days paid vacation, for example, isn’t unappealing on its face— but whether they feel comfortable with a candidate who opponents will paint as extreme because his ideas are modeled on policies embraced by more socialist countries.
“In virtually every instance what I am saying is supported by the vast majority of people, just not the Business Roundtable,” Sander lamented.
The family values talk was just a small part of Sanders’ hour breakfast conversation, but it’s clear he intends to make it a big part of his nationwide campaign.
Clinton, for her part, has talked about family issues through the context of her experience as a new grandparent, telling a small group of voters in Iowa in April that every child should get the opportunities her granddaughter did, including spending time with her daughter Chelsea after she was born.
Sanders’ focused rhetoric, especially when they face off in debates, could force her to get more specific when it comes to questions of paid leave, from maternity leave to sick days and vacation time off.