One of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders's most animated moments in Thursday night's Democratic debate came after California Rep. Eric Swalwell urged voters to "pass the torch" to a new generation of leaders.
Swalwell's critique was aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden. But despite the fact that Sanders has been increasingly critical of Biden's policy positions, the independent Senator tried to rush to his fellow septuagenarian's defense. "As part of Joe's generation, let me respond," he urged the moderators in the middle of a candidate free-for-all.
Sanders, 77, never got a chance to make his case. But speaking to the NPR Politics Podcast and New Hampshire Public Radio on Saturday in Nashua, N.H., he called Swalwell's argument "pretty superficial."
"It is what you stand for," Sanders argued. "I think age is certainly something that people should look at. They should look at everything. Look at the totality of the person. Do you trust that person? Is that person honest? Do you agree with that person? What is the record of that person? But just say, you know, 'I'm gonna vote for somebody because they are 35 or 40, and I'm not going to vote for somebody in their 70s,' I think that's a pretty superficial answer."
Sanders's pushback comes at a time when generational divides are becoming an increasingly prevalent theme in the crowded Democratic primary. Were Sanders or Biden to defeat President Trump, 73, either one would become the oldest person ever elected to the White House. Both Swalwell and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg — both in their thirties -- are running campaigns centered around the idea of putting a new generation in charge of the country. And California Sen. Kamala Harris dominated the post-debate headlines with a stinging critique of anti-federal busing policy stances Biden took in the 1970s.
But Sanders was limited in his defense of Biden. He's regularly told interviewers in recent weeks that in order to defeat President Trump, the eventual Democratic nominee will need to give Democratic voters a reason to be excited. Asked whether Biden could fire up the Democratic base, Sanders initially declined to answer.
He went on, however, to warn against the consensus-seeking approach that Biden has staked his career on. "Voter turnout has got to be more and more young people, more and more working class people, more lower-income people, who traditionally do not get involved," he said.
"But you're not going to have that turnout unless the candidate has issues that excite people and energize people. That means you have to be talking about Medicare-for-all. You have to be talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour. You have to be talking about making public colleges and universities tuition-free, and canceling student debt. You've got to be talking about climate change and a bold response to the planetary crisis."
Biden supports a $15 minimum wage and has released a climate plan, but has not gone as far as Sanders or other candidates on government-run health insurance, or large-scale debt relief and tuition-free schools.
Still, the candidate who refused to formally concede to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton until weeks before the 2016 Democratic National Convention promised to do "everything I can" to help the eventual Democratic nominee in 2020 if he can't win the nomination himself.
"I think we've got a good chance to win this thing," he said. "But if, perchance, it is not me, I will do everything I can to support the winner and make sure we defeat Donald Trump."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now to NPR's Scott Detrow, host of the NPR Politics Podcast. He spoke with Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders as he campaigned in Nashua, N.H., yesterday. And he joins us now, fresh off the plane, in the studio.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. I don't know if fresh is the right word, but good to be here. Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). All right, the age gap between candidates was a big part of this week's debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders are both in their 70s, as you know. And several candidates are saying, hey, it's time for a new generation of leaders. What was Bernie Sanders' response?
DETROW: This has become an increasingly prevalent part of the conversation in the campaign. And Sanders got pretty animated during the debate when Congressman Eric Swalwell made that pass-the-torch comment. Even though it was directed at Biden, Sanders really wanted to respond in that moment. Nobody called on him. So I asked him what he was so eager to say.
BERNIE SANDERS: I think age is certainly something that people should look at. They should look at everything. Look at the totality of the person. Do you trust that person? Is that person honest? Do you agree with that person? What is the record of that person? But just to say, you know, I'm going to vote for somebody 'cause they're 35 or 40, and I'm not going to vote for somebody who's in their 70s, I think that's a pretty superficial answer.
DETROW: Of course, Sanders and Biden, both in their 70s, like you said. Either one of them would be the oldest president at the time of the election, which is of course a record that was just set by President Trump, also in his 70s. But in the wake of Trump especially, a lot of Democratic voters are telling us they want a younger candidate, a more diverse candidate.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Sanders has been increasingly critical of Biden lately. But despite expectations, he didn't go after him on the debate stage. What did he say about Biden in your interview?
DETROW: I asked him directly. And he at first declined to make a direct comparison. But then, just a minute later he went on to warn that Democrats will win by increasing the turnout of younger voters, people who have missed previous elections. And he warned that a more moderate candidate might not do that. And it was pretty clear who he was talking about.
SANDERS: If we can have a 70% voter turnout in the next election, not only will we defeat Trump; we'll defeat him very badly. But you're not going to have that turnout unless the candidate has issues that excite people and energize people. That means you have to be talking about "Medicare for All." You have to be talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour.
DETROW: Biden does support a $15 minimum wage. But on health care, student loan forgiveness, a lot of other policies, he just doesn't go as far as Sanders and a lot of the rest of the field.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, and there is something that happened after your interview. Sanders and other candidates all rushed to Senator Kamala Harris' defense after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted and then deleted a post questioning whether she was authentically black. Explain what happened.
DETROW: Yeah, Harris is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. And the tweet in question insinuated that this somehow undermines her black credentials. Harris' campaign said this is a racist attack in the exact same vein as President Trump's birther campaign. But what was remarkable here is how basically the entire Democratic field rushed to her defense, including Joe Biden, who Harris memorably went after pretty hard on the debate stage, all saying this is ridiculous and racist.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Scott Detrow, host of the NPR Politics Podcast. And you can hear the full interview with Bernie Sanders in the podcast feed on Monday.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.