Bernie Sanders Defends His Unwavering Focus on Economic Issues

When and how to weigh in on matters of national security has plagued campaign.

ByABC News
December 8, 2015, 5:11 PM

— -- In an effort to continue to focus the national spotlight on income and racial inequality, Bernie Sanders visited West Baltimore today and toured the neighborhood of Freddie Gray, the young African-American man whose death while in police custody sparked riots in the city last spring.

Sanders commented that the neighborhood, with dilapidated homes and boarded up windows, looked like “a third world country,” and after the walk he stood alongside pastors for a news conference they hoped would focus on economic issues such as unemployment and education.

Prior to the news conference, Sanders’ campaign reminded the media of the purpose of the event and asked only for questions “on topic,” in particular, not about ISIS.

In the end, the Vermont senator was asked, though, if he specifically did not want to talk about the terror organization. “What about ISIS?” he replied, coming back to the podium microphone defensive and agitated. “Of course I’ll talk about ISIS, but today what we’re talking about is a community in which half of the people don’t have jobs.”

The crowd next to him applauded.

“We’re talking about a community in which there are hundreds of buildings which are uninhabitable. We’re talking about a community in which kids are unable to go to schools which are decent. You want to ask me about ISIS? We will talk about ISIS. ... Obviously ISIS is a huge national issue, which we have got to address, but so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care,” he added.

Questions of when and how to weigh in on matters of national security has plagued the Sanders campaign for weeks. At the second Democratic debate, the day after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, unlike his primary opponents Sanders pivoted off of foreign policy to his economic platforms less than halfway through his opening remarks.

Over the weekend, Sanders came under criticism again when at his first campaign stop in New Hampshire he did not mention the growing calls for gun control from Democrats in the wake of the San Bernardino attack or comment on the discussion of ISIS-inspired, homegrown terrorism.

Instead, the Vermont senator concluded his remarks at Keene State College on Saturday criticizing what he called the “24/7” coverage of ISIS in the media and arguing that the country was “smart enough” to focus on more than one issue at a time. During his second campaign speech that day, Sanders did address some of his gun control proposals, including the expansion of background checks, closing the gun show loophole, and banning assault weapons.

Back in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sanders sounded exasperated. He told reporters that they could choose to report on it or not, but that he would continue to talk about issues such as Wall Street greed, income inequality and college affordability. “I believe that in a great country we can crush ISIS, defend the American people against terrorism -- at the same time as we rebuild the disappearing middle class.”

On the campaign trail, Sanders now regularly cites as evidence for the importance of his domestic policy agenda a new report from the Institute of Policy Studies out this week, which concluded that the 20 wealthiest people in the country own more wealth than the bottom half of the country’s population combined, a total of 152 million people.

“To say to the American people who are working incredibly long hours to survive economically who cannot send their kids to college, who cannot afford child care, who cannot afford health care,” he continued, defending his tendency to stick to the issues he prefers, “to say, ‘We’re not going to deal with your interests. We’re not going to deal with your issues. The only issue we can deal with is ISIS.’ I think would be a real disservice to many millions of people.”

Jamal Bryant, a leading pastor in Baltimore who took Sanders on his tour seemed impressed by the senator’s steadfastness. He applauded Sanders for taking the time to walk the streets in person.

“I wanted him to see it, as a potential president -- the real work that has to be done in this city.” Bryant told ABC News. “He may not be the sexiest candidate, but he may be the most digestible ... with really his hand on the heartbeat of what is taking place.”