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'The Speech' That Made Bernie Sanders A National Figure


Do you compromise to get things done, or do you stick to your principles and fight? That dilemma has played out prominently in the Democratic race for president. It was also central to a moment that helped make Senator Bernie Sanders a national figure.


Bernie Sanders fans know it simply as the speech. In 2010, Sanders went to the Senate floor. He was protesting a bipartisan agreement brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell, who was the minority leader then. NPR's Scott Detrow has more on this turning point in Sanders' political career.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: On December 10, 2010, President Barack Obama was facing a lot of pressure. Democrats had just lost the House of Representatives, and here was Obama about a month later asking his party for a major tax deal that would extend the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy, something Democrats had railed on for years.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The issue here is not whether I think that the tax cuts for the wealthy are a good or smart thing to do.

DETROW: That morning, Obama was on NPR's Morning Edition defending the deal.


OBAMA: The problem is that this is the single issue that the Republicans are willing to scotch the entire deal for.

DETROW: Obama had tapped Vice President Joe Biden to figure out a deal with Mitch McConnell. They reached one relatively quickly in several phone calls over the course of a single weekend. Republicans got the tax cuts, the Bush extensions, plus a cut in estate taxes paid by the mega-wealthy. Democrats got an extension of unemployment benefits and a range of other broader tax cuts. A few hours after Obama's interview aired, Bernie Sanders walked onto the Senate floor.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think we can do better, and I am here today to take a strong stand against this bill.

DETROW: At this point, Sanders had been in Congress for nearly two decades. He had a long and consistent track record, but he hadn't emerged as a national figure. That would start to change over the course of the next eight hours.


SANDERS: You can call what I'm doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech. I'm not here to set any great records.

WARREN GUNNELS: I was sitting with him for the entire eight hours that Bernie was doing his filibuster.

DETROW: Warren Gunnels has been on Sanders staff for decades. That day on the Senate floor, he was running point. If Sanders needed notes, Gunnels handed them to him. If there was a sign or a chart that would help Sanders' point, Gunnels would send another staffer to fetch it. Gunnels says Sanders' speech notes were relatively minimal.

GUNNELS: I would call it a refrain of about three, four pages of how he wanted to set it up.

DETROW: Sanders kept returning to two points over and over - first, that public opinion was on his side.


SANDERS: The polls show us the American people do not believe millionaires and billionaires need more tax breaks.

DETROW: Sanders also made a point to talk past the other lawmakers, who he likely realized were mostly going to vote for the bipartisan deal. He kept urging people to call Congress to complain.


SANDERS: If they make their voices heard and said, enough is enough; the rich have got it all right now...

DETROW: The clock kept ticking, and Sanders kept speaking. He started trending on Twitter. Traffic surged on the Senate website. At points, the phone lines to Senate offices jammed up. The speech was clearly hitting a nerve with progressives. Gunnels says it was something else, though, that made them realize they were breaking through - when the White House responded with a dramatic move.


OBAMA: I thought it was a slow news day, so I thought, bring the other guy in.

GUNNELS: I don't even know if they had a topic in mind, but they just rolled out Bill Clinton while Bernie was speaking.

DETROW: Obama had brought the former president into the White House briefing room to make his pitch for the compromise.


BILL CLINTON: The agreement taken as a whole is, I believe, the best bipartisan agreement we can reach to help the largest number of Americans.

DETROW: Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, Sanders kept going.


SANDERS: This is a transfer of wealth. It's Robin Hood in reverse.

DETROW: Sanders wrapped after eight hours and 30 minutes. He could finally take a break. So could Gunnels.

GUNNELS: I was exhausted. I was mentally exhausted. I can't say I was physically exhausted because I was sitting down the whole time.

DETROW: But the filibuster failed. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the tax bill. Sanders' speech hadn't seemed to change any minds. Still, very soon, Gunnels saw things differently.

GUNNELS: When you look back at that, I think that that might have been the spark that began to set things off.

DETROW: The speech was quickly turned into a book, which was a bestseller, and Bernie Sanders was suddenly a much more prominent figure. Another longtime Sanders adviser, Jeff Weaver, agrees.

JEFF WEAVER: That brought Bernie Sanders to the notice of millions of Americans who didn't know who he was, and I think it laid a lot of the groundwork for the success that he would see in the 2015 and 2016 election cycle.

DETROW: The next year, Joe Biden stood next to Mitch McConnell on a stage and defended the deal.


VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Which we both believe has spurred the economic growth. We've got a long way to go, but it actually not only was a compromise. It was a compromise that was useful for the economy.

DETROW: Obama did get those top-tier Bush tax cuts eliminated down the line. Still, in the immediate wake of the filibuster, Bernie Sanders told NPR he was tired of compromises.


SANDERS: Might we have to compromise? Yeah, maybe we do. But you got to wage the fight before you compromise. You got to take the case to the American people, and we didn't do that.

DETROW: Compromise or fight - nearly a decade later Sanders and Biden are battling for the Democratic presidential nomination in a contest that largely revolves around that same key question.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.