WINDHAM -- On his way into a packed dinner gathering at Windham Congregational Church last week, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders declared himself the "longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress."
And, while his main beefs that day were with what he called an "extremist" Republican Party, Sanders wasn't afraid to send a barb the president's way.
"Issues like taking on Wall Street -- do I think President Obama has been as strong as he should be? No, I don't," Sanders said.
The 71-year-old legislator is hoping the "I" after his name will go a long way toward earning a second term in the Senate. He's also got a long track record in Washington: The former Burlington mayor served 16 years in the U.S. House before winning his Senate seat in 2006.
Sanders is opposed by Windsor Republican John MacGovern, a former Massachusetts state legislator who doesn't buy Sanders' claims of independence.
"He does agree with the Democrats nearly all of the time," said Paul Dame, MacGovern's campaign manager. "He's no more independent than any other Democrat."
Sanders, though, presents himself as an alternative to standard "D" and "R" political labels. Standing at the podium in Windham last week, he said he is "probably the most progressive member of the United States Senate."
In an interview with the Reformer before that speech, Sanders said he is fighting for middle-class families who have been
Sanders decried a "right-wing, extremist" Republican Party that, he believes, would not accept moderate GOP politicians from Vermont's past such as George Aiken or Richard Snelling, both former legislators and governors.
"But on the other hand, I think it would be naive not to understand that big money has played an influence in the Democratic Party as well, and that the Democrats are nowhere near as strong as they should be in defending the middle class and working families," Sanders said. "So when I talk about cuts in Social Security, virtually all Republicans want to do that. But I will also tell you, some Democrats do, as well."
Social Security was on Sanders' mind that day; he had issued a press release noting "only a 1.7-percent cost-of-living increase" for recipients.
"The method for calculating inflation for seniors is broken," Sanders said in the announcement.
He also spent time in Windham warning against cuts in a program that, according to figures released by Sanders' staff, provided benefits to 128,619 Vermonters in 2010. That's about one out of every five state residents.
"The main point to be made is that Social Security has not contributed one nickel to the deficit because Social Security is funded by the payroll tax," Sanders said. "And Social Security, as it happens, has a $2.7 trillion surplus and can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 21 years. So it is totally wrong for anybody to be talking about cutting Social Security, and we'll do everything we can to prevent that from happening."
Dame said MacGovern does not favor cutting Social Security benefits for those who already receive benefits or those who are "nearing retirement." But the Republican also believes "all options need to be on the table" to ensure that the program remains solvent for the long term, Dame said.
On his campaign website, MacGovern refers to "our broken entitlement system" that "hurtles toward the cliff of insolvency." He also rejects what he terms "the demagogic decision to demonize the private sector and the producers of jobs and growth in the economy using the rhetoric of class warfare."
Sanders, though, has no issue with calling for "the wealthiest people and the largest corporations" to "pay their fair share of taxes" to help reduce the deficit.
He said the federal government is missing out on critical revenue because corporations are sending money to offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.
"In America today, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well. The middle class is disappearing. Poverty is at an all-time high," Sanders said. "And the function of government now is to protect those people in the middle class and working class and not to continue to provide tax breaks for the richest people in this country. That's not class warfare. This is common sense."
Sanders also advocates for "taking a hard look at military spending" as lawmakers debate ways to trim the nation's debt.
"There are ways to do deficit reduction that are fair and do not attack vulnerable people," he said.