With the Democratic Party lost in the postelection wilderness, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is aggressively reasserting himself, offering his vision for the path out as he takes on a leadership role in his caucus as the chair of outreach.
In a wide-ranging conversation Thursday with reporters, Sanders — who plans to continue to serve as an independent, not a Democrat — offered a preview for where his progressive wing wants to take the Democratic Party. He also had some choice words about President-elect Donald Trump, particularly when the conversation turned to his threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton.
"It would be almost beyond comprehension," Sanders said at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "This is the United States of America. We do not prosecute our political opponents and try to throw them in jail. It would completely divide this country. It would be an outrage."
The Sanders plan for a Democratic comeback, though, doesn't involve battling every Trump initiative. His colleagues, he said, would be better served by picking their fights selectively. Trump co-opted the Democratic agenda with a populist pitch. Here's where Sanders wants Democrats to go now:
Work with Trump on trade
Although Sanders finds many of Trump's campaign promises deeply disturbing, he warned that Democrats would be foolish to resist an argument at the core of Trump's economic agenda: that international trade deals should be renegotiated.
As other lawmakers bristle at Trump's vows to tear apart the North American Free Trade Agreement and smack tariffs on American companies that move their factories abroad, Sanders wants to hold Trump to those promises. Doing so, he said, will send a clear signal to the displaced Rust Belt workers who voted for Trump that the Democratic Party can deliver for them.
"It is high time corporate America understands they cannot get the benefits of being American corporations while at the same time turning their backs on the American working class," Sanders said.
Though he doubts that Trump will crack down on companies as promised, Sanders argued that Democrats should work with him "to tell corporate America you cannot keep running all over the world … searching for cheap labor while you destroy the working class of this country."
Don’t sugarcoat the Obama years
Democrats talk often about how much the economy has improved under President Obama, and Sanders said it's a fair point considering what a mess the president inherited. But the Vermonter said that pressing that case overlooks the reality that the middle class is shrinking rapidly. Displaced workers who once earned a good living in now-shuttered factories and mines are only going to be repelled by the argument that everything was bad before and it is good now.
"Democrats too often have ignored that over a 40-year period … the middle class of this country has been shrinking," Sanders said. "Real wages for American workers have gone down. Inequality has gone up. Those are real issues, and the Democratic Party has got to address them."
Keep racial justice front and center
Hundreds of callers have flooded Sanders' office phone lines, urging him to keep pressuring for the dismissal of Stephen Bannon, the right-wing media executive and white-nationalist favorite recently named Trump's chief White House strategist. It's a reflection, Sanders said, of how far outside the mainstream of American opinion Trump is when he delivers his rants on Mexican immigrants, Muslims and the state of African American communities.
"I will not compromise with racism. And I will not compromise with sexism. And I will not compromise with homophobia. And I will not compromise with Islamophobia," Sanders said. "There are areas I would have hoped that in 2016 we would have put behind us."
To that effect, Sanders, the newly minted chairman of outreach for the Senate Democratic leadership, said Democrats need to redouble their efforts to forge ties with the minority groups that have traditionally supported them but are not coming out to vote in the numbers Democrats need to win. "We've got to build on the current base," he said.
Hit climate change hard
Democrats regularly call climate change an existential crisis, yet they hardly discussed it in the general election. Sanders suggested that is a mistake. Now the White House will be inhabited by a president who has labeled climate change a hoax and who wants to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We have got to focus much more attention on this," Sanders said. "The future of this planet is at stake. We have got to bring together people to demand Mr. Trump listen to the scientists."
It is not just the planet at stake, but also politics. Other Republicans who have interpreted their election wins as a mandate from voters to roll back environmental protections have hit serious turbulence. And the posture toward climate change in the states, as well as around the world, has changed substantially since Republicans last held the White House. Entire economies have been reoriented around renewable energy, and countries like China and India are embracing calls for emissions reductions they once spurned.
Trump will be walking into a political hornet's nest if he pursues his plans to scrap every federal climate change program, and Sanders said Democrats should start putting more focus there now.
Ornery is good
One thing that is not part of the Sanders plan is a charm offensive. Grumpiness remains the Sanders charm, and the Vermonter was as ornery as ever while sparring with the media Thursday.
More than once he answered a question by referring reporters to the final chapter in his book, titled "Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy." A reporter's question about who the Democrats should nominate in 2020 drove Sanders nuts. "We haven't inaugurated this president and we are talking about 2020," he scolded. "Because it is easy to write about. What about talking about climate change and if the planet survives? ... Those are the issues the American people need to be talking about. I don't mean to be rude, but the American people are tired of that. They really are. People are turning off their TVs. They are tired of all that stuff."