Bernie Sanders insisted Monday he would challenge President-elect Donald Trump on issues such as repealing Obamacare but urged fellow Democrats against simply obstructing the incoming administration.
“I’m going to do everything I can — and I believe I speak for virtually every member of the Democratic caucus, that we’re going to do everything that we can to improve the Affordable Care Act,” Sanders said at a town hall in Washington sponsored by CNN and moderated by Chris Cuomo. “It has problems. But we damn well aren’t going to see it repealed and have no replacement there at all.”
The Vermont senator and progressive favorite in the 2016 Democratic primary drew another clear line with Trump, saying: “I will tell you this: He ran a campaign whose cornerstone was bigotry. It was based on sexism, on racism, on xenophobia, and on that issue, I will not compromise.”
Still, Sanders said he hopes Democrats don’t use the “obstruct, obstruct, obstruct” tactics against Trump that congressional Republicans deployed against President Barack Obama.
“I don’t think that’s what we do,” Sanders said. “I think where Trump has ideas that make sense that we can work with him on, I think we should.”
Sanders identified one issue on which he would work with Trump: trade. Both railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement on the campaign trail and said they opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I believe we need a new trade policy. I believe we tell corporate America they’ve got to control their greed,” Sanders said. “Mr. Trump is prepared to sit down and work on a new trade policy which is based on fairness, not just on corporate greed, yes, I will be happy to work with him.”
Progressives prepare to fight
With Hillary Clinton defeated and Obama counting down his final days in office, Democrats increasingly reliant on Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other leading progressives to set its message — and pick its battles. Those fights begin this week, as Democrats make the case that Trump is selling out his working class base by tapping corporate figures such as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Goldman Sachs veteran Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary and fast food executive Andy Puzder for labor secretary.
Sanders said he has real concerns about two of Trump’s nominees — Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator. The Vermont senator said he wants to hear what they have to say before deciding whether he’ll vote against them — but acknowledged he’s not inclined to vote for either of them.
“All that I am doing here is trying to be polite,” Sanders said.
Senate Democrats are delivering long floor speeches that are expected to go late into the night Monday as they protest GOP plans to repeal Obamacare. Leading progressives in the Senate are coordinating calls with activist groups to take place just off the Senate floor during those protest speeches.
“People know that Trump is unpopular and didn’t win the popular vote, and are therefore very psyched to fight,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
The progressives’ strategy: Fight Trump on absolutely everything.
“We are now the party of opposition, and we need to act like it. Way too often, Democrats, when we get out of power, we bend over backwards trying to find ways to work with the other party — often to the detriment of our values,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the progressive grassroots group founded by Howard Dean. “And that cannot happen with this administration. We need to stand absolutely strong on our values, and uncompromising.”
“The default is to believe that we’re going to need to fight and stop just about everything that is coming down the pike,” he said.
A steep hill
Clinton’s loss revealed the depth of the disarray Democrats now confront.
As Obama departs the White House, his party is set to lose all its levers of power in Washington.
Making matters more daunting for Democrats: Changes to Senate rules made when the party had the majority now mean its members can’t block any of Trump’s nominees. Nor can Democrats stop the GOP push to repeal Obamacare using the same filibuster-avoiding budget rules Obama used to push the health reform law through Congress.
The party is also down to 17 of the nation’s 50 governor’s offices, and Republicans have full control of the state legislatures in 32 states — realities that make it harder for Democrats to stop changes to voting access laws that have hurt the party.
It is, in part, a result of the Democrats on the ballot in 2016, Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain pointed to Clinton’s loss, as well as Democrats such as Florida’s Patrick Murphy and Indiana’s Evan Bayh who were perceived as “in bed with Wall Street corporations.” They both lost Senate races Democrats hoped to win.
“I think that we have to recognize that when you win the popular vote by 3 million but still lose the election by less than 100,000 votes in three states, that’s a campaign problem. That’s potentially a candidate problem,” he said. “And we had a candidate who had an extremely mixed record on economic populism at the top of the ticket.”
Still, much of the erosion took place under Obama — not Clinton.
“I take some responsibility on that,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview aired Sunday on “This Week.”
He said a still-recovering economy cost Democrats in the 2010 midterms — allowing Republicans to build in “a huge structural advantage in subsequent elections” through the once-a-decade redistricting process.
“What is also true is that partly because my docket was really full here, so I couldn’t be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander-in-chief and President of the United States,” Obama said. “We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level.”
He even eschewed the tactics that carried him to victory in 2008 and 2012, saying he wants Democrats to make sure “we aren’t just micro-targeting to eke out presidential victories; it means that we’re showing up in places where right now we’re not winning a lot.”
The Sanders-led progressive movement is attempting to exert its influence on an internal Democratic battle as the party searches for its new chair.
Sanders and a host of progressive groups have endorsed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to helm the Democratic National Committee. But he faces a stiff competition with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is backed by many Clinton and Obama veterans, as well as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and several others.
Ellison and Perez are the race’s leading contenders — and in many ways, their supporters are fighting the second round of the Democratic primary, with Sanders, Warren and other progressives in Ellison’s corner.
“It’s not like Perez is a corporate Democrat. He’s a fine progressive on policy. He’s just more of a policy wonk — he’s not a progressive organizer,” Green said. “Keith has been in the trenches with progressive organizers for years.”