Can busing Bernie Sanders to red states really help solve Democrats' problems?


After losing a presidential election they thought they had in the bag, Democrats are trying something different: focusing on building the party in all 50 states, not just states they think they can win.  

To that end, two leaders of its sometimes-sparring factions — Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez (the establishment figure) and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. (the liberal leader) — are on a bus this week to visit eight not-necessarily-Democratic states: Maine, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Nebraska, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.  

Last month we spoke to former senator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, about the party's need to reach out to red-state Democrats to grow in the Trump era. We called Begich back to see if he thinks this bus tour does that. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q. Is this a step in the right direction?  

Begich: I think it's good. I think it's important that the party kind of get over the 2016 election. And that means we're a big tent. It's saying to the base: Look. We're all together now, the election's over, let's figure out where we can win, and let's do it together.  

Q. Is Sanders the best spokesman for that outreach to red states?  

A. Taking Bernie to those states only reassures the progressive base.  

We can't win with a solid, 100 percent progressive message. That's important, but that's not going to win by itself. And when we talk about the economy, it's not about Wall Street only. It's about: What are you going to do to build momentum and opportunity?  

His statements about corporate America — I understand what he's saying. But I think we want to make sure that, as the chairman of the DNC and Sanders go around the country, that it's not just always against things, it's for things.  

To grow the party in those states you need to continue to work with those Democrats that care about security, care about jobs and economic growth.  

Q. There's a risk that, in the Trump era, Democrats are perceived as just against things. Do you think that's playing out in Congress, where Democrats drew a red line on negotiating on health care (no repeal of Obamacare) and are drawing another on taxes (Trump must release his tax returns first)?  

A. Democrats knew there had to be amendments to the health-care bill. Instead they fought it. This fall, we'll see what that will be about. There will be rate increases, and they're not going away.  

I look at tax reform. Mom-and-pop businesses need relief, and Democrats should be advocating for that. They should be motivated to do that and not be against it. Does that mean there are some issues Democrats may not like in a tax reform bill? Maybe. But we should do what we can to help these small businesses move forward.  

[Some Democrats] will say: They know what we're for.  

Well, not really. Because if that was the case, the majority of issues people care about align with Democrats. But they didn't vote for us in 2016. You can argue all you want about what people think, but the reality is somehow that didn't come across.  

Q. That sounds a lot like what some Republicans argued their party should message when Obama was president: Don't just be the party of "no."  

A. I think you'll always have this minority party tug-of-war between pushing against what exists vs. making the case that here's the future.  

That's a hard thing to do when you're in the minority party, because your base wants you to be strong, which you can be. But you should also be for something.  

I think it's important to talk about the progressive issues, but it's somewhat more important to talk, in these red states, about the economy, growing opportunities for these people, and making sure people feel safe and secure, not only in their homes and neighborhoods, but in the country.  

Those are the things we need to hear more about. We're going to have an infrastructure bill — what does that mean? Is it going to be good-paying jobs for Americans? When we talk about tax reform, are we just going to complain about the wealthy?  

Q. To sum up: You think this bus tour is helpful but not a panacea for Democrats' electoral struggles?  

A. It's better and moving in the right direction, but they have to also show a very strong effort with red and rural states. We need to have as much a focus on red states as we do on blue states. Red-state Democrats are an important part of the future of the Democratic Party. They have been an important part of the past, and they offer an important part of the future.


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