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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who spoke at a Monitor breakfast in Washington Nov. 17, 2016, has been appointed chair of 'outreach' for Senate Democrats.
Bryan Olin Dozier | Caption

Sen. Bernie Sanders: It's time for Democratic ‘soul-searching’

At a Monitor Breakfast, Sanders, named chair of 'outreach' for Senate Democrats, said the 'real action to transform' the country would come in 'grass-roots America.'

“It’s time for soul-searching within the Democratic Party,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told a roomful of reporters Thursday, nine days after the party got wiped out in national elections.

There’s some irony in his comment, given that Senator Sanders is technically not a Democrat. But the Vermont independent, who ran a “political revolution” against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, is now as important as anybody to a party seeking to find its way forward.

Sanders won more than 12 million votes and – like the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump – drew massive crowds with a populist message aimed at Americans feeling ignored by Washington and left behind by a changing economy. He’s just published a new book, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.”

Now Sanders is a critical player in the Democrats’ effort to reinvent themselves. On Wednesday, he was named chair of “outreach” for Senate Democrats – a new position in the party’s Senate leadership.

What does that mean, exactly?

“If anybody has any ideas, let me know,” Sanders laughed, replying to the question at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “We’re trying to figure it out.”

But clearly, Sanders has already given it some thought.

“Without offending anybody in the room,” he said, “the real action to transform America is not going to take place on Capitol Hill.”

It’s going to take place in “grass-roots America,” among those struggling economically, among young people, among people concerned about the environment, the senator said.

“I initially understand my role to be to bring those people into the political process, to demand that the US Congress, the United States government, and the new president represent the needs of all people, and not just the people on top,” Sanders said.

Sanders cited the relatively low turnout in American elections, at least compared with other countries. (Turnout on Nov. 8 has been pegged at about 58 percent of eligible voters.)

“Why is it that tens of millions of poor people, young people, working people don’t get involved in the political process?” Sanders asked.

One goal of his new job, he said, will be to make people aware that politics is not just Election Day but every day.

One of the burning – though unanswerable – questions is whether Sanders could have defeated Mr. Trump in the general election. On Wednesday night, in remarks at George Washington University, Sanders suggested he could have won

But when asked Thursday, Sanders said he didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. “It doesn’t make much sense to me to be looking backward,” he said. “Right now, this country faces enormous crises.”

“We have a middle class which is in decline, we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and we have a President-elect Trump who concerns many, many people,” he continued, noting that Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by many hundreds of thousands of votes.

Sanders also called on Trump to withdraw his appointment of former Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor in the Trump White House. Critics have accused Mr. Bannon of promoting racist and sexist views via his news site, which is popular among the so-called alt-right.

“What we are seeing all over this country is extraordinary fear about a president who in his career, before he ran for president, led the so-called birther movement, which was a racist effort to undermine the legitimacy of our first African-American president,” Sanders said.

Still, the Vermonter held open the possibility of making common cause with Trump on some issues. One is to reinstate the Glass-Steagall banking rules. The Depression-era act was aimed at breaking up big banks, but was undone in 1999, allowing banks to combine investment and commercial activities. Both Sanders and Trump want to bring back a modern version of Glass-Steagall; similar provisions appear in both parties’ platforms.

Like Sanders, Trump ran on a populist, anti-establishment message. Sanders said he is watching to see if Trump stays true to his word not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

“He talked about raising the minimum wage to $10,” Sanders said. “That’s not high enough for me, but it’s better than $7.25 an hour, and we look forward to working with him to raise the minimum wage.”

On that, and a host of other issues of concern to financially strapped Americans, such as the cost of prescription drugs, Sanders said “we’ll find out soon enough” if Trump’s promises were sincere.

“Our job is to hold him accountable,” Sanders said, “and we intend to do that.”