Bernie Sanders thinks he has a pretty good idea why Hillary Clinton and Democrats lost in the 2016 election.
"Look, you can't simply go around to wealthy people's homes raising money and expect to win elections," the Vermont senator, who gave Clinton a surprisingly strong run for the Democratic nomination, told NPR's David Greene in an interview airing on Morning Edition. "You've got to go out and mix it up and be with ordinary people."
That picks up on a criticism of Clinton devoting too much time to fundraising — and not enough to on-the-ground campaigning in traditionally Democratic states, like Michigan and Wisconsin. In the general election, Clinton never visited Wisconsin after she became the nominee and visited Michigan late in the game. The two Upper Midwestern states swung narrowly to Trump: Wisconsin by slightly more than 20,000 votes and Michigan by slightly more than 10,000. During the primary, Sanders boasted of his small-donor donations.
"The Democratic Party swallowed the bait," he argued. "They became hooked on big money."
The Vermont senator added that he believes Democrats have lost touch with the needs of everyday Americans.
"I happen to believe that the Democratic Party has been not doing a good job in terms of communicating with people in cities, in towns and in rural America, all over this country," he said.
Some have blamed Sanders, in part, however for Clinton's loss. Young voters were drawn to his campaign, but many chose a third-party candidate in the general election. Although Sanders campaigned for Clinton, at times he had a hard time voicing full-throated support for her.
The kind of harsh criticism he leveled of Clinton on her Wall Street speeches and decrying her as part of the status quo, rather than building up her beliefs and policies (that certainly stand in stark contrast to Donald Trump) has irked party loyalists.
That's especially true, considering that although Sanders ran in the Democratic primary and caucuses with Democrats, he has declined to put the "D" next to his name. He is back in the Senate as an independent.
Sanders believes Trump's message resonated with workers, like the ones in Wisconsin and Michigan, who were hit hard by the economic recession and haven't yet recovered. It was a connection Democrats were largely unable to maintain.
"One of the reasons that Mr. Trump won is that we have millions of people who have given up on the political process, who don't believe that Congress is listening to their pain," Sanders said. "What the Democratic Party has got to do is start listening."
In that way, Trump and Sanders are alike. Both tapped into the anti-establishment current that permeated the 2016 election. When asked if he thought he would have been able to win the general election against Trump, Sanders brushed it off.
"I don't think it helps to relive history," said Sanders, whose campaign team touted polling during the primary that showed him faring better against Trump in head-to-head matchups. "The answer is I don't know. Nobody knows. It's not worth speculating about. We are where we are."
Sanders sees Trump's anti-establishment tendencies as a potential opportunity, at least when it comes to the fight to preserve Medicare and Medicaid.
Trump promised repeatedly throughout the campaign that he would not cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security if elected. Sanders wants to hold Trump accountable for that promise, regardless of what Republicans in Congress want to do.
Sanders says Trump has a choice: "Either he can have the courage and get up in front of the American people, or do it through a tweet, and say, 'You know what? Hey, I was just kidding. I was really lying.'"
Or Trump can tell his fellow Republicans that they're wasting their time on legislation that cuts those programs. "That would be the right thing to do," Sanders said. "And I look forward to Trump telling the American people that that is what he intends to do."
To press the issue, Sanders, along with congressional leaders, is calling on his colleagues to organize Jan. 15 rallies protesting threats to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Bernie Sanders this week really wanted to make his case on the Senate floor. The Vermont senator had this large poster board with an old tweet from Donald Trump. When we spoke to Sanders yesterday, he said he just didn't want anyone to forget what Trump wrote.
BERNIE SANDERS: This is what he said on May 7, 2015. And he repeated it many times. I was the first and only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - end of quote.
GREENE: And Sanders said he wants to hold Trump to his word. But he and many Democrats are taking no chances. They're staging a national day of protest, January 15, to warn Republicans not to cut health programs. Now, in Congress, there is talk of compromise, for example, in reworking Obamacare. But Sanders and some of his colleagues are going hard at Republicans anyway, accusing them of trying to quote, "make America sick again." Sanders said Democrats need to get out and mobilize.
SANDERS: I happen to believe that the Democratic Party has been not doing a good job in terms of communicating with people in cities and towns and in rural America all over this country. We've got to get out there.
GREENE: Well, let me ask a broader question here. I mean, campaigns are different from times of governance, I guess one could argue. And you showed this tremendous skill in getting people to your rallies and really channeling passion into votes. But at this moment, when there might be a window to sit down with members of the Republican Party to talk about compromise, do you worry that catchy slogans like make America sick again, you know, allegations about what Republicans are trying to do - could that undermine the chance for cooperation?
SANDERS: No. Let me get back to the point here. If we want to talk about politics in a democratic society, the first thing we have to do is to hold candidates accountable for what they said over and over again. David, this is, again, not something he said one time and in passing. This has been the cornerstone of his campaign. This is what he told millions of people. This is why he became president.
So the first thing that we must do is say to Mr. Trump, were you lying during the campaign? Had you no real intention of keeping this promise? But if the contrary is true - and I hope it is - let's stop the nonsense right now. Republicans are working hard. They're trying to put together the programs that will cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Tell them to stop.
GREENE: But with those goals in mind, I guess I wonder if you worry that activism risks driving the other side away from the table.
SANDERS: Activism means participating in the political process, rallying the American people to stand up and fight for what they believe in. That is a bad thing? I don't think it's a bad thing. I think one of the problems that we have in this country and one of the reasons that Mr. Trump won is that we have millions of people who have given up on the political process, who don't believe the Congress is listening to their pain.
We have a middle class which is in decline. One out of 5 Americans cannot afford the high cost of prescription drugs. We've got to start listening to people, involve them in the political process. Right now what goes on is that the American people are not actively involved in fighting for their rights. Who do you think is going to make the decisions if the American people are not involved at the grassroots level?
It will be the insurance companies. It'll be Wall Street. It'll be the drug companies. It'll be the fossil fuel industry. I don't want to break the bad news to you. But, in fact, these large corporate interests have enormous legislative and political power in this country. And when we rallied the American people, what we are saying to the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats - hey, start paying attention to the needs of the 99 percent and not just the 1 percent. That is exactly what we have got to do.
GREENE: I listened to your message. I mean, it's a populist message that resonated with a lot of people around this country. And I think about states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania. Do you think, if you had been the nominee, you would've won the election against Donald Trump?
SANDERS: Well, I don't think it helps to relive history. The answer is I don't know. Nobody knows. Doesn't - it's not worth speculating about.
GREENE: Wasn't that many votes in those states that was a difference.
SANDERS: I'm more than aware of that. But what is important right now is we are where we are. Mr. Trump made some statements. Our job is to hold him accountable.
GREENE: You're doing a town hall with CNN on Monday about the Democratic strategy for dealing with Trump's administration. What is the strategy going forward for Democrats?
SANDERS: Strategy really is not complicated. One of the things that we have not done in Washington as elected officials - I think the media has not done a particularly good job on - is to understand that you have many people out there who cannot afford to pay their electric bill. Half of the elderly people in this country have zero savings as they move into retirement.
Kids can't afford to go to college or are leaving school. Fifty, $60,000 - that is the reality of millions of people. So what the Democratic Party has got to do is start listening to the needs of the middle class, the working families, lower-income people, black and white and Latino, and listen to the pain that is out there.
GREENE: Well, Senator, you say it's so simple. And you say it's about listening. How did the party get it so wrong in this election?
SANDERS: Well, it's not a question of this election. You know, it's an interesting point, David. If you go back historically into the '40s, say - FDR - even Harry Truman. If you would've stopped the man on the street at that point - the woman on the street - and you say, which party is the party of the working class in America? No one would hesitate. It was the Democratic Party. That is not how people would respond today. So I think, to answer your question, the Democratic Party swallowed the bait. They became hooked on big money. When you become hooked on big money, you're not going to stand up to Wall Street or the insurance companies.
GREENE: I just want to ask you about that poster board. Is that the reality of Washington today? Do you have a staff working to print out every single Donald Trump tweet?
SANDERS: Well, I think - I mean, it's not a question of printing out every single Donald Trump tweet. What he prided himself on - he said, I am not a typical Republican. This is what he said. He said, you got Paul Ryan. You got all these right-wing Republicans. They want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid - not me. I don't want to do it.
And you got a lot of working-class people and senior citizens who voted for him on that basis. Well, you know what? Yes, we are going to hold them accountable. If that's what he said and if that's how he won the presidency, yes, you're damn right we're going to hold them accountable and remind them of what he said.
GREENE: Sounds like you admire - you admire Trump in some ways.
SANDERS: No, I don't admire people who lie. Why do I admire - what's there to admire?
GREENE: In terms of his message to the working class, people in this country.
SANDERS: It was a good message. Yeah. He said, I will not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And my job and the job of the American people is to make sure that he is held accountable for what he said.
GREENE: That was Vermont's independent senator, Bernie Sanders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.