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Outgoing Alabama Senator On The Future Of Democratic Party In The South

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The only incumbent Democratic senator who lost reelection this year was Doug Jones of Alabama. Three years ago, voters chose him to fill the seat of Republican Jeff Sessions, who became President Trump's first attorney general. While they knew this would be a tough reelection fight, the Jones campaign did not expect a total wipeout. He lost to former football coach Tommy Tuberville by about 20 points. Senator Jones joins us now to talk about what he sees as the path forward for his party.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DOUG JONES: Thanks, Ari. I appreciate you being here with me.

SHAPIRO: You know, when you were elected in 2017, about 674,000 people voted for you. And this year, about 914,00 people voted for you, many more. And yet you lost in a landslide. So how do you interpret that?

JONES: Well, I still think that - I'm still going to look at it as a lot of positive things going on. An extra 300,000 votes is a significant amount. And I think they're really solid votes. I think they're a solid base that we built. You know, when you're running in an election year that is as polarized as this one was and with the president being as popular as he was, we always knew it was going to be tough. The biggest thing I think that challenge that we had was trying to get people to split those tickets. And obviously that just didn't happen in Alabama.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk more broadly about this question of whether Democrats can turn the South blue again because on the one hand, Joe Biden narrowly won Georgia. On the other hand, Democrats lost key Senate races in Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama. What do you think the future of the party in the South is?

JONES: Well, I think it's a very positive. I think that things are looking up. I mean, the fact that we're even having this conversation, I think, shows that there are things that people see out there as things moving for Democrats in the right direction. Now, I don't think that you're going to see any of those Deep South states turn blue anytime soon. And quite frankly, I'm not sure that that's really the goal. I think the goal will be to have the Democratic Party competitive. You've seen that in Kentucky. We've got a Democratic governor. You've seen that in Louisiana, where there's a Democratic governor. We almost had a Democratic governor in Georgia and in Florida.

So I think that things are moving in the right direction. But we've got to play long ball. We've got to organize. We've got to get out there. And we need to talk about issues that are important to people and listen to folks and hear them out and see what they've got to say. And then we can get candidates who can fulfill that mission.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the specific policy positions that the Democratic Party is going to prioritize going forward because there's this split right now where the progressive wing argues that if Joe Biden does not pursue an aggressive liberal agenda, it's going to alienate some of the people who carried him to victory. Here's what Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state told NPR last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: If we don't deliver for them in these next two years before the midterm elections, I fear we will lose them for a generation. We have to show that we are for bold, populist policies that help working people across this country and the most vulnerable.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jones, what do you think? Bold, populist policies - is that the direction of the Democratic Party should take?

JONES: Well, I think that she's right to some extent. But at the same time, I think what what's missing in a lot of these discussions, Ari, is the fact that - what is the goal? How do you get to a certain goal we can disagree on? But we all agree, for instance, people need to have good health care. They need to have easy access to good, affordable health care. How you get there - we can have the policy difference. And that's - I think it's the keys to how you get to these goals. Better education, you know, lower cost of higher education, getting people good jobs, bringing jobs back overseas. All of those are so-called populist issues.

The question is how you get there. And I think that there's a lot more in common - I talk about this a lot in Alabama when I'm talking about Republicans and Democrats - but you have to say the same thing about the Democratic Party. We've got a big tent. And we've got so much more in common than really - divides us. It's easy to divide right after an election where people kind of want to point fingers. But I think as we get into this new administration, we're going to find that folks are going to work with each other to try to get the same goals met.

SHAPIRO: You say everybody wants good education and everybody wants good health care. And those are not controversial positions. But the question is, do you pursue those goals with programs that Republicans could use to paint Democrats as, quote-unquote, "socialists"? Or do you try to find something that might not be as ambitious but might get a broader swath of the elected officials behind it?

JONES: Well, in my mind, you're going to have to work to get a broader swath. It's the only way you're going to, as the congresswoman said, deliver. You're not going to be able to deliver a far-right or far-left agenda. Nobody's been able to do that. And so you've got to - in order to get things done in Washington, D.C., you're going to have to get enough people in both houses of Congress to get something passed. That's going to be difficult to do.

But regardless, you're going to have to try to reach that common ground that I keep talking about to try to get these goals accomplished. We didn't get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed without getting a broad swath of people coming on board to help. We didn't get the Voting Rights Act done. We didn't get the ACA even done without a broader support of that, even among Democrats. So we can do it. It's just going to take some work.

SHAPIRO: I don't want this to sound rude, but there are going to be people listening to you thinking to themselves, he lost by 20 points, why should we give any weight to what he has to say?

JONES: And it's a fair point. It's a fair point. I can't argue with that. But all I can do is I can tell you what's on the ground. And I think when you look at the votes that we got, you're going to see that we got a good cross-section of folks that had not voted Democratic before. We just couldn't overcome the Trump presidency and the single-ticket vote. And Alabama is one of only six states that still have straight ticket voting. And it's real easy to go - for both Republicans and Democrats - to go in there and mark one little ring there and you're done and walk out. So I'm going to continue to have that optimism down the road. I know that the folks that I have talked to following the election, the people around the state, they're disappointed, they're sad, but they are no less enthusiastic about the prospects for the future on both a local and statewide level.

But again, it is not going to happen overnight. You've got to temper the enthusiasm with reality about some things. And you've got to get into these communities and work these every day, every week, every month. You can't just wait till and roll around on election. I think that that's been the biggest problem of Democrats in the South and other areas over the last 20, 30 years. We just go from one candidate to the next. We go from one election to the next. We really haven't done the spade work that needs to be done.

SHAPIRO: All right. Before I let you go, I've got to ask about what is next for you personally because a lot of people have asked whether you would move from the legislative branch to the executive branch and take a position in the Biden administration. Is that something you'd be interested in?

JONES: Well, I've known Joe Biden for close to - over 40 years now. And I have always believed and I believe now he will be a great president. I want to see him succeed. I want to see this administration succeed. If I can help, I'm fine, but there is such a wealth of talent that's out there. He has got so many folks that he is known over the years, that he has worked with over the years. It's going to be a lot of folks. And the future looks very bright for Biden and Harris. So we'll just see how things go in the coming days and the coming weeks.

SHAPIRO: That is outgoing Senator Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama.

Good to talk with you again.

JONES: Thank you, Ari. Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.