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In Exit Interview, Sen. Barbara Boxer Considers Path Forward For Democrats

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

After 34 years in Congress, California Senator Barbara Boxer is about to retire. She's leaving Washington at a difficult time for the Democrats, and our co-host Kelly McEvers recently talked with Boxer about her career and the way forward for her party. They started their conversation by looking back to 1992. At the time, both of California's Senate seats were up for election. Boxer ran for one seat, Democrat Dianne Feinstein ran for the other.

BARBARA BOXER: Dianne was the more popular, the more well-known, the more moderate and all that, and everybody said to me, oh, we like you but we can't vote for more than one woman and...

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: At a time?

BOXER: Yeah. I mean they thought that was a big deal. Remember, we never had a woman from California and only one woman Democrat had been elected in her own right, Barbara Mikulski.

MCEVERS: And then so you were elected to the Senate in 1992, and people then came to call it the year of the woman.

BOXER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Four women were voted into the Senate that year, and at the time, your colleague, Barbara Mikulski, senator of Maryland, said calling it the year of the woman makes it sound like the year of the caribou or the year of the asparagus - we're not a fad, a fancy or a year.

BOXER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: What do you think about...

BOXER: Well, Barbara has a way, doesn't she?

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

BOXER: But I always thought it was an exaggeration. After all, we went from two to six in the Senate, and they said, well, they tripled their numbers. Well, that's great, but just two to six out of a hundred? So it was an overstatement, but it did signal, for the first time, perhaps women could get elected to these high offices, and now we have - we're going to have 21 women. That's a high. And, in my view, when we have 50 that will be exactly fine.

MCEVERS: But - with 21 in the Senate, that is a high, but if you look at Congress, it's actually gone down a little bit. I mean the overall, you know, result of women in Congress since the last election has kind of flatlined.

BOXER: Well, I don't look at it that way. I think we made history this year. We had the first woman ever nominated to be the presidential candidate of a major party. The woman, Hillary Clinton, got far more votes than the man. Because of the Electoral College, he'll be coming. He'll be president. I can hardly say it, but that's OK. And, you know, it's an unfair system, but, I just don't view it as, you know, an attack on women, the fact that there's a few less of us in the House. But there's more of us in the Senate, and there's going to be more and more of us because I think people are recognizing - men and women - that it's just wrong not to have a representative government.

MCEVERS: How hard was it for you to see Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election?

BOXER: Oh, it was painful, hurtful. I even got, like, a physical reaction to it. I could barely pick myself up off the floor. You know, really, really bad.

MCEVERS: I mean you fought for women's rights in the Senate. What do you think women should do now?

BOXER: Oh, fight for what's right.

MCEVERS: Specifically, how?

BOXER: Well, it's very easy. You introduce legislation that moves us forward. You fight bad legislation. You work with outside groups who may find ways to sue if we're treated badly and lose our rights. It's every front.

MCEVERS: This is a time of crisis, though, for the Democratic Party. I mean there's lots of talk about whether the party should do more to reach out to white working-class voters, voters who...

BOXER: Yeah, I don't think we're in crisis at all. This is my view. I think what we need to do is marry the Bernie wing of the party with the Hillary wing, the standing together and stronger together wing with the populist wing, and we'll be fine.

MCEVERS: How does that work? I mean first of all, who's the person who could do that?

BOXER: Barack Obama. Joe Biden. Michelle Obama. I think Barack Obama on the national stage - and he's going to be very important because he has a legacy to protect.

MCEVERS: OK. But, yeah, he's somebody who's leaving the presidency.

BOXER: You don't have to be the president.

MCEVERS: The first lady is leaving the presidency, the vice president is leaving. You're leaving. Everybody's leaving office. I mean that looks - sounds like it's looking back.

BOXER: No. Here's the thing I don't think you get. You are almost a better leader when you're outside of the confines of holding public office. You're - I'm going to be uncensored. I'm going to be unfiltered.

MCEVERS: When you say you're going to be uncensored, what are you going to say that you couldn't say before?

BOXER: Well, stay tuned. I'm still a senator. I can't do it. I can't - I can't...

MCEVERS: (Laughter). Got a couple more days, yeah, before we can hear what you have to say.

BOXER: I have a couple of weeks, I think, and then I'm going to be able to be me. But what we have to do is face the fact that we lost, be honest about mistakes that were made and just get up and move forward.

MCEVERS: You said we have to be honest about the mistakes that were made in this election. What were those mistakes?

BOXER: Well, when I - you know, this is all hindsight. I think rather than sending Hillary to Arizona and Texas, it would've been better to send her into those states where we lost by a hair - you know, Michigan...

MCEVERS: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.

BOXER: Yeah, yeah. I mean we didn't do that, and so that was a mistake. I also would like to say I think when people would say, oh, I just can't vote for Hillary 'cause I don't like this and that email or this, I would say, look, nobody is perfect. I always tell people, you're never going to find the perfect candidate unless you yourself run. But it's very difficult for people. They want perfection. I feel we're going to pay the price for that.

MCEVERS: Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat from California, who is retiring after more than three decades in Congress, thank you very much.

BOXER: It's been a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.