Democrats reeling from a disastrous 2016 should look at the upcoming DNC race to start fixing what ails their party. While it is true that the biggest impact the DNC Chair will have on elections this year and beyond is in a managerial role it will also tell analysts, pundits and the nation what direction the party seems to be headed.
After Howard Dean bowed out of the contest last year the contest seems to be a two-person race between Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison and Obama Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Ellison has the backing of many progressive groups and Big Labor but Perez is backed by the outgoing White House and some elements of labor angered by the AFL-CIO’s early endorsement of Ellison.
Both come with baggage. Ellison represents a 74 percent Clinton district and is most famously known for taking his initial Oath of Office on the Koran. Religious diversity is fine in America but being an outspoken critic of Israel and praising Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakan are definitely outside the mainstream. Perez is no saint either. Perez has supported many of the Obama administration’s controversial initiatives and a big no-no in progressive circles, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There are a couple other spoilers in the contest. New Hampshire State Party Chair Dean Buckley is running. Buckley has the distinction of managing a state party that actually had some successes last November. Additionally, Jaime Harrison, Chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and my local hero Sally Boynton Brown from Idaho are running. Each has locked up the support of their respective states but the real showdown seems to be between Perez and Ellison.
The message this sends to the nation is unequivocal. Democrats are doubling down on their ideological identity and agenda.
In truth, the race between Ellison and Perez among progressives is only in a matter of degrees. Neither has shown a willingness to consider why their party suffered such extensive losses in 2016 nor reach out to non-traditional Democratic voters. Considering these voters formed the basis of the Trump Coalition any Democratic success needs these voters.
If you are a Democrat you might be able to comfort yourself with the thought that Obama is popular and both Ellison and Perez support his agenda. Except that almost 20 percent of voters who approved of Obama backed Trump. Further, many of these voters, despite approving of Obama also voted for Trump primarily on the criteria of “change.”
Considering this it appears that Democrats have learned little from their 2016 shellacking. The party put out ideological stalwarts galore and they lost in race after race. Clinton’s entire campaign was based on enticing voters to back her based on a shared cultural affinity. To be fair, so did Trump. But Clinton’s pitch fell flat because the Democratic Party’s leadership is so culturally out of step with much of America.
An Ellison-Perez match-up also threatens to further sow discord within the party. To most people outside the Beltway, both are die-hard progressives. But, Perez backed Clinton last year while Ellison was one of the few sitting members of Congress to endorse Sanders. The Democratic primary significantly divided the party and you can bet it will play a substantial roll in the race.
To be fair, both Ellison and Perez have talked about the need for the party to retool. They have been critical of the failures of the DNC and its favoring one candidate over the other. They have also promised to make the roll full-time (an issue that troubled former Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz).
That said, neither of the front-runners really fits the mold of Middle America or understands what drives its inhabitants. Perez is a Beltway insider while Ellison is, well, a Congressman from an uber-liberal district.
The party would be much better served in selecting either Buckley or Brown. Brown comes from my home state of Idaho and actually can understand where middle of the road and conservative voters come from (even if she disagrees). Buckley chairs the party in a 50/50 state that is a fairly decent approximation of America (minus race and religiosity levels).
Selecting either of these individuals would put the party in a better place come the next few years. Not only would either slot into the managerial role of the position but they also might be a moderating force in a party taking a hard left turn. Or, at worse, even as the party veers left they would not automatically write off winning over Trump or right leaning voters.
But, Democrats, or more specifically, the 400 and change voting members of the DNC, are unlikely to favor moderation or a change in tactics. At this point, there just seems to be too much partisan and ideological momentum for a change of course (even after an electoral shellacking). As a result, the message the rest of America is probably taking away from the DNC contest is one of an increasingly ideological party doubling down on failed ideas and policies. And, in turn, losing Middle America yet again.