New DNC chair pick sticks with status quo

Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Qingyi Dong/
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Democrats made the first important decision about the future of their party since the 2016 election by selecting former Labor Secretary Tom Perez as their new Chairman last Saturday, Feb. 25. It’s possible that all the hype surrounding the DNC Chair race was overblown. This is, after all, the Democratic Party’s version of a student council election. On the other hand, it’s a student council election whose top candidates rose close to $1 million apiece in fundrasing. While the Democratic chair’s role is limited and the job description is much more about party mechanics than policy or messaging, the election was played out in the media and within Democratic circles as a “fight for the soul of the party,” pitting its “establishment” and progressive wings against one another.

Aside from Perez, the top candidate was Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American elected to congress and a strident Bernie Sanders supporter during the Democratic presidential primary elections. Ellison was long the frontrunner for the DNC Chair, earning early endorsements from progressive icons like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as endorsements from top establishment figures like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. But Perez entered the race late, reportedly at the urging of former President Barack Obama, and quickly emerged as the new favorite because of his ties to the Democratic establishment, which controls much of the voting membership of the DNC.

Thus, the DNC chair race emerged as a proxy battle between establishment and progressive Democrats, pitting the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the party against its Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton wing. Just like during the primary elections a year before, the Democratic Party is divided over its vision of its own future. Essentially, progressives want sweeping change within the party going forward, with a new emphasis on grassroots organizing, local party-building, and a full-throated commitment to economic populism. By contrast, establishment Democrats acknowledge the need for some reforms around the edges, but they insist that the party is already on the right track and just needs to do better with turnout in the future. Just like in the primaries, this election boiled down to change vs. status quo.

Both Perez and Ellison themselves were hesitant to embrace this narrative. Throughout their campaigns, they both stressed the need for party unity and pledged to work closely with whoever was selected to be the new party chair. And both candidates could be seen as compromise choices. Ellison was a die-hard Sanders supporter, but he backed Clinton every bit as enthusiastically during the general election, emerging as one of her key surrogates in the midwest. Meanwhile, Perez was arguably the most progressive member of Obama’s cabinet. The DNC chair debates were almost laughable for how much the candidates agreed with each other on just about everything.

Yet, Ellison and Perez emphasized different agendas for the DNC and disagreed over how to interpret the 2016 election results. Ellison spoke for the need not just of a "50-state party," but for a “3007-County Party,” which invests significant energy and resources into grassroots mobilization and rebuilding the party from the ground up by competing for local and state offices. Perez, on the other hand, argued that the party’s organizing and infrastructure is fine, but that the key to winning elections going forward is to turn out the votes through even more advanced data strategies and old-fashioned retail politics. Ellison blamed Clinton’s loss on her weaknesses regarding wall street, trade, and other economic policies. Perez often pointed to outside influences like FBI Director James Comey and Wikileaks for Clinton’s loss and argued that Clinton’s three-million-vote victory is evidence that the party is fine on policy and just needs to fine tune its organizing to turn out voters in key states.

However, Perez’s view of the state of the Democratic Party largely ignores the fact that Democrats have lost hundreds of state and local offices over the past eight years. By this measure, Democrats are at their weakest point in nearly a century. The party is basically nonexistent in much of the deep south and throughout rural America, and it struggles even to defend its prominence in reliably progressive states and regions, and let’s not forget that Democrats lost a presidential election to the most unqualified and objectionable candidate in modern American history. Simply put, the Democratic Party is in a dire state.

Yet by voting for Perez, the Democratic Party has chosen to ignore its troubles and opted for more of the same. While Perez might be perfectly fine in terms of his policy positions and ideas for the Democratic Party, he represents a brand of political thought that simply has not served Democrats well. Already, Republicans have branded Perez a “D.C. Insider,” promoting the 2016 election narrative that Democrats are out-of-touch and elite. After Perez’s victory, Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to Thomas Perez, who has just been named Chairman of the DNC. I could not be happier for him, or for the Republican Party!” Though Perez and Ellison were really pretty similar, voting for Perez silences the already disgruntled progressives within the Democratic Party and sends a loud and clear signal that the Democratic Party is not at all interested in listening to the American people or learning from its mistakes.

Albert Einstein is often attributed as defining insanity as trying the same thing again and again but expecting a different result. Between 2008 and 2016, the Democratic Party installed establishment leaders like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who led the party to stunning and embarrassing electoral defeats across the country. In 2016, Democrats backed an establishment candidate for president who squandered the safest and easiest presidential race in memory. Democrats have started 2017 by once again allowing the inertia of the status quo to overwhelm the energy within their party at the grassroots and within the progressive wing. Until Democrats embrace the progressive elements within their party, boldly message why their agenda serves the American people, and soberly assess their shortcomings on policy, messaging, and organization, they will continue to lose.