WASHINGTON ― The seven leading candidates to serve as the next chair of the Democratic National Committee gathered at George Washington University on Wednesday night to dodge key questions about party reform and pander to the 447 insiders who will elect the next Democratic leader.
At a debate sponsored by The Huffington Post, contenders repeatedly called for “unity” and made vague calls for better “organizing” while sidestepping important issues about how the DNC should govern its future affairs.
Many committed Democrats are following the DNC race as a fight for the future of the party. After a devastating presidential defeat and nearly a decade of steady losses in Congress and at the state level, there aren’t many other political battles for party activists to focus on. But the candidates themselves are not catering to grass-roots organizers or rank-and-file voters. They’re seeking the support of a majority of DNC members ― mostly state party leaders and political appointees ― and doing their damnedest to avoid ruffling any feathers. If any of the candidates on stage Wednesday were auditioning to serve as the opposition leader against President-elect Donald Trump, s/he managed to fool everyone.
None were willing to call for an end to state caucuses ― complex presidential nominating processes that undermine a one-person-one-vote framework. When asked what the party should do about superdelegates ― party insiders the DNC has long granted special influence over its presidential nomination ― no candidate would support simply scuttling the undemocratic system. Former Fox News commentator Jehmu Greene spoke for the slate by arguing Democrats “need to be the party of innovation” on the superdelegate question.
Coincidentally, members of the Democratic National Committee who get to vote for the DNC chair also serve as superdelegates in the presidential nominating process.
Candidates couldn’t even acknowledge the DNC had botched the 2016 process. When asked whether the DNC “put its thumb on the scale” in favor of Hillary Clinton, no candidate would agree. “That’s a gotcha question,” Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown said. “I’m not going to answer.”
The contentious 2016 primary between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exposed major fissures in the party. But the candidates studiously avoided emphasizing those divisions. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, called the idea of the DNC race as a proxy battle between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party a “false choice.”
The candidates almost universally agreed that lobbyists should be allowed to keep giving money to the DNC. President Barack Obama banned lobbyist contributions to the party in 2008, a ban then-DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz quietly lifted in the 2016 election. Even Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the most outspoken progressive in this DNC race, downplayed his prior commitment to reinstate the ban.
“If I do become DNC chair, I am not going to impose a policy on anybody. We’re going to have a democratic process on how we arrive at funding the Democratic Party,” he said. Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he would make sure the ban came up for debate but said he would leave the ultimate decision up to the broader DNC body ― a deference that neither Obama nor Wasserman Schultz showed.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we have the conversation,” he concluded. “We’ve got to at least talk about it because people do have this sense that in D.C. it’s just the puppet masters making all the calls.”
Other candidates gave a full-throated defense of money in politics. South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, who has made his living as a lobbyist since 2008, claimed that denying the DNC lobbyist money would deprive the party of an irrecoverable $18 million. The DNC took in $18.9 million from lobbyists and lawyers combined in 2016, about 7 percent of the DNC’s total funding. Harrison denied that special interests were trying to influence Democratic policy with donations to the DNC.
“When lobbyists and corporations give us money, what are they going to get from the DNC? It’s not like we have a vote in Congress; we can’t determine any laws,” he said. “So it must mean they are committed to the vision of helping us recruit candidates, build a new bench and all the like.”
There were some fireworks. When asked whether billionaire Democratic donor Haim Saban should apologize for smearing Ellison as an anti-Semite, everyone on stage but Ellison and Greene agreed ― a rare rebuke from political aspirants directed toward a deep-pocketed supporter.
“An attack against one of us really is an attack against all of us,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said.
“Keith is a great guy,” Harrison said. “I don’t believe that there’s an anti-Semitic bone in his body.”
Greene was more cautious: “We need to stop falling for these gotcha questions,” she said, claiming “the media” was trying to “divide our funders from our leaders.”
All seven candidates also agreed the DNC needs to be involved in “street-fighting,” “protests” and “direct action.”
Labor Secretary Tom Perez, alone among the contenders, appeared to call for across-the-board obstruction to Trump’s agenda, registering the most rhetorically potent moment of the evening. “We can hit [Trump] between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.”
There were also legitimate disagreements over prescription drug policy. Last week, 13 Democrats joined 39 Republicans to vote down a symbolic amendment that would have allowed the importation of lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada.
Answering a question about the amendment, Ellison turned the vote into a lesson about the power of activism. It was his best moment of the night.
“I’m going to tell you something about politicians: They see the light when they feel the heat. If you guys get involved and tell them that you’re not alright with that, I think some votes will start going the way you want them to go,” he said, drawing applause.
Harrison disagreed. “I saw that Democrats were yelling at Democrats, and it sent chills down my spine. What I would have done is huddled all the Democrats up together and said … let’s come up with an amendment that all Democrats can support so that we don’t go beating each other up.”
It would make the next DNC chair’s job easy if Democrats could agree about everything all the time. But there are genuine disputes within the party over how to move forward in a moment of historic political impotence. On Wednesday night, nobody was willing to light the way.