The Democratic National Committee met this weekend and elected as its new chairman Tom Perez, who narrowly beat out Keith Ellison on the second round of voting. It was the most contentious race for party chair seen in decades, so the first challenge Perez is going to face is whether he can quickly achieve any sort of party unity before the big push for the midterm elections gets underway. He’s got his work cut out for him, but the bigger question is whether he’ll be an effective party leader for the Democrats, and whether he can reverse the slide in the party’s relative strength both nationwide and at the state and local level.
This is a lot to ask of anyone. Normally, party chairs are (somewhat mockingly) called “fundraisers-in-chief,” since a big part of their job is keeping the party’s campaign chest full, by convincing the big donors to keep the money flowing in. But these are not normal times, and that’s before even considering the Trump effect. Even if a run-of-the-mill Republican were in the Oval Office right now, Democrats would still have no real visible leader. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are the closest thing to party leaders the Democrats have, but they don’t exactly personify where the energy is in the party right now. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren clearly lead one wing of the Democratic Party, but they can’t realistically be called the outright leaders of the entire party either. All of this puts much more weight on the shoulders of the D.N.C. chair, elevating the position to more prominence than just being the best at shaking down big donors on a regular basis.
The first question that Perez will face is whether the narrative of “the Sanders wing of the party versus the establishment” was overblown during the D.N.C. chair race. The media loved the storyline, but it remains to be seen whether this accurately reflected the reality or not. Ellison was a big Bernie supporter during last year’s primaries, and Perez was seen as being hand-picked by the Obama/Clinton wing of the party. But that’s really an oversimplification to begin with, because the establishment itself has always had some division between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Putting that aside, the immediate questions are: Was Ellison’s loss really that big a loss for Sanders supporters? Will the anti-Trump activist energy that is currently spreading like wildfire across America be so disgusted with the rejection of Ellison that they spurn the party organization and apparatus? Sanders supporters were disappointed in the 2016 primaries, and they were disappointed this weekend as well. Does this lead to total disillusionment with the Democratic Party, which would mean an exodus of the most fervent of the people now protesting Trump? Or will their abhorrence of all things Trump convince them to work with the party anyway? All good questions that Tom Perez is going to have to address very soon, one way or another.
Ideologically, Ellison and Perez were pretty close. There wasn’t a whole lot of daylight between them, except on one big issue. Perez, being a member of Obama’s cabinet at the time, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ellison was against the T.P.P. from the beginning. Other than that, their policy disagreements were few and far between. It was more a question of a difference in emphasis, rather than ideology. Accepting Perez over Ellison isn’t quite the same magnitude as the difference Sanders supporters faced between their candidate and Hillary Clinton (Sanders and Clinton had a much wider gap between their agendas than Perez and Ellison do, to put this another way). Perez calls himself a proud progressive, and has some solid history to back that claim up. Will this be enough to convince Ellison supporters to eventually accept him and allow for party unity to return? We’ll see. The answer will probably become apparent within a few months, one way or the other.
It has to be admitted that part of the problem of party unity (and party effectiveness) for Democrats was caused in large part by Barack Obama. When Obama entered office, he morphed the campaign apparatus which got him elected into its own entity, “Organizing For America.” Many Democratic insiders have complained that this parallel organization diverted a lot of money that normally would have gone through the coffers of the Democratic Party, leaving them with fewer resources to contest elections, especially at the state level. O.F.A. had its own agenda, entirely separate from the Democratic Party apparatus, which was to support Obama’s policy positions and legislation.
I don’t completely buy this argument, I should mention. Some donations might have been diverted away from the D.N.C., but that is part of a long-term trend both parties have seen happen in the past few decades. Online advocacy and fundraising (and the Citizens United decision) have opened the floodgates to political groups to raise money outside of the normal party structure, which has weakened as a direct result. Obama didn’t change this entire dynamic, he merely attempted to use it to support what he wanted to get done. Even if O.F.A. hadn’t ever existed, however, the trend would still have caught up to the Democrats. If you want to make a political donation to support some cause or another, with the click of a mouse you can now direct that money to the group you think will do the most to advance it. And fewer and fewer donors (small and big) see the need for the middleman of the party apparatus.
Even having said all of that, the D.N.C. would have had problems even if Obama’s O.F.A. had never existed. The Democratic Party, from all accounts, has been moving steadily away from Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” for a while now, which has starved the state party organizations of funding. This has had a devastating effect down the ballot, losing hundreds of seats in statehouses, governors’ mansions, and other offices at the state and local levels. This is the biggest challenge Perez will face ― reversing this trend. Both Perez and Ellison (and most of the other candidates for the job) spoke of reviving Dean’s 50-state strategy during the contest for the D.N.C. chair, meaning the party insiders are now fully aware that this is the most important problem to tackle. The party must shift from being most concerned with winning presidential elections by exclusively focusing on swing and battleground states to a broad approach towards rebuilding their power in the states and individual House districts.
Interestingly, Barack Obama has indicated that his goals now align perfectly with the party’s goal of rebuilding at the state level. Obama has chosen for his first post-presidency project the goal of not only winning back state legislature seats and governor’s offices, but doing so with a clear objective in mind ― not getting trounced by Republicans in the congressional redistricting which will take place after the 2020 census. Reversing the blatant GOP gerrymandering which took place after the 2010 electoral rout should indeed be a key goal for Democrats right now, because it could mean control of the House of Representatives for the next whole decade. Republicans drew the lines to benefit their party last time around, and they were wildly successful at it. Democrats are hoping to do the same, and if both Obama and the D.N.C. are working for the same goal, it should hopefully mean that the donor divide between Obama’s organization and the party itself won’t matter as much. If they’re both working to achieve the same goal, it can only help, in other words.
But Tom Perez still has his work cut out for him, that’s for sure. In the short term, he’s got to do everything he can to unify the party. He’s also got to figure out how to use the grassroots energy out there to the party’s advantage. This does not mean trying to co-opt the organic anti-Trump resistance, but rather to convince the protesters that the Democrats share the same goals. If he is successful at avoiding a backlash from the Sanders/Ellison base and truly does allow them room at the table, then he’ll have already been more successful than the last two D.N.C. leaders in restoring party unity. Naming Ellison to a symbolic party position was a step in this direction, similar to Clinton allowing Bernie Sanders to influence the party’s platform document last year. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, however.
Beyond immediate party unity is the long-term work Perez has to accomplish. To rebuild the party in (as Perez puts it) “every ZIP code in America,” he will have to convince good candidates to run for state offices and then materially support them during their campaigns. He’s got to generate some excitement in the Democratic base by choosing candidates who inspire the crowds. Beyond these nuts-and-bolts changes, Perez also has to rededicate the Democratic Party to its historic roots ― helping the little guy on Main Street live a better life. Democrats are going to have to make the case that Trump’s election was nothing short of a con job of monumental proportions ― a swindle perpetrated on voters that cannot deliver on any of its promises to help the working class. Republican ideology simply will not allow Trump much in the way of relief for the demographics Trump convinced to vote for him. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell aren’t going to let Trump deliver on his promises, plain and simple. So Democrats have to make the case that their agenda actually helps people and that both Trump and the Republicans are fighting against things that help. The minimum wage is a good place to start, to state the obvious. When the minimum wage rises, it has a trickle-up effect on most other wages, which would effectively give working people a raise they’ve been due for a very long time now.
Still, “Elect us, we’re not Republicans” is not going to cut it. “Elect us, we hate Trump” is also not going to do the job. “Elect us because this is what we’re fighting for” is the only route with any real chance of success. Also, “Why are Republicans always against such good ideas?” might help, as well.
The Democratic Party is at the lowest point since, roughly, the 1920s. It is in desperate need of revitalization. Bernie Sanders proved that there plenty of excitement does exist out there for progressive ideas, and that donations aren’t a problem ― when your agenda matches with regular people’s needs. Both Perez and Ellison seemed to understand that, to some degree. Now that Perez will be leading the Democratic Party, we’ll see how effective a messenger he can be. His first challenge will be an attempt to heal the wounds of party division and work to achieve some sort of party unity that clearly addresses the concerns of Democrats outside of the big donor class. Perez doesn’t have the luxury of merely being the party’s fundraiser-in-chief. That is not what is needed right now, to state the glaringly obvious. Democrats need a complete overhaul of the party’s priorities if the party is going to have any chance of gaining back some of what was lost in the past eight years. These are all daunting tasks, and I personally hope Tom Perez proves up to this challenge. If he manages to successfully achieve these goals, though, he has the opportunity to be the most effective and strongest party chair in a long time.
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