“I agree with everything that everyone said.”
When he uttered those words a little over an hour into a recent 10-person panel of candidates competing to lead the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, head of the South Carolina party, spoke the essential truth of the Baltimore gathering. Everyone agreed with everything everyone else said, even if, and perhaps especially when, it was about everything Democrats had ever done wrong in 2016.
And even if “everyone” didn’t exactly mean everyone — more like, anyone who’s anyone in the balkanized post-2016 Democratic leadership — “everyone” had agreed to speak about those missteps in fundamentally platitudinous terms: “talking less and listening more,” “returning to a 50-state strategy,” and “harnessing moral outrage.” No candidates actually debated one another, just applauded the points of their peers and built off them, English lit seminar-style.
The evening panel came at the end of a long Saturday billed as a “DNC Future Forum,” filled with people wearing suits and doing their best Obama impression into microphones, and yet, surprisingly, it was well-attended. Perhaps that’s because the race for DNC chair, culminating in a vote this Saturday, has become the closest thing to a group-therapy session that the Democratic Party can muster, a safe space to repeat the new self-flagellating conventional wisdoms of the day and try to heal. They flubbed it, everyone concedes. Went up for the easy layup and missed while Donald Trump simultaneously pantsed them.
Harrison’s succinct expression of this particular moment for the party had come in response to a question from the audience — how would the new chair get the party past the aroused “passion” of some in the base against some in the establishment? When the top contenders for the DNC job, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, had their chance to answer, they took the opportunity to reach for the same metaphor — a family tiff.
“A party without passion is not a party,” Perez said. “When I hear passion, it reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner at my house.”
Ellison agreed. “We are all friends up here,” he said. “This is a family meeting.” To prove his point of goodwill, the congressman singled out the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, one of the top dogs of the underdog candidates and whom the moderator had earlier referred to as “Robert.” “That cat is really articulate!” Ellison kvelled.
The love-fest had more than a little to do with the performative nature the typically insider election has developed. Only 447 people vote for DNC chair, but this year, the party and the candidates have used the race to project to the base a realization that they’ve done wrong and are looking to make it right. As a good politician knows, people like to have their problems both recognized and solved in the same breath, so the Democrats have avoided publicly tussling with the more entrenched issues they face, choosing instead to stick to safe applause lines.
And yet the larger, systemic problems of the party loom, noted in speeches but nearly always as part of a litany of vague injustices or complicated questions to be tackled. Many of these questions are crucial to the Democrats’ future, but concrete plans for answering them haven’t been much talked about, at least in public. They’ll need to be, since some of the strategic paths forward for the party might end up being diametrically opposed to one another in practice. Consider, for instance: Should the party broaden its big tent to try to bring in more white voters without college degrees? Move away from identity politics issues to focus on a populist economic message and a tougher stance on immigration? Or should it double down on support from its traditional voters, trying to fix its black turnout problem in the post-Obama era and cater more to the progressive, Bernie Sanders-inclined youth vote? What about the party’s structural problems — gerrymandering, self-sorting, the decline of unions, corporate money working against them on the state level?
These are not the things politicians want to talk about openly — strategy, messaging, the helplessness of watching Democratic votes slip away in a battle of lines crookedly drawn on maps. These are problems whose effects are little felt in a voter’s everyday life. But if they can’t be tackled at this time of unprecedented soul searching in the party, in a campaign to lead the Democrats’ logistical hub, when will they be, one wonders. Speeches and marching alone won’t solve things.
On Saturday, DNC members will decide who gets to take a crack at the morass of problems that is the Democratic Party organization post-2016. And if you look hard enough at the players in a campaign overwhelmed by cliché and nodding agreement, you can find some differences between them: Ellison, a virtuoso campaigner and television natural, promises to provide the party with a megaphone for a message of economic solidarity with the working class, and Perez, the Obama bureaucrat, promises principled progressivism with the gloss of organizational culture change. Among the rest, Buttigieg, recently endorsed by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, and two state party leaders, Harrison and Sally Boynton Brown (she is the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party), have the best shot.
Meet Keith Ellison
The day of the candidate forum at Baltimore’s convention center, “Team Tom” and Mayor Pete’s “happy warriors” marched through the halls wearing blue, while Ellison supporters carried Shepard Fairey-esque depictions of their candidate after donning green kits; differentiation, if only by one tick over on the color spectrum, seemed necessary given the candidates’ largely identical political beliefs.
The commotion, it became clear, was a roving Potemkin village of sorts, largely for the benefit of the press. Most of the people filling the hallways were affiliated with the campaigns, while actual DNC voters were rare birds — about 70 made it to the forum, according to the organizers — who sat inside the ballroom listening to speakers or a floor below, eating sandwiches in dark corners to avoid the marching people wearing T-shirts.
The actual grass-roots support could be found at a midday Ellison rally, where local Democratic die-hards packed the room as “I Won’t Back Down” played.
“We’ve got to move things ahead,” said Nancy Newman, a Baltimore resident. She said Ellison’s endorsements from the party’s progressive stalwarts were a big reason that she’s supporting him: “Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and I’m a longtime reader of the Nation magazine.”
What does Ellison propose? A 50-state strategy; listening to the grass roots; better candidate recruitment; more effective organizing.
His of-the-people brand is probably the most intuitive pick for a party that’s been pummeled with post-election accusations that it relied too heavily on targeted messaging and data-driven consultants while losing touch with the needs of non-coastal Americans. Establishment types like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer have endorsed his bid as well, though, in part because of what he can do in front of a crowd, a talent that was on full display in Baltimore.
“I am not afraid to say that I care about poor people,” Ellison told the roaring rally minutes after sneaking in, dressed to type in plaid shirtsleeves. “The rich people have a party — the Democratic Party needs to be the party of the working people.”
The DNC chair has typically focused on fundraising and helped to coordinate campaign strategy throughout the states, but the position’s highest-profile role is in overseeing the party’s presidential nomination process. Ellison’s bid to be chair relies heavily on the notion that after losing the White House and majorities in Congress, the Democrats need a powerful spokesperson for their messages wherever they can get it, a figure who’s out on the front lines and in front of cameras.
“If I am your DNC chair,” Ellison started to say at one point, only to be interrupted by a voice in the crowd shouting, “When!” — which got a chuckle from the podium. “When,” he repeated gamely. “The working people of the United States will never ever doubt that the Democratic Party stands on their side.”
Meet Tom Perez
A couple of doors down from the Ellison rally, Team Tom in their uniform blues held a more sedate lunch-hour event, where volunteers snacked on pre-packaged meals at round tables. When he arrived, Perez talked Trump — “We see every day the spectacle of carnage and chaos that is Donald Trump” — and enthusiastically thanked familiar faces.
Later, I caught up with a hoarse Perez in a quiet room filled with aides staring into devices. He seemed tired, doubly so when asked about his labeling in this election as an establishment candidate.
“I’ve seldom heard of the United Farm Workers as an establishment organization,” he said edgily, referring to a union that has endorsed him. “That’s an interesting take.”
But endorsements from the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden and derision from Sanders as a representative of “a failed status-quo approach” have, fairly or not, saddled Perez with a certain narrative in the race. It’s a mantle that the former civil rights attorney wears uneasily but might help him win.
What does Perez propose? A 50-state strategy; listening to the grass roots; better candidate recruitment; more effective organizing.
But his differentiating pitch is that he’ll focus on organizational change at the troubled DNC, and that could prove appealing to the insider voters. Last week, Perez’s team said he was nearing the 224 votes needed to clinch the race in the first round (Ellison called the count “unverifiable”).
“We need someone who’s also a turnaround specialist because we’ve got to change the culture of the DNC,” Perez said. “That’s what I did at the Labor Department.” He is one candidate who has taken a particular stand on Republican efforts to add more stringent voting requirements, calling for the creation of what he called “a voter protection and empowerment unit” within the DNC. But this message of playing “both offense and defense on one of the most important aspects of our democracy, protecting and expanding the right to vote for all eligible voters,” is not an explicit part of Perez’s public-facing on-the-stump persona. For better or worse, it’s not the sort of issue that gets rooms of people to cheer.
Meet the DNC voters
“One of the questions I asked one of the candidates is if he thought he was running for chair of the DNC or chair of the Democratic Party,” Frank Leone, a DNC voter from Arlington, Virginia, said after the Saturday night panel. “I think the public has this view that this is the Democratic Party chair and so they’re interested in big issues — ‘what are you going to do about Trump?’”
Leone is right. The campaign has become in large part about a public validation of the Democratic base’s feelings of frustration, but actual DNC voters are casting their ballots with more nuance in mind.
“The chair is a spokesman for the party,” Leone said, “but a lot of it is: ‘How are you going to work with us as DNC members? What are you going to challenge us to do? What are you going to do to build our state party? How are you going to fight for voter protection?’” Those issues “might be a little obtuse,” Leone said, but they are important to DNC members.
“Gerrymandering is terrible for many reasons,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said over the phone recently. “But people don’t consider how much it kills a party trying to fill a bench, but candidates won’t and can’t do it because the seats are unwinnable.”
Michigan party Chairman Brandon Dillon said he hoped to see what many DNC members seem to be talking about — an authentic move to decentralize power from Washington to the states. “I would personally like to see the DNC chair focus on not necessarily being the lead spokesperson for the Democrats but really implementing and executing this plan to get more resources to the states to allow us to do the grass-roots, precinct-level organizing that we need to do to overcome some of this, to win governor’s offices in 2018, which will help with redistricting,” he said.
That’s the delicate balance of the race — presenting an outward front of populism for the base and a more nuanced managerial message to the voting party apparatchiks. It is one of the first tests of how involved the disillusioned faithful will be with the reimagining of the party. How will the grass-roots anger that spurred on the Women’s Marches and town-hall protests sustain itself and translate into local-level efforts? Is the present political moment simply just noise therapy — sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing? Or the messy beginnings of reshaping a party that is badly wounded?
Only time will tell. The Democrats are still in campaign mode, though, and this time, they’re trying to win back the like-minded. For now, they seem to have agreed that the platitudes will have to suffice.