The Democrats Need to Grow and Wake the F**k Up

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Rep. Keith Ellison has a vision forward for the Democratic Party and the backing of popular figures within it, not to mention the support of someone like Bernie Sanders. Apparently, though, that’s not good enough for members of the Democratic National Committee. (Photo Credit: Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

The Democratic National Committee is not scheduled to elect a new chairperson to replace interim chair Donna Brazile until the end of February 2017—from the 23rd to the 26th, to be precise. If DNC voting members are smart, they’ll choose Rep. Keith Ellison, who hails from Minnesota’s 5th District. Seeing as the Democratic Party has done some pretty dumb things as of late, however, and has not managed to overcome the yet-more exceedingly dumb things done and said by Donald Trump and the Republican Party, at least not with respect to what has transpired in voting booths across America, there’s every chance they won’t. Apparently, Democrats are trying to keep the trend of being disappointed in our elected officials alive and well straight through until next year. Um, hooray?

I say, er, write these things in reference to a recent article by Gabriel Debenedetti and Daniel Strauss on Politico, which cites an E-mail survey conducted of 447 voting Democratic National Committee members and suggests Ellison’s early lead in these polls is anything but secure. According to those either surveyed or interviewed for the piece, a majority have yet to make up their minds, and a significant portion of them seem to be waiting for one or more potential candidates to officially declare to run for the position at the head of the DNC. To a certain extent, this makes sense. As part of the decision-making process, you would like to have as full a complement of choices as possible—although too many choices can really cause anxiety and gum up the proverbial works when it comes to reaching a final conclusion with any due sense of alacrity. But whatever, let the voters be fussy.

Refusing to endorse or officially declare for a particular candidate at this stage in the game is one thing. What, or should I say who concerns me, though, is those individuals quoted for the Debenedetti and Strauss article who seem to already have their minds made up against certain candidates, and based on prejudices held over from the election, no less. One Committee member cited in the piece in particular, a William Owen from the state of Tennessee, both aggravates and unnerves me for what he stands for and what he may represent regarding the 447-person DNC electorate as a whole. An excerpt to illustrate:

Ellison may be the choice of many Democratic leaders and a hefty portion of the grass roots — he cleared a major obstacle last week by pledging to resign his seat in Congress if he becomes chairman, and he has scored backing from a wide range of party influencers including Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer — but there’s no easy glide path ahead.

Ellison has worked hard to appeal to both sides of the party, but he nonetheless engenders by far the most impassioned responses from DNC members, both positive and negative.

One reason is that the shadow of the contentious presidential primary continues to hang over the party, and some DNC members view the Minnesota congressman as part of the faction that delivered a mortal wound to Clinton, despite his best efforts to convince them otherwise.

“Ellison is not the front-runner, Ellison has no chance at all,” said Tennessee committeeman William Owen, giving voice to that view. “I’m a Hillary person. Bill Clinton said, ‘I’ll be with you till the last dog dies,’ and I’m the last dog. I will not vote for Keith Ellison, I will not vote for a Bernie person. I think they cost Hillary the election, and now they’re going to live with Donald Trump. Donald Trump asks, ‘What do you have to lose?’ Nothing, except life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Please excuse me while I place my face against my palm. Thank you. Here we go again with the “Bernie cost Hillary the election” bit. Like the “Nader cost Gore the election” narrative from the 2000 election, I find this charge to be overblown, and here’s why:

1. Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money when it came to the Democratic Party nomination. Perhaps she was always going to win, but that the race went on as long as it did speaks to both the strength of Sanders’ message and Clinton’s weakness as a candidate. If you believe Bernie is to blame because he exposed Hillary’s flaws during the primaries, that’s your prerogative, but chances are Donald Trump and his Republican supporters were going to point out her shortcomings anyway. Regardless, in case anyone forgot, Bernie Sanders swallowed his pride and rallied behind Hillary Clinton in an effort to gather support for the Democratic Party nominee. It didn’t work, but that’s not Bernie’s fault.

2. Speaking of getting behind Hillary, Bernie on numerous occasions cautioned his followers and other voters not to cast their ballot for the sake of a “protest vote.” That is, he felt it was the wrong time to consider voting for Gary “What Is An Aleppo?” Johnson or Jill “Hey, I’m a Medical Doctor” Stein. Assuming those who voted for either third-party candidate were primarily younger voters, Bernie Sanders is not their father. He couldn’t force his supporters to pick a candidate they don’t like any more than my adult father can try to get me to eat spinach. I KNOW IT’S GOOD FOR ME, BUT I DON’T LIKE THE CONSISTENCY, OK?

3. When push comes to shove, you know who ultimately lost the election for Hillary Clinton? Hillary Clinton. Continuing the discussion from Point #2, Aaron Blake of The Washington Post notes how Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, pointed to a smaller advantage among millennials than Barack Obama enjoyed in 2012, and worse than was predicted for Clinton even noting Obama’s singular appeal. In other words, as Blake put it, “Yes, you can blame millennials for Hillary Clinton’s loss.”

OK, this is all well and good, but now that we’re done with scapegoating an entire generation, let’s consider that she couldn’t beat a candidate who was as disliked as she was, something Aaron Blake notes toward the end of the article. Millennials disliked Hillary Clinton more than liked her by a narrow margin, but they hated (Blake himself adds this emphasis) Donald Trump, to the tune of a 22% approval rating among likely voters. That Hillary still couldn’t make up the difference speaks volumes, as far as I’m concerned. Besides, if we’re blaming voters, why point fingers at those who didn’t vote for Clinton and not at those who went all aboard the Trump Train? Or is that just what we’d expect from a bunch of “deplorables”?

See, this is the kind of mentality that has me convinced the Democrats don’t really “get it” when it comes to why they are generally losing more than they are winning, especially when their name is not Barack Obama. Case in point: Hillary Clinton herself. We haven’t really heard from the only female presidential nominee of a major party in American history since her defeat in the general election, but recently she broke her silence on why she believes she lost. And much as she has deflected blame when it has come to her use of one or more private E-mail servers to view classified messages as Secretary of State, Clinton is all-too-quick to point to external factors as reasons why she was unsuccessful in her bid to win the presidency. As Amy Chozick of The New York Times writes, Hillary spoke to a group of donors to her presidential campaign in Manhattan, and talked about how Vladimir Putin has a “personal beef” against her and this is why he ordered Russian’s hacking attacks, and furthermore, that FBI director James Comey’s letter raising new questions about her use of E-mail released a week before Election Day led to her loss in key swing states. Even if these things are true, though, to take such a defiant tone and to look past her own failings arguably takes the wrong tack.

When Bernie Sanders eventually conceded the Democratic Party nomination, there was no talk on his part of being cheated by the Democratic National Committee—even though we eventually learned there was collusion on the part of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other key figures in the DNC to subvert his campaign—but rather an emphasis on what the Sanders campaign meant in terms of setting off a political revolution. The focus was on the inclusion and involvement of new entrants into the political sphere, and not on his own personal achievement. To Hillary Clinton and her campaign, it was Director Comey. It was the Electoral College. It was the media. It was millennials. It was Putin. It was Russia. It was third-party candidates. It was Trump’s rabid supporters. Again, these may all have been contributing factors, but for Clinton to negate her own failings would seem to betray her arrogance. After all, if Vladimir Putin and the Russians tried to hack the election, it couldn’t have been about Donald Trump—it had to be about her, right? Only all these elements conspiring against her could bring down the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history, no?


It would be one thing if Democrats were in a strong position to be so principled about their choices of leadership alongside their professed loyalty for certain members of the party. In this case, it would make more sense that Democratic National Committee voting members such as William Owen are willing to continue holding a grudge over a contentious primary season at the possible expense of the party. But the Democratic Party isn’t playing with house money these days. At a recent rally for Keith Ellison in Washington, D.C. at the headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers, Bernie Sanders, in introducing Ellison, made certain to illuminate how Democrats have lost significant ground to Republicans over the past few years, culminating in a devastating series of losses at the state and national level right up to the White House.

In Sanders’ view and in an opinion shared by others, this signifies the Democratic Party isn’t doing something right strategically. As has been his rallying cry and as Keith Ellison has echoed in his own plan for a new path forward for the Dems, the growth of the party and positive change must come from the bottom up, not from the top down. Ellison framed this when he took the microphone in terms of a “3007-county strategy.” As he put it, “We need a town strategy. We need a precinct strategy. The resources need to be moved down closer to the voter.” This is important language regarding organizational structure for a political party that saw voters reject the kind of rich patronage someone like Hillary Clinton so clearly embraced. Of course, these are only words of Keith Ellison’s, and are primarily designed to garner political support for himself. But that doesn’t make what he’s talking about less worthy of aspiration. Because Barack Obama wasn’t able to achieve everything he talked about on the campaign trail, does that mean hope and change are mere illusions? Have we suddenly soured on the whole political process because tens of millions of people were stupid enough to elect Donald Trump?

Even those DNC members who are not as vehemently anti-Sanders as William Owen, I fear, don’t truly have their finger on the pulse of the wants and needs of a growing segment of support within the party. Going back to the Politico piece, here’s a quote from Daniel Hynes, another Democratic National Committee voting member, I found vaguely troubling:

“I’m hoping that there’s another candidate that’s going to emerge. I’m not really happy with the candidates that are out there,” said Illinois committeeman Daniel Hynes, echoing sentiments relayed over and over in interviews over the past week. “I don’t know who that person is, I just think it’s someone who’s detached from Washington, somebody who’s full-time, somebody who’s from the moderate side of the party, and somebody who’s going to steer the party back towards our ability to appeal to middle-class working Americans.”

Hmm, so you want someone who is not a member of the Democratic establishment, but someone who should have a clue about the inner workings of D.C. politics. Oh, and they shouldn’t be too liberal and should have blue-collar appeal. Um, you realize you’ve either described Bernie Sanders minus the moderate part, or—gulp!—Donald Trump minus the clue part. And Trump was only moderate as a by-product of more recently embracing conservative ideals and not having much to say in the way of concrete policy goals. Waiting on a candidate who ticks off all those boxes and is as dynamic as someone like a Sanders or even an Elizabeth Warren is, frankly speaking, asking a bit much.

More importantly, though, this dogged insistence on having a representative of the Democratic Party who hews too close to center arguably is a self-defeating proposition. Outside of her hawkish predisposition with respect to foreign policy, Hillary Clinton was too moderate for her own good, and Tim Kaine, whom John Oliver referred to as the human equivalent of a sweater vest, didn’t help matters. Despite the Democrats’ win in the popular vote for the presidency, they still lost the election, and have gotten shellacked otherwise outside of Barack Obama’s victories the past several years. Insisting on someone more moderate, therefore—in effect, playing not to lose—makes little sense when you’re already losing.

The most energized we have seen liberals and Democratic voters of late, meanwhile, has been behind the vision of people like Bernie Sanders for a more progressive direction for the Democratic Party and the nation, one that has captivated younger voters and thus is key to the source of growth the party will need going forward. With this in mind, the path forward existing Democratic Party leadership needs to embrace is one of bold leadership and an insistence on grass-roots organization that engages both new entrants into the voting process and working-class voters who the Dems seemingly have all but abandoned. And right now, Keith Ellison is the candidate for DNC chair who is best iterating these values and who has the backing of key figures within the party. If the voting members are smart, they’ll choose him to help the Democratic Party regain ground lost to a Republican Party that has made fear of change its raison d’être. If the present insights from members of the Democratic National Committee are any indication, though, the Democrats are not even close to being ready to go bold and far enough to make that a reality.

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