Time to Change the Democratic Party: How Not to Spend $1 Billion, Lose More Than 1,000 Elections and Have the Least Power in 75 Years
The race for Democratic National Committee chair is not just about who has the glamour and skills to turn around a party that spent more than $1 billion last year, lost more than 1,000 statewide and congressional seats during Obama's presidency, and has the least power in 75 years. It’s about how that turnaround will be done.
What’s emerging at candidate forums en route to a late February vote among 447 DNC members is a revealing conversation into the nuts and bolts of campaigns and elections—and not what has been portrayed in mainstream media. The biggest splits aren’t between Berniecrats and more tenured Democrats, who comprise most members as state officials, party leaders and key allies. Nor is it clear whether one candidate, due to race or gender, is the obvious standard-bearer, because all of the candidates are diverse and committed to progressive values.
The issue is whether there’s one candidate who is compelling and capable of changing what's broken about the DNC—not just naming it in public forums, which many of the candidates have done in eyebrow-raising fashion. So far, at least among longtime party activists, no one stands out as the perfect choice.
“Not one of these candidates gives you everything—not one,” said Debra Kozikowski, vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, senior vice president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and a critic of recent DNC leadership under ex-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “The last time the Democratic Party nationally had a leader who was the everything 'it' guy was Howard Dean. He was a governor who ran for president and got his butt beat, but he knew how to do it, and he also cared about state parties.”
Democrats face a “multi-layered complicated problem that includes small-d democracy, big D Democrats, inspiration and perspiration—the whole package,” Kozikowski said, adding that no one among the leading or best-qualified candidates is presenting that complete picture. Instead, what’s seen at the candidate forums are striking critiques from candidates with front-row views who are pulling back the curtain on some of the party’s most loathsome habits that translate into losing elections.
One stunning example concerns how the party was able to spend more than $1 billion and lose so badly in 2016. DNC members know that Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid for TV ads in Wisconsin and Michigan, but wouldn’t give those states' parties money for a grassroots presence despite their pleadings. That’s partly because, as Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire state party chair and candidate said, the DNC brass has an incestuous relationship with Washington-based media-buyers who repeatedly have made multi-millions on TV ads and mailings, no matter who wins or loses, and siphoned money away from field operations.
“You look at the polls, the American people support our agenda. They just didn’t hear it, because we were too busy running TV and sending mail that ended up in the trash,” said Buckley, a five-term state chair and president of the national Association of State Democratic Chairs, at an Arizona forum. “The reality is we just take a small percentage of that money and invest it in every single state, in every single county, in every single neighborhood, and we will start winning offices up and down the ballot throughout this country and we will reject Donald Trump… Our message is hope and opportunity, but we stopped giving people hope and opportunity because we weren’t able to get real people talking to other real people.”
Buckley, who is white, gay and arguably has the most experience beating Republicans than anyone else in the race for DNC chair, admits he doesn’t have the backing of the DNC’s Washington establishment. That candidate, as seen by endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden, and longtime Bill Clinton fundraiser—now Virginia’s governor—Terry McAuliffe, is Tom Perez, the ex-Secretary of Labor under Obama and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights before that.
Perez, for his part, has been emphasizing a different ugly feature of the DNC's national leadership: how it can be patronizing, dismissive of state parties and grassroots activists, and takes constituencies for granted.
“The thing I hear the most from DNC members is you want to be part of a team,” Perez told the forum. “You don’t want to be spoken to. You don’t want to have a command and control structure. You want to be part of the decision-making. We can enhance everything we do by doing just that… I have had experience changing cultures of institutions. It takes work. It doesn’t happen overnight. But when you get there, as we were able to do at the Department of Labor. It’s because good leaders are good listeners.”
Pointed remarks like these, and similar ones from other contenders, such as Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison—who has been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former vice-president Walter Mondale—are what you’d expect from someone seeking to lead a party out of a wilderness. What’s striking about Ellison’s remarks is his take-it-to-the-streets attitude, which resonates with Sanders’ base and younger Democrats, although he tones it down when selling himself to the party’s insiders at candidate forums.
“I love your enthusiasm. We’re going to need it,” Ellison told the Arizona audience. “All over the country, what we see are Democrats [who] are not in the majority and Republicans are passing policies that are hurting our people. And so, I am running for the chair of the DNC because I have demonstrated an ability to see Democrats get elected. There are no statewide Republicans in Minnesota. The reason why is I have turned up the vote and the turnout in the Fifth Congressional District. I used to have the lowest turnout in the state of Minnesota. Now my congressional district has the highest. And because we have the highest, we have put in [Senator] Al Franken, and [Governor] Mark Dayton, and Democrats all over the state. We win elections and that is how we get the majority back.”
There are striking critiques from other candidates, such as Jaime Harrison, South Carolina state party chair. When asked how to best respond to Donald Trump, he gave the audience a small lecture to stop focusing on what to say and start focusing on creating a trusted way to communicate to voters.
“The vehicle in which the message is delivered are state parties, and my friends, state parties are broken,” he said. “Now that ain’t sexy. It ain’t what most people want to hear about. But let me tell you the reality of the situation. In 2008, we had complete control. We had the majority of the governorships in this country, the majority of the statehouses in this country. We controlled Congress. We were even able to get up to 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. And in almost 10 years, we have lost it all. Republicans control 69 out of 99 statehouses [chambers]. Republicans control 33 governorships. And they now have complete control over the federal government.”
“So the vehicle by which we get out message out to our voters, on the grassroots level, is the state parties,” Harrison continued. “But you have state parties at this moment that barely have $50,000 cash on hand, and have to cut their staff. And in 2018 they either have a governorship race that they have to run in a coordinated campaign, or one of the 25 Democratic U.S. senators are up for grabs, and 10 of them are in Trump [majority] states… So until we fix that basic foundation of our party, we can have the best message in the world, but it ain’t going anywhere other than in our email boxes.”
Harrison made the same point as Buckley—the only other state party chair in the race—by slamming the DNC power brokers for wasting millions on messaging that most voters just tuned out. “The TV ads?” he said, indignant. “We spend hundreds of millions on TV ads. How many of you watch those TV ads? None of you! The mail, where does it go? File 13. You don’t even look at it, but we spend millions and millions of dollars on that….We need to be a community organization, going into the communities on a grassroots level, helping people solve the issues important to them.”
What becomes of these open criticisms is anybody’s guess. Kozikowski, who has been in Democratic Party circles for decades, also runs a non-partisan non-profit that helps all eligible voters get a ballot that will be counted. She said all of the candidates are coming up short with specifics when pressed, such as describing where organizations like hers fit into the professed desire to be more supportive of party grassroots.
It is a truism that campaigns are about the poetry of running for office and governing is about the detailed prose of making things work. But the jobs of DNC chair and vice chair are arguably more about how the party operates, the prose, than the magnetism of who leads it—even though leadership charisma still matters. The Republican Party, for example, generally promotes state party chairs to RNC chair, such as Wisconsin’s Reince Priebus, suggesting the GOP sees the post as more of a performance-oriented job.
Right now, if the DNC's two top contenders are indeed Perez and Ellison (the party is not doing any polling), then neither quite fit that mold. Perez is seen by the grassroots, especially Sanders' base, as too connected to DC insiders associated with Clinton's campaign and that political apparatus. Ellison is seen as too combative by officials who want a leader who can pull the party back together.
“They are looking for the best person and we don’t have a best person,” Kozikowski said, when asked what fellow DNC members are looking for. “We have the best we’ve got. My estimation at this point, and that can change, is that Tom Perez has the inside track. And I don’t mean that in any negative way.”
Meanwhile, outside DNC circles, people who were active in the 2016 campaign are paying close attention—especially those who worked with Bernie Sanders to reform the Democratic Party.
“People have definitely not written this race off,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, co-founder of Brand New Congress, which grew out of Sanders’ campaign and is organizing a national strategy for the 2018 midterm elections. “Almost everyone I’m talking to is waiting with baited breath to see what happens. People are ready to write the party off, but if Keith [Ellison] gets the chair, it shows a glimmer of hope that we can rebuild this party to be a party that works for people again.”
“At this moment in time, it is probably the most important decision coming up for the Democratic Party,” he added. “If, after everything that happened in the last year, the Democrats still pick Perez, it is really going to signal to everyone that this party is beyond repair.’
But just as Kozikowski said there was no candidate who checks all the boxes to rebuild the party from the inside out, Chakrabarti said that those watching on the outside have a different set of doubts about whether the Democrats really understand their failures.
“I see it as a battle right now between one camp that recognizes that there are big, systemic problems in the American economy and in our democracy and wants to put forth a vision for fixing it, vs. a camp that believes the Democratic Party (and America) is basically okay and all the Democrats need to do is fix their messaging problem," Chakrabarti said, adding that Democrats risk losing young supporters if they don't make evolutionary changes. "I think this correlates heavily with youth vs. old because a lot of the problems facing this country are affecting youth—young people are buried in debt, see this giant problem of climate change ruining their future, and see the bleakness of a corrupt and broken democracy that is completely incapable of addressing these problems.”
The DNC convenes in Atlanta on February 23 for its winter meeting. Between now and then, you can be sure the criticisms inside and outside party circles will only become more pointed. The stakes are nothing less than the party's future, into renewed relevance or obsolescence.