Americans woke up on Nov. 9 to discover there wasn’t an opposition party precisely when it was most desired. The Democratic Party is now an easily surmountable minority in the Senate, House of Representatives, and is entirely absent in twenty-four state governments. As my colleague Martin Longman has repeatedly pointed out, the GOP control of state legislatures rendered, via Karl Rove’s redistricting plan, a nearly invincible (and totally undemocratic and unrepresentative) Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This snapshot gives the false impression that the GOP is a well-oiled, highly disciplined machine. But that’s about as true as Trump’s description of his own administration. In fact, as National Review editor Jonah Goldberg pointed out last year, the fact a non-Republican was blabbing his way to the GOP nomination amid a comically crowded field and a non-Democrat socialist was threatening to usurp the “inevitable” candidate who was the literal living embodiment of the Democratic establishment unequivocally demonstrated that both major parties have probably never been as institutionally weak as they are now. Real power now resides with PACs, individual donors, and individual personalities.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders may beg to differ. Wikileaks, working in conjunction with Russian intelligence, published stolen emails that clearly demonstrated that the DNC, led at the time by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, was actively working to bolster Clinton and derail Sanders during the primaries. Her successor, Donna Brazile, was apparently in on the scheme; further stolen emails revealed that while working as an analyst at CNN she tipped off the Clinton campaign about likely questions for a CNN-sponsored primary debate. CNN quickly cut ties with Brazile, but the DNC kept her on, further angering Sanders supporters. That wasn’t the end of it. The day before the general election, Brazile, rather than attacking Trump, gratuitously insulted Sanders supporters in a radio interview by refusing to apologize for her behavior and adding, “if I had to do it all over again, I would know a hell of a lot more about cybersecurity.”
So let there be no doubt that the DNC is urgently in need of reform and basic leadership that eradicates the remnants of Clintonism. But the DNC’s weakness was on full display last night when the actual two candidates for Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, gathered in CNN’s Atlanta studio with a motley crew of six other candidates for what was billed as the Democratic Leadership Debate. On Saturday the 447-member DNC will gather five blocks away and elect the new Chairperson in a Westin ballroom. Perez was secretary of labor under President Obama from 2013-2017 and has the public support of Joe Biden and other Obama cabinet members in addition to some labor groups. Ellison, U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, has the support of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, John Lewis, and other members of the Democratic left, as well as other labor groups.There is no discernible difference between Perez and Ellison’s capability, intelligence, or politics. They are both left-of-center and have the accomplishments and credentials to prove it.
Progressives’ lingering (and justifiable) distrust of the DNC and the Democratic establishment has led some, like Glenn Greenwald, to portray Perez v. Ellison as analogous to Clinton v. Sanders. But what exactly makes Perez, who first entered the national scene in 2009 when he was tasked with rebuilding the Justice Department’s civil rights division, part of the establishment versus Ellison, who has held his congressional seat since 2007, is left unsaid. “Establishment,” it seems, has become a term of derision that applies only to your political enemies. There is no discernible difference between Perez and Ellison’s capability, intelligence, or politics. They are both left-of-center and have the accomplishments and credentials to prove it. The job of the DNC Chair is first and foremost to help Democrats win elections nationwide and organize party apparatuses to work effectively in local, state, and national races. Given that, it seems Ellison’s success of running for office and helping other Democrats in Minnesota gives him the edge over Perez.
But don’t leave it to a cable news business to not exploit any possibility for a manufactured debate. Dana Bash and Chris Cuomo tried their best to stir contention between the candidates, though there was nothing to disagree about. Everybody on the dais and everybody who bothered staying up to watch the show knows what has to be done. National success is built on local success and the DNC has to regain trust as a competent institution that can channel progressive energy towards tangible political victories. But CNN was determined to make the situation fit the story they already had in mind and which was published this morning: “Democratic divisions on display at DNC debate” the headline reads. The candidates, in the network’s telling, “struggled during a debate sponsored by CNN Wednesday to define a vision of how they would effectively counter Trump’s administration and break through in clear opposition to his message.” This was corporate gonzo journalism at its most boring.
Why did the DNC ever agree to this? Nothing in those two hours bolstered confidence or even created a discernible gap between Ellison or Perez. Why put the two contenders for DNC leadership, who are really fighting for the votes of 447 people in a private gathering, in a situation that risks a loss of confidence among Democratic voters?
The DNC Chair election can’t come soon enough.