Democrats Must Decide If an Ideological Coup Is Their Best First Step Toward Recovery

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Howard Dean, who led the DNC during the very successful 2006 and 2008 campaigns, might be a unity figure today.Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Even as Democrats lick their wounds after the outcome of the 2016 elections, political life must go on, and there is a leadership vacuum at the Democratic National Committee that must soon be filled. Long-time DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, disliked intensely by Bernie Sanders partisans, was driven from the job on the eve of the Democratic National Convention after WikiLeaks released emails showing DNC staffers bad-mouthing Sanders. Several other top staffers, including the DNC executive director, left soon afterward. Interim chair Donna Brazile, usually a calming influence, instead added to the DNC’s problems when yet another WikiLeaks release suggested she may have used her paid position at CNN to give a sneak peek at a debate question to Hillary Clinton.

The overall tensions at the DNC were illustrated on Wednesday morning, when, at a staff meeting, someone (we don’t know exactly who) interrupted a Brazile pep talk to scream at her and people like her for ruining the party and the country.

The election of a permanent DNC chair is scheduled to occur next March. It is unclear whether Brazile can hang on until then, but she’s showing no interest in the permanent gig, and instead, the two early candidates are men long identified with the progressive wing of the party: former chair (and Vermont governor, and 2004 presidential candidate) Howard Dean and U.S. Representative (and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) Keith Ellison, of Minnesota.

Ellison, who was the rare member of the House supporting Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, has already received Sanders’ s endorsement for the DNC gig, and other like-minded groups and individuals seem to be consolidating quickly around the idea.

Perhaps as a younger pol not connected to the Clinton campaign, who is also known for innovative grassroots organizing techniques, Ellison makes sense as a change-of-pace leader for the DNC. He did do yeoman work for the Clinton general-election campaign, and has been endorsed by incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, not exactly a fiery socialist. But all in all, most of Ellison’s advocates seem determined to use his candidacy as part of a self-conscious “coup” to move the party conspicuously to the left. That goal certainly comes through in Sanders’s statement of support:

“You cannot be a party which on one hand says we’re in favor of working people, we’re in favor of the needs of young people but we don’t quite have the courage to take on Wall Street and the billionaire class. People do not believe that. You’ve got to decide which side you’re on,” Sanders told the AP in an interview endorsing Ellison.

In others words, Ellison’s candidacy looks a lot like a continuation of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, combined with a house-cleaning aimed at removing Clinton supporters, scornfully dismissed as corporate shills. It appears intended not to launch a “struggle for the soul” of the Democratic Party, but to announce that the struggle is over and a new faction is now in charge.

Now, perhaps many, or even most, former Sanders for President supporters think he would have won the presidential general election that Hillary Clinton lost. It is unfortunately a proposition that is impossible to prove either way, though it should be acknowledged for future reference that Sanders might have looked like a very different candidate after being pounded by both right-wing and mainstream media for months over various episodes from his past (serving as a Socialist Workers Party elector in 1980 comes to mind). Perhaps Sanders supporters specifically and progressives generally deserve a much more prominent or even leading voice at the DNC and in other party councils.

But is a purge what the Democratic Party most urgently needs right now? And is a very public ideological shift to the left that cedes more ground to a Republican Party torn between different extremist visions a good idea at the moment? Is a Jeremy Corbyn (the lefty leader of the British Labor Party) moment what Democrats really need?

This will not happen, of course, without a fight. Today, Politico lists a bunch of people, many of them former Clinton supporters, who are sniffing around the DNC gig:

Meanwhile others in the party, including New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman and DNC vice chair Raymond Buckley — who runs the Association of State Democratic Chairs — South Carolina Chairman Jaime Harrison, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra are said to be open to bids of their own, fielding calls from other DNC members about their interest. Former presidential candidate and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said on Friday morning that he is considering a run. DNC vice chair R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis who nearly got the role under Barack Obama, and retiring New York Rep. Steve Israel — a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair — are also in the mix.

It is another candidate, however, who seems best positioned to be a unity candidate: none other than Howard Dean. He still has some progressive credibility, although his occasionally abrasive support for Hillary Clinton’s nomination repositioned him a bit. He knows the job, having done it before, in a tenure that, coincidentally or not, coincided with two Democratic landslide victories, in 2006 and 2008. And in the wake of an election where Democrats appear to have lost 32 states, a return to Dean’s “50-state strategy” is probably a good idea.

Ultimately, the identity of the DNC chairman is less important than filling the lower leadership jobs with smart and energetic people who represent fresh blood. But there is no getting around an early decision by Democrats as to whether their most urgent challenge is to get a grip on why they lost and develop a detailed plan for recovery, or simply to throw out the Clinton/Obama crowd and claim the DNC as a trophy for the left.

They have a while to figure this out. But there is no time like the present to declare a temporary truce.