Democrats Try to Transcend Symbolic Divisions in DNC Race

Tom Perez, Keith Ellison, and dark horse Pete Buttigieg have similar prescriptions for the ailing donkey party, but each carries different symbolic freight. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images; Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images; Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP

This weekend the Democratic National Committee meets in Atlanta to choose a new chairman to succeed the less-than-blazingly successful 2011–2016 party chieftain Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her temporary replacement Donna Brazile.

Inevitably, after the departure of a two-term Democratic president, the shocking defeat of his intended successor, and the loss of both congressional chambers, a leadership vacuum has opened up among Democrats that has given this contest an importance it may not merit (Theodore White once called party chairmanships “the fool’s gold of American politics,” and that is true more often than not). Inevitably as well, the close contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination has guaranteed that the DNC race would be interpreted by activists and media alike as a continuation of that battle, and of ideological conflict between “progressives” and “centrists” that dates back for more than a quarter-century.

So it’s not surprising that the two leading candidates for the DNC gig going into Atlanta are constantly described as representing the Clinton/Obama and Sanders “camps,” and/or the ideological tendencies they are thought to represent.

The “Establishment” candidate, former Secretary of Labor (and before that, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights) Tom Perez was a progressive favorite during the Obama administration. But he backed Clinton for president, and so he’s being cast as a “centrist.” His marquee supporters are Obama administration stalwarts Joe Biden and Eric Holder. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota fits the stereotype he’s been assigned much better: He was an early and enthusiastic Sanders supporter who now has Bernie’s early and enthusiastic backing (along with that of Sanders’ “populist” sidekick Elizabeth Warren and — less predictably —Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer). What the two men — and for that matter, the other DNC candidates — say they will do with the party’s nuts-and-bolts operations is hard to distinguish. Everybody agrees the donkey needs an infrastructure upgrade focused particularly on purple and red states where the organized Democratic presence is atrophied. Everyone favors the “resistance” to Trump and the surrounding protest movements as a good foundation for party revival, and everyone denies any interest in spurning or favoring either loyal Democratic voters or the lost voters whose return might restore the national majority that looked so secure just eight years ago.

With the candidates singing mostly from the same hymnal, it’s symbolism that separates them, which is why an Ellison win will be widely interpreted as an “insurgent” overturning of the tables and/or a “move to the left,” while a Perez win will cause much angst about the possible estrangement of the People of the Bern.

All that symbolic freight, and the apparent tightness of the Ellison/Perez contest, have spurred interest in a possible dark-horse unity candidate. There are several candidates auditioning for that role, including South Carolina party chairman Jaime Harrison, Idaho party executive director Sally Boynton Brown, and former Fox News commentator Jehmu Greene. But at present the dark horse moving up in the pack clearly seems to be South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg has the backing of four former DNC chairs: Joe Andrews (a fellow Hoosier), Steve Grossman, Ed Rendell, and most recently and perhaps most importantly, Howard Dean, the last successful DNC chair and someone with lingering progressive street cred despite his support for Hillary Clinton in the nomination fight last year. Buttigieg supported Hillary as well, but was not prominent enough or abrasive enough in his advocacy for HRC to permanently alienate Sanders supporters.

More important, a Buttigieg win might replace the Clinton-Sanders meme about the DNC contest with his own more positive symbolism: He’s a young (35) elected official from precisely the kind of economically suffering Rust Belt environment that so conspicuously helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. But at the same time, he has all the elite credentials in the world: He went to Harvard, was a Rhodes Scholar, and worked for McKinsey & Company. To cap it all off, he’s a veteran of Afghanistan, and is openly gay — this last data point helping him straddle the divide between “identity politics” groups and economic “populists.”

In many respects Buttigieg is a left-of-center version of Republican golden boy Tom Cotton, though well behind him on the career ladder.

But he and the other dark horses only have a chance if the front-runners falter or reach a deadlock (the votes of a majority of DNC members — or 224 of them — are required for a victory, and the DNC keeps balloting until someone wins).

Last week Perez claimed to have 180 votes, or just 44 short of a majority. Team Ellison mocked the claim, but didn’t offer its own whip count.

Just today The Hill released an independent count of 240 DNC members willing to publicly state a preference. It showed Ellison leading with 105 votes, Perez with 57, other candidates having “less than a dozen” votes, and 50 or so undecided. But then another count from unnamed “independent Democratic strategists” and reported by the Associated Press gave Perez 205 votes, with 153 for Ellison, 27 for Harrison, and the rest undecided or scattered among the others. There’s no telling where that leaves matters. The last real development in the contest occurred when one of the better-known dark horses, New Hampshire party chairman Ray Buckley, dropped out and endorsed Ellison. But Ellison is having to battle whispers that his election would alienate Jewish voters and donors; he’s the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and was associated in the distant past with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (he repudiated that association at least a decade ago).

Tonight, all the candidates big and small will get to strut their stuff at a forum televised by CNN. They will likely struggle to sound different from each other, which, of course, will elevate the symbolic trappings of the contest. The DNC gig may be “fool’s gold,” but at this less than brilliant moment in the Democratic Party’s history, it’s the most glittering trophy in sight.

Democrats Try to Transcend Divisive Symbolism in DNC Race