Democrats Battle to Become More Out of Touch

Party set for lurch leftward with choice between Perez and Ellison to helm the DNC

With a battle brewing between two liberal zealots to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, political observers are saying the party missed the key lessons of 2016.

The leading candidates for the national chairmanship are Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Tom Perez, President Obama’s labor secretary.

“[Ellison] is the best possible outcome for the Republicans. Ellison is a progressive’s wildest dream.”

While there are a few other state chairmen likely to throw hats into the ring, the race is likely to come down to Perez and Ellison. And that shows that perhaps the Democratic insiders who will choose the next national chair still don’t understand what happened on Nov. 8.

One candidate is far too liberal. The other is almost as liberal, and also gaffe-prone. Both are products of the Democrats’ drive to bring diversity and identity politics to the forefront — part of a political agenda the electorate puts far below the top issues of the economy, defense and jobs.

And both are far afield from “red state” America, which felt neglected under Obama. Rural and suburban counties reacted by giving President-Elect Donald Trump huge margins.

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In the rural Pennsylvania county of Somerset, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton struggled to break 20 percent of the vote. (She got 20.62 percent to Trump’s 76.5 percent.)

Getting better results in “red counties” is crucial to Democrats’ comeback plans. But can Ellison or Perez do it?

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Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, would be perhaps the most unconventional chairman in either party’s history. Ellison, a Muslim, was once an avid defender of the Nation of Islam. A supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ellison’s remarks on the economy and even Israel have caused grave concern among moderates.

“[Ellison] is the best possible outcome for the Republicans,” said Harlan Hill, a former Democrat who switched from supporting Sanders to supporting Trump before the Democratic primaries had ended. “Ellison is a progressive’s wildest dream.”

Hill says he understands why progressive Democrats wants Ellison. But Hill says Ellison would not be able to fix the problems that hurt the Democrats in the 2016 elections.

President Obama seems aware of that, and basically threw Ellison under the bus during Friday’s press conference in the White House.

When asked about the chairman’s race, Obama only mentioned one person, using Perez’s name.

“Tom Perez has been one of the best secretaries of labor in our history,” said Obama. “He is tireless. He is wicked smart.”

Some people may disagree with that assessment. Perez is gaffe-prone.

Appointed labor secretary in 2013  after serving as an assistant attorney general, Perez supported raising the national minimum wage. But he stumbled explaining why to a roomful of reporters in 2014, according to Politico.

The United States “sucks [on this issue],” Perez said. “We really do.”

This year, at a North Carolina event for Hillary Clinton, Perez made light of an Amber Alert that interrupted his speech.

While speaking to a crowd of young adults, a loud chorus of smartphone tones — the kind that can indicate an Amber Alert — can be heard briefly as he speaks.

“Well, Amber is going to vote for Hillary! I spoke to her the other day,” Perez jokes.

The Democratic Party is seriously fractured, and the last two chairs — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile — failed at bringing the party together.

Perez is also liberal. He adopted many of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s views on race and policy, including “disparate impact,” which contends intent is not as important as impact in discrimination cases.

Despite the goofy nature of Perez, Hill said he is closer to the CEO the Democrats need to rebuild their party.

The Democratic Party is seriously fractured, and the last two chairs — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and interim Chairwoman Donna Brazile — failed at bringing the party together.

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Despite beginning the year with predictions of doom for Trump and the Republican Party — with all sorts of vivid visions of “down-ballot disasters” from the media — the opposite happened. Republicans won open seats for governor in Indiana and Missouri, kept all but two Senate incumbents and defeated Democrat Evan Bayh for an open seat in Indiana, and easily held onto congressional majorities.

Hill said Reince Priebus, the oft-criticized Republican national chairman, deserves credit for keeping it all together.

The Democrats now have the exact problem they said all year they didn’t have — a fracture. They have to patch together a new, younger, more aggressive, and more liberal coalition of Bernie Sanders supporters, attaching it to Democrats who do not embrace Sanders’ platform of democratic socialism.

And the Democrats with experience in Congress, or on Main Street and Wall Street, understand elections cost money. Perez seems likely to be able to raise it.

But the Sanders faction will fight for a stronger voice at the DNC, and it’s easy to understand why. Many of them feel vindicated after Clinton lost.

“They want one of their own in a position of power,” said Hill.

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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