We have now learned that Tom Perez, the outgoing Secretary of Labor, will be joining the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Much of the discussion around the question of the Democratic Party’s next leader seems to have virtually nothing to do with the things that will actually make that leader a success or a failure, so it might be worthwhile to consider the questions Democrats should be asking themselves at this point.
But first, here’s the lay of the land. The leading candidate up until now has been Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who has garnered endorsements from key Democratic politicians like Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, and important liberal groups like the AFL-CIO. Nevertheless, the race — which will be decided by the 447 committee members when they meet in late February — is still wide open.
The other announced candidates are Raymond Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire party, and Jaime Harrison, chair of the South Carolina party. Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is also considering a run. Perez’s entry into the race is causing a lot of people to frame it as a replay of the 2016 primary fight, since Ellison was an early Bernie Sanders supporter and Perez is a cabinet member in the Obama administration. Which is kind of ridiculous, and I doubt either one of them would want to think of their respective candidacies that way.
In case you’re curious, I haven’t yet come to a conclusion about which one of them would be better. Ellison is extremely smart and capable, and as he points out, he’s had great success in his congressional district building a grassroots network. Perez is not just universally admired among Democrats, but among those who have worked with him directly gets the kind of almost worshipful praise that you rarely hear, in Washington or anywhere else.
So we’ll have to see what their plans and vision for the party are as they continue to make their case. And don’t count out Buckley or Harrison just yet (as Andrew Prokop reminds us, most of the voting members are from state parties, not from DC), or Hogue, who has obviously done some serious thinking about the job. But here are some things that most definitely don’t matter in choosing the next DNC chair: What state or region of the country they come from. How emphatic their statements of support for Israel have been. Which politicians they might be a proxy for. Whether they can personally “connect” with some group of voters you think Democrats would do well to appeal to. That stuff is completely irrelevant.
So what kinds of questions should Democrats be asking? Here are some suggestions:
Can this person assemble, coordinate, and manage an effective opposition to Donald Trump? Democrats are notoriously fractious and disorganized, and without a single leader able to deliver marching orders, they’re in desperate need of unity. A strong party chair could produce that, if he or she can set out a plan for opposition that is clear about both its ends and its means. But it’s going to require a skilled cat-herder.
What is this person’s plan to revive the Democratic Party at the state level? Next year, Republicans will control the governorship and the entire legislature in 25 states; Democrats will have that total control in only five. The party has steadily lost ground at the state level over the Obama years, and that has ramifications not only for policy but for the critical redistricting that will happen after the 2020 election. So what’s the plan to help Democrats at the state level?
Can this person create a permanent grassroots infrastructure? Everyone acknowledges that the party has to be active in as many places as possible. But you can’t just rebuild that grassroots effort every two or four years and expect it to be effective. What kind of ideas do they have about building an infrastructure that’s persistent and can be effectively activated when election day comes?
Does this person have a plan to combat vote suppression? Republicans have been extremely effective at the state level in suppressing the votes of people likely to choose Democrats, particularly African-Americans. And with total control of the federal government, they’re likely to take that effort national. What is the next DNC chair going to do about that?
Can this person be an effective spokesperson for Democrats? This isn’t the most important item on the list, but it does matter. It helps to have a charismatic, articulate advocate who can push Democratic ideas as widely as possible.
Who does this person think Democrats ought to be and what should they stand for? The term “identity politics” is almost always used derisively, but the truth is that all politics is identity politics. Donald Trump is going to be president because he effectively wielded white identity politics in the 2016 election. There are people right now saying that Democrats have to stop talking about the rights and interests of people who aren’t white men if they want to win again. One way or another, the party has to decide who it is and how to communicate that identity to the public.
I asked political scientist Daniel Galvin of Northwestern University, a specialist in parties, what Democrats should be looking for, and he said that some of the most effective party chairs have been the ones who served when the other party had the White House, which is where Democrats are now. Here’s part of what he told me:
The main things these out-party chairmen did…was to focus on building the party’s organizational capacity without respect to ideology and policy positioning, and without privileging any particular factions in the party. They invested in human capital (training for campaign managers, for example, or teaching activists how to GOTV), in informational assets ([Howard] Dean’s voter file; microtargeting capacities), and worked to strengthen state parties…They worked to recruit good candidates wherever they may be (conservative Democrats in North Carolina, liberal Democrats in California). They don’t try to build consensus within the party or hammer out a platform on which all factions can agree. They work to equip the party organization to help run strong campaigns, win elections, and recapture the majority. That’s their primary and overarching focus.
Something for Democrats to consider, as they face one of the most important decisions they make in the next few years.