The Democrats Launch a Search Party — For Their Soul

The Democrats Launch a Search Party — For Their Soul

John Podesta leaves the stage after speaking on election night at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

SourceJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because the next face of the party could determine its fate.

This is the conversation many thought Republicans would be having. After Donald Trump ransacked their primaries and gave his marching orders, a battle for the soul of conservatism seemed imminent.

But suddenly it’s the Democrats who face a reckoning. Rising Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York tried to complement his establishment creds by bolstering the Democratic leadership with representatives from the progressive wing of the party (Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and its industrial base (West Virginia’s Joe Manchin). Meanwhile, liberal Dems struggle over whether the party should double down on progressivism, return its focus to labor or bank on changing demographics in the South. The next Democratic National Committee chairman will set the party on one of those three disparate paths. With a leadership election looming, possibly in March, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus cautions patience: “If you’re in a breakup, you don’t make long-term choices. They need somebody who can be a careful placeholder. They don’t need Mr. or Mrs. Right — they need Mr. or Mrs. Right Now.”

We don’t speak credibly … to people who are struggling on the ragged edges of the middle class.

Adam Edelen, former Kentucky auditor of public accounts

And right now, the darling pick seems to be U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a staunch progressive who backed Sanders in the primaries and has already received endorsements from Warren and Schumer, plus many other legislative leaders. Picking Ellison would help mend the “frayed” relationship between party leaders and progressives, says civil rights leader Ben Jealous, a board member of Our Revolution, the Bernie-backed political organization. Adds Rottinghaus: “There’s a lot of evidence the party median is moving in a more liberal direction. So it could be there’s a smart play.” Some wonder if that’s a sound strategy when the electoral college came down to narrow Democratic losses in industrial districts still scarred by recession — a concern floated rather inartfully by New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman. ”Defeated Dems could’ve tapped Rust Belt populist to head party. Instead, black, Muslim progressive from Minneapolis?” he tweeted November 11.

The criticism, while off-note, speaks to those who point out that Clinton ran on the most progressive agenda in history on her way to a resounding electoral loss. Not everyone agrees. “She thumbed her nose at the entire progressive wing of the party” by picking centrist Tim Kaine as her running mate, says Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University. Adds Jealous: “It would be a bizarre confounding of logic to suggest that Hillary did not win because she was too progressive.” Not only would Ellison offer progressive purity, but he also would bring legislative experience that could help position him athwart Trump’s agenda. “They can strike a grand bargain with Trump in getting on board with an infrastructure bill but oppose him on the tax cuts, which seem to greatly favor the wealthy,” Whalen says. “Even if they lose, you send a message and stake out your position.”

Traveling through California as windmills whir in the distance, Howard Dean describes the post as more workmanlike than ideological during a phone call to OZY. “This job is about mechanics,” the former Vermont governor says. After his 2004 presidential campaign, Dean led the Democrats as chair through a similar period of retrenchment and helped the party win back legislative control in the 2006 and 2008 elections. “Local mayors, state legislatures — that’s where the Republicans beat us,” he says. “They started 20 years ago with local school board members, and we never did that.” Running again this time around, Dean says he won’t set specific benchmarks until he gets a chance to look “under the hood,” but a party under his leadership would rebuild the Democrats’ data advantage and revive his 50-state strategy. Dean says he would love to see a “fresh face” step up, but that he felt obligated to see the party restored. “In regards to Keith, he’s a really good guy who I helped get elected,” Dean says. “But it’s not possible for you to do this job if you have another.”

That sentiment is echoed by South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, the third major candidate. “I’m able to bring a different perspective as a young man saddled with $150,000 in student debt and working in a red state, desperately trying to turn it blue,” the 40-year-old says. He would focus on funding local tech and grassroots outreach; one plan is to place entrepreneurs in hackathon-like competitions to create innovative solutions. That state-by-state approach is perhaps an acknowledgment that the topography of America sports more red than blue nowadays, yet demographic trends in the South and elsewhere could aid the Dems if their base voters were motivated to show up.

In some ways, this rendering of the Democratic Party wasn’t as unpredictable as it appeared. Back in 2015, Kentucky state auditor Adam Edelen drove past industrial plants and lamented that his national party seemed to have “no interest” in communicating to farm and factory liberals. Lauded as the next Southern Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton or John Edwards, Edelen lost reelection two weeks later in a polling upset built on anti-elite sentiment — a preview of what was to come. “We don’t speak credibly, in an authentic voice, to people who are struggling on the ragged edges of the middle class,” Edelen says, adding that it would take a centrist Democrat like Joe Biden to restore credibility as chair. “The effort to get further to each extreme as some part of an ideological purity test — that leaves 80 percent of the country in the cold.”

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