Yesterday I tried to make the argument that it matters who the DNC chair is, insofar as that person should be up to the job of running the Democratic Party. I’ve seen people argue that the party chair is mostly irrelevant, and it seems pretty clear to me that that’s not the case. I do agree that the DNC chair’s personal politics aren’t particularly relevant as to whether or not they can manage the party–paid MEK lobbyist Howard Dean, for example, has some pretty awful political ideas, but he was an effective DNC chair because he understood the need to grow the party at the state level and field candidates all over the map. Ideally you’d like to have a party chair with better politics than Dean but who also understands tactically how to build the party, but my point is that the latter is more important than the former. The Democratic Party’s political leanings are going to be determined by elected Democrats and the party’s rank and file, not the DNC chair, and to that point it’s up to us to make sure the party looks more like Elizabeth Warren’s party than Andrew Cuomo’s. Party chairs aren’t even the chief spokespeople for their parties, unless you think that Reince Priebus was the face of the Republican Party for the past eight years and not, say, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, or Donald Trump.
With all that said, though, there is a compelling political argument for Ellison as DNC chair. It doesn’t have to do with his politics versus Tom Perez’s politics so much as it has to do with what Ellison represents to some crucial Democratic constituencies:
“Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an organization fighting to expand Social Security benefits.
“If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter,” Lawson added.
Ellison backers acknowledge that the liberal protest movement that has taken shape since President Donald Trump’s inauguration ― not the DNC race ― has become the focus of grassroots energy. A loss for Ellison now could limit the party’s ability to tap into that enthusiasm, but it wouldn’t stop the movement.
“If Perez wins, we’re not gonna come out with pitchforks and say, ‘No, no, no,’” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of Credo Action, an online progressive heavyweight that has experienced record growth since Trump’s inauguration. “But people are going to roll their eyes and just keeping doing what they do. It’s going to keep the DNC what it is: an irrelevant, old, stale entity that hasn’t been re-serviced since the Howard Dean days.” (Zaheed noted that he spoke to HuffPost in his personal capacity, since Credo isn’t endorsing in the race.)
There is one thing about Perez’s politics that does matter here: his support for TPP and what that means to organized labor. But even that’s symbolic. TPP is gone and it’s not coming back, at least not in anything resembling the form it had before. But more to the point, the DNC chair’s position on free trade isn’t really that important. What is important is that traditionally Democratic constituencies that have become disenchanted with the Democratic Party over the past 25 years might finally feel like they’re being heard if Ellison gets the job, in a way that they say they won’t if Perez gets it. And yes, if Ellison wins there are going to be constituencies upset about that too. But I would argue that Ellison will have an easier time patching things up with those constituencies than Perez will have with the constituencies his election will alienate, if only because they’ve got less pent up resentment toward the national Democratic Party.
Now, you could argue that this seems an awful lot like blackmail, or a mafia protection racket, that these groups are threatening the Democratic Party to get what they want. But isn’t that essentially what politics is? Do what I want, support the policies I like, address my problems, or else you don’t get my vote. That’s a message the Democratic Party should be getting loud and clear after November, and after an eight year period that saw it lose control of, well, almost everything. If electing Keith Ellison as DNC chair can win the party some goodwill with voters who could help right the Democratic Party’s electoral ship, then why wouldn’t you want him in that job?
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