By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, February 20, 2017)
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The Democrats know their party must change. But what kind of change? If the two front runners for the DNC chair position are any indication, it won’t be much change at all.
The election of a new Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair this week in Atlanta features two Beltway veterans, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, as the favorites to be the next DNC chair, though neither appears to have the race locked up heading into the winter meetings starting on February 23rd.
Is there still a chance for the next party leader to come from outsider the Washington establishment? In joint appearances across the country this past month, the DNC chair candidates agreed on one major problem facing the next chair: The party has become too Beltway-centered, giving too little attention to the state parties, which has led to a steady decline of elected Democrats in the state legislatures.
And while the candidates speak convincingly about their commitment to the state parties, most are themselves part of the same Beltway establishment they are now running away from. That is, except one candidate, who genuinely can claim the “outside the Washington establishment” label. Sally Boynton Brown has served as the Executive Director of the Idaho Democratic Party since 2012 and knows firsthand how the state parties have suffered, particularly state parties in red states like hers.
“We need to take our party out of Washington (and) start making significant investments in our state parties,’ says Boynton Brown. “We must have an expanded state party strategy so we are investing not only in blue states and purple states but also red states like Idaho.”
Boynton Brown also points out that the disinvestment in the state parties was largely driven by changes in campaign finance law. “Since McCain-Feingold (The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) the focus of the DNC has been to elect a President,” she says. “We need a fundamental shift in the role of the DNC; it needs to become a service organization designed to work as a full partner with state parties.”
Her strategic approach to party-building includes investing in regions currently unfavorable to Democrats. This strategy is reminiscent of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack’s approach to elections in Iowa. When asked how he broke the 30-year choke-hold Republicans had on the Iowa governor’s seat in 2000, he said, “I went to every county fair and BBQ in those rural counties where the Republicans historically would win by 50 points, but I got it down to 20 points.”
While this ‘99-county” approach made sense for a candidate in a gubernatorial popular vote election, it also paid dividends to the Iowa Democrats in local and state legislative races. After Vilsack’s 2000 victory, the Iowa Democrats began winning more close elections in some of those Republican-dominated rural areas and, by 2007, the Democrats controlled both houses of the Iowa legislature.
Yet, as Vilsack demonstrated how a Democrat can win in a Republican-leaning state like Iowa, the national Democrats went in a different direction. A headline in The Daily Kos declared going into the 2014 midterm elections, “If our voters turn out, we win.” The Democrats lost 13 U.S. House seats and 9 U.S. Senate seats in that election.
The Democrats’ emphasis on getting its voters to vote had solid reasoning behind it. Inspired by the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis advanced by political scientists Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, the Democratic Party in the Obama-era shifted towards using social media and big data analytics to inform GOTV targeting efforts at the expense of efforts to persuade undecideds and weak Republicans.
This strategy worked for a transcendent candidate like Obama who attracted the ideological center of the country. For many of the party’s other candidates, particularly when Obama was not on the ballot, the strategy has failed and the party has paid a steep price for the its “emerging majority” hubris.
Today, the Democratic Party is at a critical juncture. Not since the Great Depression has the party been so removed from power and where it goes from here will be, in part, managed by the person elected as the DNC chair.
While some of the 447 DNC voting members remain deeply divided between the progressive (Bernie Sanders) and pragmatist (Hillary Clinton) camps, the DNC candidates themselves are not separating themselves along ideological or factional lines. Of the ten leading candidates, all to varying degrees describe themselves as progressive.
Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who has recently dropped out of the race and endorsed Ellison, provided the best summary of the candidates’ ideological unity when he said at the February 4th DNC candidate forum in Detroit, “There is not a word that anybody is saying that we do not agree with.” The Borg on Star Trek wasn’t that unified.
Instead, the distinctions rendered by the candidates are more on their strategic priorities, managerial accomplishments and field experience. In announcing his candidacy, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez distinguished himself from the other candidates by noting his experience running the 17,000-person labor department. “I have had a lot of experience in trying to build one Department of Labor where we all have our oars in the water, rowing in synchrony.”
Taking a more decentralized management approach, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “We’ve got to recognize that not all of the (Resistance movement) energy needs to funnel through the Democratic Party.” Instead, Buttigieg contends the DNC must support the protest movement without attempting to own it.
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison emphasizes his congressional district’s grassroots organizing success and calls for recharging the party’s ground game by “knocking on every door in this country if we can.” At the Detroit forum, Ellison also emphasized the need for the Democrats to reconnect with working families. “We start with the idea that the Democratic Party is the party that works for working people all the time and never lets up,” said Ellison.
“We lost of a lot of trust in this past election,” said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, in Detroit. “This party has to go to where the people are instead of hoping that people will come to where we are.” Harrison’s advice is particularly credible given his party leadership experience in South Carolina, a state that has been under unified Republican control since 2002. But it also highlights where most of the candidates lack any distinctiveness and why Boynton Brown is exceptionally positioned to move the DNC in a new direction. All but Boynton Brown have spent most of their political careers either in Washington, D.C. or in an area with a strong Democratic party presence.
In contrast, Boynton Brown leads the party in a state the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll identifies as the 3rd most Republican state in the country. Boynton Brown operational skills have been tempered in a western, deep red state.
While Fox News analyst Jehmu Greene and Voto Latino President Maria Teresa Kumar hail from Texas and Harrison is from South Carolina, these red states have seen Democratic control of its state house or the governorship since 2000. Idaho’s last Democratic governor was Cecil Andrus, who left office in 1995 after first being elected in 1971, and the state legislature has been comfortably controlled by the Republicans since 1992.
Yes, South Carolina and Texas are tough for Democrats, but nothing like Idaho. Prior to the 2016 election, Gallup estimated Republicans had a 25 percent advantage in Idaho (% Republican-leaning minus % Democrat-leaning). The Republican advantages in South Carolina and Texas were less than 10 percent.
And nowhere do your party’s strengths and weaknesses (and those of your opponent) become more vivid as when you are fighting for your very survival. Where the national party is only now accepting the depth and scope of its electoral problem, Boynton Brown has spent her political career behind enemy lines fighting this existential battle.
Activists like director Michael Moore and TV comedian Bill Maher peddle an ‘alternative fact’ that is harmful to the Democrats’ cause: The notion that America is a center-left country more closely aligned with the Democrats’ policy preferences than with the Republicans’. While true on many civil rights and social justice issues, on the issues that drive elections, this simply isn’t true.
“America itself remains a fundamentally center-right nation,” Democratic pollster Doug Schoen recently wrote on FoxNews.com. “A fundamental belief in national sovereignty and individual responsibility, married to cautious skepticism of government and deeply held moral convictions, continues to govern how most Americans think about politics.
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, provides an even more sobering message to the Democrats. “Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51 percent of the electorate to buy,” says Haidt. “Most Democrats don’t understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.” This disconnect is a significant reason why Clinton’s massive big data efforts in 2016, built largely around consumer and online behavior databases, failed to capture the critical weaknesses in Clinton’s support.
The Democrats have other problems as well. In his book, E Pluribus Unum, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam finds an emphasis on ethnic diversity can reduce social cohesion which can lessen a community’s capacity for collective action. Haidt references Putnam when suggesting that, by emphasizing diversity, the Democrats are at a disadvantage to Republican’s “rally around the flag” messaging when building electoral coalitions.
Haidt counsels Democrats to do more to build a shared sense of national identity across the diverse groups in its coalition. This recalibrated message would be controversial among many Democrats and would represent a big challenge as they try to build a durable electoral coalition.
It is here where Boynton Brown would be most relevant to fixing the DNC’s problems. In her Blueprint for the DNC, she says the DNC needs to “have fully staffed regional offices that are steeped in the political realities of the states they work with.”
As part of her call for a more decentralized party structure, she does not think the DNC chair should be driving changes in the party’s policy platform positions. In her view, that is where the party’s candidates and elected leaders must bring their local and regional perspectives to the national party’s platform deliberations.
Is Boynton Brown’s decentralization plan contradictory to Haidt’s advice that the Democrats need to build a unifying, national strategic message? That will be the challenge regardless of who is elected the next DNC chair. As Vilsack experienced in Iowa’s Republican-dominated rural counties, by committing sustained resources to those areas the Iowa Democratic Party was soon viewed as more connected to the issues of rural, conservative Iowa, even as the party maintained its strong support in Iowa’s urban centers.
“Our party narrative must be built from rural values – when we spend time talking to every American, we win,” says Boynton Brown. “When we silo off our communications to certain segments we will always suffer somewhere. Changing the hearts-and-minds of voters requires building our relationships with our neighbors and once we begin doing this work we can first start to lose by less which will lead to future wins.”
Taking Vilsack’s approach to the national level is where Boynton Brown offers the clearest vision on how to make the Democrats a 50-state party again.
The Democrats now see the consequences of its lack of investment in state parties, but Boynton Brown understands the inherent conflict in a coastal-elite-driven party agenda centered on identity politics at a time when the party also needs to develop a compelling, unifying principle that attracts a broader segment of Americans.
If the Democrats do not listen closely to Boynton Brown and other Democrats from red-state America, the Democrats may be years away from making the kinds of strategic changes necessary to be the nation’s preeminent political party again.
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