A Tale of Two Democrats
It was the best of times for the Democratic Party, it was the worst of times, it was the age of resistance, it was the age of Trump…
As Democrats grapple with the thousand-front war that is the Trump administration, the midterms rapidly approach. The initial enthusiasm for the Blue Wave expressed by the party and the pundit class has been somewhat dampened as Trump’s approval ratings creep up from both supposedly improving economic numbers and relations with North Korea. Regarding the former, yes, unemployment is at 18-year lows, but "chronically sluggish" wage growth coupled with inflation means that many working Americans aren't feeling any economic upside. The latter ebbs and flows with the president’s Twitter streams of consciousness.
Of course whether Democrats can retake the House will depend on whether Trump can avoid war – whether trade or nuclear – and whether Democrats have learned any lessons from 2016. Namely, not to count on Donald Trump’s self-destruction, and to offer bold alternatives to his policies that actually help people. Admittedly, it’s pretty hard for the Democratic Party to get any media coverage of its agenda what with the frenetic pace of news and noise coming from all corners of Trump World.
But there are Democrats who are managing to break through. Of recent note are Senator Jeff Merkley, for the better, and DNC Chief Tom Perez, for the worse.
Last week, the usually staid senator made a very bold move on immigration. Responding to the public outcry on the Trump policy of separating immigrant parents from their children, Merkley directed his staff to set up a tour of a Texas detention center housing ‘unaccompanied minors.’ He showed up last Sunday, in person without confirmation, with videographers in tow. The gatekeepers refused to let him in, and the video went viral.
Jeff Merkley took bold action on human rights. He didn’t just hold a press conference to denounce Trump’s policies à la Chuck Schumer. This is exactly the type of thing that voters want to see from politicians: fighting for their principles. And – shameless plug – it’s exactly the type of bold action described by my colleague, Mike Lux in his new book, How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, a blueprint for how Democrats can build a lasting, progressive governing majority.
How not to Democrat? See DNC Chief Tom Perez in his recent endorsement of Andrew Cuomo, in a hotly contested race for governor of New York against Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging him from the left with the support of many Bernie Sanders progressives. Perez himself has said repeatedly that the party would not endorse candidates in primaries, period, to ease the ongoing tension between the Bernie and Hillary factions of the party.
In March, Perez told C-SPAN, “One thing we’ve learned at the DNC is that when you, in fact or in perception, are trying to put the thumb on the scale in a spirited primary, that can undermine public confidence in us.”
But there is something more puzzling about this endorsement beyond the intentional nose-thumbing of the Bernie wing of the party. The DNC chairman is tasked with electing Democrats and building Democratic power. This race is hotly contested in the first place because Cuomo fostered a divide in the state party, the creation of a breakaway faction of Democrats known as the IDC, that gave him more power in the legislative process by handing control of the state Senate to Republicans. Is this the type of leadership the DNC wishes to emulate around the country?
I asked prominent Democratic activists in New York City why they think Perez would do this given these two circumstances. Some suspect the Clintons called in a favor. One Democratic legislator in the state told me, “A prior relationship. My sense is that the leadership of the party just does not consider the progressive wing as important enough to respect.”
Rumor has it that the endorsement backlash pushed the DNC to make rounds of apologetic phone calls to progressives.
But this episode smacks of Hillary Clinton hiring disgraced former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the aftermath of her 2016 resignation over e-mails showing bias against Bernie in the primary. At the time, I wondered how Clinton could be so tone deaf, but I eventually came to the realization it was less tone-deafness and more just disregard for the progressive wing of the party.
Tom Perez would do well to follow Jeff Merkley’s lead rather than Hillary Clinton’s.