Over the weekend I was involved in some Twitter back and forth about the outcome of the DNC leadership race. My take, as someone who has been a big fan of both Ellison and Perez for years and was genuinely uncertain about which candidate I preferred, was that it drove me a bit crazy seeing Perez labeled as a “corporate Democrat” or “establishment pick.” The first description is ridiculous; the second is simplistic. But I think Dave Weigel’s take on the outcome is on the mark and gets at some key dynamics of the race, beneath the labels, which proved determinative.
What Weigel argues is that Perez versus Ellison did capture an essential division in the party – unquestionably true. But unlike previous, somewhat comparable races, there was very, very little ideological distinction between the two men. His reference to the post-2004 race is a good one. In that contest, coming after John Kerry’s defeat, centrist Democrats put forward Tim Roemer, a particularly thin version of a 90s era New Democrat who was completely out of step with where the Democratic party after the shattering 2004 presidential defeat. He was completely ill-suited to the moment, both temperamentally and ideologically.
I think most Democrats realize or believe that the politics of the Obama era will not be the politics that is necessary in the post-Obama era. But probing beneath that general agreement is where things get more contentious. For many on the left of the party – and broadly speaking, the Sanders wing of the party – this isn’t some evolutionary development or a general insufficiency of the Obama era. Obama’s incrementalist, cautious policy approach – deemed “neo-liberal” in its policy particulars – is what made Trumpism possible, they argue. So Obama-ism it is not just outdated or insufficient. It is the cause of the present crisis and must be specifically repudiated before the party can move forward.
True or not, since Obama was a popular Democratic president, there are a lot of Democrats who don’t see it that way.
One of the interesting structural points about the race, which Weigel notes, is that many party officials in states simply wanted more resources and more focus on party building. “Neoliberal” Obama-ite vs Sandersite repudiators wasn’t their big issue. Perez was able to make assurances on resources and party building just as much as Ellison. That brings us to the real question: Is the Democratic party’s hollowing out over the last half dozen years mainly about ideology or is it about resources, organizing and focus on party building? These things are never totally one or the other. But that basic question is what drives much of this fight.
My own small beef in this is that some Ellison supporters, in their need to vindicate their own take on the race, have needed to rebrand Perez as “corporate Democrat” and “establishment shill.” You can only sustain this view if you ignore Perez’s entire political career and especially the last decade when he held senior positions running the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and then Secretary of Labor.
The Democratic party will have a hard time moving forward if every contest must be reduced and simplified into a replay of the 2016 primary battle.