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November 17th, 2018

National

Dems think they've figured out what they stand for and how to retake Washington

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published Feb. 6, 2017

Dems think they've figured out what they stand for and how to retake Washington
DETROIT -- The Democratic National Committee's "future forums" -- four public meetings ahead of the party's vote to pick new leadership, set this year for Feb. 25 -- are largely friendly affairs. Over a few hours, the candidates for top DNC jobs field questions and decline to take cheap shots. More often, they take time out to praise each other for running.

That made it easier to see the wincing when Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke up at Saturday's forum to declare his solidarity with the protest movements that have sprung up since President Donald Trump's election.

"I am the only candidate on this stage who joined the Women's March," Buttigieg told the gathering at Detroit's Wayne State University.

The audience cheered; the mayor's leading rivals stayed poker-faced. It benefited none of them to point out that they had missed the Women's March only because they were in Miami, at a long-scheduled meeting of progressive donors, organized by Democratic activist David Brock. They had agreed to do it before anyone realized the largest mass mobilization since the Vietnam War would be happening that day.

The DNC race, the party's first real internal contest since 2005, was originally scheduled to be over by now. It was delayed until the last week of February so that the party, ostensibly, could debate what it stood for and what went wrong while its representatives in Washington figured out an opposition strategy.

But the speed with which protests have built against Trump has given the race the feeling of an endless's director's cut, with less public engagement than Democrats hoped.

"I look at those marches, and all I can think is: There's millions of pieces of data we'll never get," grumbled one candidate's strategist on Friday night.

Ostensibly, the first three future forums allowed DNC members from the West, South and Midwest to meet their candidates in person, and for local activists to feel some buy-in to the party.

In reality, the three forums have attracted around a quarter of the DNC's 447 voting members, and the turnout by local activists for all-day Saturday meetings has been wan -- in part, because those meetings overlapped with protests. In Houston, the host of the second forum, dozens of activists showed up still angry about the pre-2016 rules that allowed Hillary Clinton to build and pad a lead with superdelegates.

Meanwhile, the "unity commission" that will rewrite delegate rules existed in the form of a table manned by chairman Larry Cohen, a Bernie Sanders supporter and former Communications Workers of America president who is waiting for the DNC race to end so that the commission seats can actually be filled. The party still has 20 days to go before it can join the protest movement, already in progress.

"The shape and form of this new movement has no real parallels in history because we have never seen anything like Donald Trump in modern American politics," said interim DNC chair Donna Brazile.

The leading candidates for DNC chair and vice chair have made the most of the forums, with each week prompting reactions to the latest Trump administration outrage. They've filled the space outside the forums with campaign literature and swag and have brought along supporters meant to serve as previews of the energy they could harness.

In the chair's race, former secretary of labor Tom Perez has changed the most in relation to Trump. The race began before he left the Obama administration, but at the forums since, Perez has become a fount of outrage. At Houston's forum, which came right after Trump's executive orders on immigration and refugees and a threatened (but as yet nonexistent) order on voter fraud, he raised his voice and accused the president of peddling "bulls***." In Detroit, he paced around the hospitality suite rented by his campaign, raging at how Trump had undone a Labor Department rule designed to prevent fraud by financial managers.

"He's got a degree from MSU -- Makin' S*** Up university," said Perez.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who was born and raised in Detroit, has been accompanied at forums by members of National Nurses United, who've tried to evoke the feeling of a presidential campaign by waving signs and singing pro-Ellison songs. (To the tune of "Chain of Fools": "Change change change/ unity. Change change change/ experience.") Buttigieg has asked young supporters to join him at forums and dispatched them in the hours before the gatherings to conduct voter registration drives -- another line that always gets a cheer.

Little has affected the race itself, which is being decided out of view in phone calls and visits with the 447 voting members. This week's high-profile endorsements put former vice president Joe Biden and the Bricklayers International Union behind Perez, while former vice president Walter Mondale, the Teamsters and a crew of Michigan legislators endorsed Ellison.

None of those backers, of course, are voting members of the DNC. Less than a quarter of DNC members have made public endorsements. Privately, both the Ellison and Perez campaigns see themselves in a close race, with most DNC members still undecided. Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, is seen as a "safe" first ballot choice for undecided members, as is Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Sally Boynton Brown, the executive editor of Idaho's Democratic Party, and Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene have benefited from the in-person forums but not broken through.

The party has also maneuvered to include late-declaring fringe candidates, who have not disrupted the race. Sam Ronan, a 27-year old Air Force veteran who ran for Ohio's state legislature in 2016, has been a self-effacing and generous presence at the forums, dressing in jeans and talking about how to make millennials feel included. Peter Peckarsky, a Wisconsin attorney, has talked drily about voting rights. A third candidate was cut from the forums after insulting Ellison's religion; a fourth has not showed up to the forums.

And with one exception this week, the party has changed the story line about the race from the one it espoused in December, when the rise of Ellison and entry of Perez prompted analysis of the race as a rematch between supporters of the Obama administration and supporters of Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator leaned back into that story after Biden's endorsement, reiterating his advice that the party could choose a "failed status-quo approach" or reform itself.

Asked on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday to explain the criticism, Sanders largely repeated himself.

"The Democratic Party has got to say: Yes, we're going to take on the greed of Wall Street, the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, the greed of corporate America that throws American workers out on the streets and moves to Mexico and China," said Sanders. "We are on the side of the elderly and the workers, not on the side of big business."

But freed from the Obama administration, which had defended the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Perez has taken no position to the right of Ellison or Sanders. The "future forums" have focused more on party strategy than policy, and outside of the forums, the Democrats who warn that the party might swing too far to the left to compete are nearly invisible.

The conversation, instead, is dominated by activists, by Sanders -- who will appear on CNN on Tuesday night to defend the Affordable Care Act in a debate with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas -- and by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who told a meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Saturday that Trump had won only by plagiarizing radical rhetoric from politicians of the left. His failure to deliver on that rhetoric would be the party's opening to win.

"There are some in the Democratic Party who urge caution," said Warren. "They say this is just a tactical problem. We need better data. We need better social media. We need better outreach. We need better talking points. Better talking points? Are you kidding me? People are so desperate for economic change in this country that Donald Trump was just inaugurated as president, and people think we just have a messaging problem? What planet are they living on?"

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