Those who were attentive to the selection of a new chair by the Democratic National Committee last Saturday might be forgiven if the protracted party confab in Atlanta resembled a College of Cardinals conclave at the Vatican to select a new pope.
Puffs of white smoke floating above the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel when a winner in the first contested election since 1985 was finally announced late in the day at the conclusion of the lengthy and off-schedule session would have underscored the drama inside.
The larger omission was that party leaders answered the wrong question.
There was no genuine soul-searching by DNC members regarding how the now largely regional political party can recover from an eight-year series of massive and humiliating electoral losses across the country at the local, state and national levels.
The contentious battle between “establishment” contender and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and “progressive” U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison disguised a debilitating dilemma for Democrats. Both are far-left adherents in a party increasingly devoid of political diversity or even a willingness to accommodate differing perspectives.
The public can’t be faulted for having failed to notice much daylight or actual difference between the two contenders, with neither offering any real inspiration for remedying the party’s plight.
Democrats won’t get out of the ditch they’re in by doubling down on a big-spending, high-taxing, entitlement-laden, commerce-antagonistic, cultural-elitist, arrogant-toned bossy-government brand-message rejected by voters in most locales.
Those at the essentially party-encompassing but most extreme-left were predictably demoralized by the outcome. Representing the wing of the party personified by radical firebrands Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist ironically not even a member of the party, and the also always-agitated Elizabeth Warren, it remains to be seen how engaged their hard-core devotees will remain in attempting to rebuild the party.
Perez, the narrow victor on the second ballot, touts an “every zip code” remedy to returning to relevance. A political party suffering an identity crisis, however, can’t seem to shake a message that just won’t sell in the majority of places with a post office.
With the party’s high-profile personalities of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer decidedly less popular than nemesis President Donald Trump in national polling, it’s disappointing that discernment of a more moderate and proven popular political path is not a party priority.
Democrats keep thinking they can win with the bronze medalists of voters. Liberals have long taken the bottom rung at the podium when compared to the more numerous moderates and conservatives.
A Pew Research survey last week detailed this internal dichotomy for Democrats, with party loyalists essentially split on whether to pursue a more measured political posture or remain on the path of an extremist and losing hyper-liberal stance.
Democrats have been reduced to controlling a “trifecta” of state government – bicameral legislatures and governorships – in only six states, three on each coast. The party clung to one-vote state senate control in a Delaware special election last weekend, holding on to a district long dominated by the party.
Perez himself recounted in an interview Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program a recent encounter with a longtime Democrat in Wisconsin. The voter, who had switched sides to support Trump, told Perez that he has begun to feel “homeless” as a party supporter, saying Democrats didn’t seem to care about him anymore.
The new party chairman seemed oddly and blithely unaware of the message at the core of the self-reported exchange. Perez instead began reeling off by rote the talking points that are the losing message Democrats just can’t stop repeating.
If Democrats hope to recover and, in the words of the non-politician who won the White House, “start winning again,” party leaders need to start listening to that voter in Wisconsin who is no longer with them instead of simply shouting louder.
It’s a lesson Democrats have yet to learn.