Who Will Lead the Democrats out of the Wilderness?

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Haeckel_Actiniae

Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate/planche 49: Actiniae

November 16, 2016; Time Magazine

Who will lead? The quick answer is “no one,” but in this case that means no single individual leader can mend the tattered big tent that was shredded when Secretary Clinton failed to shatter the glass ceiling. As John F. Kennedy noted, “Victory has thousand fathers [and mothers], but defeat is an orphan.”

Right now, a lot of voices in the media are declaring Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to be the Moses of the party. But consider the landscape. Two white senior citizens charged with pulling together an electorate that’s increasingly minority and Millennial? Two senators with some willingness to govern with the Trump administration at a time when the streets are filled with “dead enders” dedicated to resisting the new administration? Two New Englanders charged with trying to recapture the heartland voters who deserted the Dems in the last election? An educated guess is that Senators Sanders and Warren will be transition figures.

Two critical elections are coming up quickly. In 2018, Democrats are defending many more Senate seats than Republicans. Then, in 2020, Democrats will be challenged to recapture statewide offices before Congressional redistricting. To his credit, the author of Time’s article, Sam Frizell, looks past the immediate disarray to illuminate the other potential leaders who may emerge over time.

Two test votes are coming sooner. House Dems will chose a Minority Leader on November 30, 2016, and then party leaders will select a new chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sometime before March 31, 2017.

The House Minority Leader race will pit pioneering progressive Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is seeking reelection, against newcomer Ohio moderate Tim Ryan. The race will come down to supporting a female pioneer who has raised lots of money for members versus a “new face” legislator who represents the constituency (Rust Belt white workers) that President-elect Trump so handily snatched away from Democrats in the most recent election.

The DNC race pits Minnesota House member Keith Ellison, a progressive African American Muslim, against Dr. Howard Dean, a progressive white New Englander with a proven track record of success as DNC chair from 2005 to 2009, a period of Democratic party success across the country. The race, again, is new face versus proven track record.

There are some other key leadership positions fought out in the arena of public opinion. An interesting battle seems to be emerging for the unofficial position of “thought leader” for the Democratic Party. Progressive Cornel West, an active Sanders supporter this past year, is clearly campaigning in the media and in academia. Professor West is an African American intellectual polemicist for the “hard left” wing of Democratic thinkers. Another progressive thought leader who still has credibility is Van Jones, a younger, more populist, and more media savvy advocate.

From the heartland’s “left behind” faction of the Democratic Party, there are several candidates for thought leader. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, may be positioning himself to link progressive politics with traditional rural values. Originally portrayed as a memoirist, Mr. Vance has become increasingly political as he’s gotten airtime on national media programs. His Yale Law School background may undermine his credibility as a heartland leader. Another is veteran political consultant Matt Baron. One may expect that others will emerge from the heartland in coming months.

TV journalist Jorge Ramos could emerge in a thought leader role. Clearly, he has a huge pulpit to speak from at Univision and has real credibility arising from his very public confrontation with candidate Trump. A key question will be the extent to which he willing to move towards advocacy journalism.

Meanwhile, Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), continues to offer fact-based policy recommendations but the focus of their work is in Congress and liberal advocacy groups, not the rank and file. Unlike many of the Beltway pundits who circled around the party establishment, Bernstein has managed to keep some distance by his association with the policy wonks at CBPP. On the other hand, the think tank environment could undermine his political base. In a soul-searching op-ed in the Washington Post, Bernstein offers this insight. “When I hear myself and my colleagues make these arguments, I feel as if we’re leading a parade but have neglected to turn around and see the thin crowd that’s following us.” He sounds like a leader in search of an army.

Among the identity communities, Hispanics continue to emerge as a power center for Democrats. Hispanic politicians have real opportunities to emerge as political leaders in the party’s efforts to rebuild a base. Progressive House member Raúl Grijalva was an early and strong supporter of Bernie Sanders’ insurgency and has recently been carving out a role in Democratic Party leadership. Obama administration veterans Tom Perez and Julian Castro, each a potential VP choice for Sec. Hillary Clinton, may have lost a little luster since her defeat. With their cabinet positions gone, each will need to find a new position as a platform to offer leadership to Democrats and Hispanics.

Among African American community leaders, the politics are in turmoil. Two younger voices to emerge from the 2016 debacle are Clinton surrogate Marcia Fudge and Sanders supporter Nina Turner. Both are from northeast Ohio, but the similarities end there. Fudge is a veteran Congresswoman who served as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Turner is a former Ohio State Senator who was a prominent spokesperson for Senator Sanders. Because Turner is currently not in office, she will be looking for a way to gain visibility over the next few months. (Maybe a run for Cleveland’s mayoralty?) New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has been playing an “inside” game in the U.S. Senate, forging bipartisan alliances with Republicans around housing and community development issues. Hard to see a way that he could reemerge as a party leader, but he may be presidential timber in 2020 along with another moderate—former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. There’s also lots of room for non-political African American leaders to arise from the civic sector, shaped by the Black Lives Matter movements. Think of the strong voices that spoke truth to power from the stage of the hit musical Hamilton last week.

Younger heartland politicians who have been left behind by the coastal-centric party establishment will find new pathways to influence in the party’s dramatic restructuring. Time notes, “The party’s leadership in the Senate now includes a diverse crowd of ideologies and geographies, including the Midwest (Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Senator Tammy Baldwin), centrists (Manchin), as well as liberals.”

Weak bench? Hardly. If one of your favorite prospects for a leadership role was not mentioned, apologies for the evidence that the catastrophic losses in 2016 have opened thousands of new political opportunities. In the current environment, there’s a premium on “new faces from new places.” Many will need to channel their energies into state and local races while keeping a national profile. For the Democratic Party, that’s wonderful news, because the most important realignment battles of the next four years will be at the state and local levels.

One of the faults ascribed to the Clinton campaign was the party’s reliance on being a coalition of identity groups instead of providing a single coherent vision. President-elect Trump, on the other hand, had great “traditional” themes and a single identity constituency. Is there a figure in the Democratic Party who can pull together the identities around a common theme? (Think: “Yes we can.”) Don’t expect that person to emerge before 2018, but think about some of these options: the aforementioned Cory Booker and Raúl Grijalva, Deval Patrick, or Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Just to name a few. The Democrats so-called “weak bench” is an illusion caused by the party’s loyalty to, and the media’s fixation on, well known Baby Boomers.—Spencer Wells

  • donna

    It is a shame that the party threw all its weight behind Hillary rather than encouraging the talent on its bench.

    Cory Booker and Howard Dean are dead sticks, not even a part of the bench anymore. They sold any credibility they had to Wall Street and they are in the toilet, ready for a flush. If we get rid of Pelosi, the party might be able to recover from this fortunate loss. My fear was that the Republicans would lose and retool while the Democrats continued to pretend that the economy was great and everything was right with the party. Fortunately, the reverse happened.

    “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” – Henry Ford

  • Julie

    Hillary Clinton is the most accomplished American woman woman of our times. Her progressive values have been demonstrated since the very start of her career. She would have been a great president for all of us. Let’s not minimize the effects of an outside party undermining our election with hacking and leaks on one side and the effect of partisan actions on the part of our FBI director, James Comey.