Can the Democrats Revive Themselves?
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The Democratic Party is largely still in a state of disbelief over their lost chances on November 8. With the exception of President Obama who continues to go about his business as he concludes his final weeks in office, the congressional Democrats have taken care of their leadership business for the new Congress, will limp through the final weeks of the current Congress, and prepare for their confrontations with President-elect when he assumes office in January. There is, however, a sense that the Democratic Party is leaderless and is desperately trying to sort itself out.
There are at present no major figures yet to emerge from the losses of Election Day. There are strong Democratic voices like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders but they are not forces who will unite the party’s moderate and the progressive wings of the party. The Democrats need to move ahead positively and soon, without a classic bloodbath. Failure to achieve that fast could well doom the party to another shellacking in 2018 when in the Senate alone they will be defending 23 seats (plus two independents) out of the 33 seats which will be up. Into this fray now comes the Party’s debate over a new DNC chair.
As former DNC chairman Howard Dean has now withdrawn his candidacy, it leaves the heavily favored Congressman Keith Ellison as the odds on favorite. Ellison, however aside from the fact that he is a progressive African-American, Muslim, carries a record of dubious comments concerning Jews and Israel which have been characterized by many as anti-Semitic. Such positions alone suggest that Ellison may indeed not be the smartest choice for a party seeking to coalesce and not splinter further. In addition, as a currently serving Member of Congress Ellison would probably be hard pressed to serve both his constituents in Minnesota as well as his Party with total focus. While Ellison appears to be considering resigning from Congress were he to be elected as DNC chair, such a position would not remove some of the problems that his prior public record contain.
For the Democratic Party to have a chance to move ahead in 2018 and to position itself as well for 2020, it needs to be careful to avoid the mistakes which followed the Humphrey defeat in 1968 leading to the McGovern fiasco in 1972. Much of the progressive agenda can well be subsumed with a program which could be led by a non-controversial yet charismatic figure. The DNC will need such a leader and the party will need to begin to see potential candidates warming up for a 2020 run against Trump.
Given the nature of the successfully built Trump support base, a new leader must emerge to appeal to his constituents as well as the bi-coastal Democratic elite base. The Party needs to reach out to the old Democratic coalition forces in their former base in the rust-belt states. They must unite them with the minorities, women, and the elites or else the party will remain in the wilderness. Senator Schumer will figure out how to handle the legislative agenda, but the party leadership must focus on how the party can rebuild itself.