Battle For the Soul of the Democratic Party
by Jason Frerichs
Every time I read a Facebook post written by a fellow Democrat throwing out names like Howard Dean or Tom Vilsack as potential leaders, I feel like banging my head against the wall. Did they not just witness how the 2016 election unfolded? Do they not realize this is 2016, not 2006? The political landscape is profoundly different. I’m only 39 years old. I spent most of the first decade of the current millennium going back and forth between the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. I returned to Iowa in 2008, in time to volunteer to help elect Barack Obama. I was very proud to have done my small part to impact American history. I believed in his message of, “Hope and Change”, and was proud that a predominantly white state like Iowa played a role in electing our first African-American president. I remember thinking that maybe as a society we’ve finally reached a point where we are able to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
When I came back in 2008, Iowa was still a blue state. Since then I’ve seen it turn from blue to purple to red. What happened? In 2012 I wasn’t as excited about Barack Obama. By that time I’d earned a degree in respiratory therapy and had first-hand experience working in our flawed health care system. I was excited by the prospect of a public option. Neoliberals like Joe Lieberman threatened to join the Republican filibuster of any bill that included a public option. Blue-dog Democrats like Max Baucus, Bill Nelson, Tom Carper, Kent Conrad, and Blanche Lincoln refused to pass an amendment that included a public option out of the Senate Finance Committee. I was disappointed that Obama seemed hell bent on “working across the aisle” when it was plainly obvious that the Republicans had no desire to do so. In 2010 the Republicans gained 60 seats in the house. I wondered, “Where was the strong progressive that I voted for in 2008?” I still put my heart and soul into the Obama campaign because I still believed in him. I saw Mitt Romney as a sneering, out of touch plutocrat, who embodied everything wrong with capitalism. Obama won reelection but I remember just feeling relief. I wasn’t excited anymore.
Then 2014 happened. By this time I was the chairman of Montgomery County, the home of the Tea Party bigot Joni Ernst. In June of 2014, we started bi-weekly canvassing and phone banking actions in support of Bruce Braley. I made sure Joni’s next door neighbor had a Braley yard sign. Ernst supported writing bigotry into the state constitution. She supported a 2013 bill that would have overturned Iowa’s marriage equality law, and defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman. She supported the Personhood Amendment and was ignorant enough to buy into the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, Bruce Braley couldn’t get out of his own way. He kept saying stupid things. He insulted Iowa farmers, a constituency you don’t want to insult if you expect to win an election in Iowa. He allowed Joni Ernst to define the terms of the debate and spent the entire campaign playing defense. Tom Harkin, a senator with a stellar record, was replaced by an ignorant bigot as a result of Braley’s ineptitude. All over the country, similar results happened, Republican-light centrists, who ran away from the successes of the Obama administration, were defeated. The writing was on the wall. The Neoliberal, Democratic Leadership Council move to the middle was an abject failure. Unfortunately, nobody was paying attention.
Before any contender not named Hillary Clinton, threw his hat into the ring for the primary nomination, hundreds of superdelegates had already pledged their support to Clinton. Beltway insiders decided that the narrative was that Bernie Sanders was a wild-eyed communist and his ideas wouldn’t work. No real examination of said ideas ever took place. It was Hillary’s turn and if you were uncomfortable with that the accusation was that you’d fallen for 25 years of right-wing attacks and just needed more education. The fact that she was the most disliked candidate in party history didn’t even register for millions of people. The fact that there were very legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable was completely discounted. I voted for her but couldn’t get behind her candidacy in any meaningful way. Her apology for voting to go war with Iraq just didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t overlook her relationship with Wall Street and legitimately believe she was capable of reforming it. Her pick of Tim Kaine as VP, someone who was both anti-union and pro-pipeline, followed by putting Ken Salazar, an anti-climate fracking advocate, on her transition team told me she didn’t consider progressives to be an important constituency. At a time when millions of Americans were angry with the system and just wanted to take a hammer to it, we nominated the embodiment of everything wrong with the Democratic Party. It frustrates me to no end when I see party leaders that I respect refuse to acknowledge this truth. They believe it was all down to lack of good messaging. That having a flawed candidate played no part in the loss because they refuse to even acknowledge that she was a flawed candidate. Messaging was definitely a problem during the 2016 election. Even if Hillary Clinton had given Bernie Sanders style stomp speeches in every single state, it would not have made a difference because people didn’t believe the messenger.
Hillary Clinton was unable to shore up the base that largely supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Obama came with a message of “Hope and Change.” He was able to speak directly to the fears of working-class voters of all races. He decisively won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The DNC and the liberal elites believed the changing demographics, identity politics, and a message of, “At least we’re not Trump”, would resonate. It did not….You can have the best message in the world but if people don’t believe that your message is authentic, they won’t vote for your candidate. Democrats have a lot of soul-searching to do if we wish to remain a nationally relevant political party. We can start with firing all the pollsters and anyone who currently profits from the current set up. Who we choose as the next DNC chair has the potential to make or break us. Howard Dean was effective in 2006. His 50 state strategy is something we should bring back. We should not bring back a sell out like Dean if we wish to be taken seriously as a champion for the working class. In 2009, Dean said that single-payer was, “by far the most economically efficient system.” Then he became a lobbyist for the health insurance industry and said that single-payer would be “chaos” because “trying to implement it would in fact undo people’s health care.” Bringing back recycled DLC retreads will not move the party forward. All it will do is continue the slide towards irrelevancy.