Brett Graham: Pressing pause on the new DNC

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 3:10pm

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders is poised to become the kingmaker of the Democratic Party. Like a white-haired, elderly version of Marlon Brando with a Brooklyn accent, the Vermont senator’s influence is unmatched on Capitol Hill. The gatekeeper of progressivism, the populist champion of white working-class voters in the primary, the key to millions of millennial voters ... For someone who started his presidential bid as a marginalized candidate, laughed at and cast aside, suffice it to say that Bernie Sanders is doing pretty well for himself.

For examples of Sanders’ Godfather-like stature, look no further than recent comments from Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer. The Huffington Post reported that Schumer is “all-in” on Sanders’ vision for the party, and Sanders reiterated his belief that Schumer “will do a great job.” Yes, this is the same Schumer that voted for the Iraq War, for the Patriot Act and for the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act who’s being endorsed by the most liberal voice in the Senate. But Bernie said it was OK, so critics on the left have stayed relatively quiet. That’s the power we’re talking about here.

Perhaps the more notable of Bernie’s hand-picked Democrats to help in the rebuilding of the party is Keith Ellison, who has served as a representative of Minnesota for about a decade. Ellison is originally from Detroit, graduated from Wayne State University and is the first Muslim elected to serve in Congress. He was one of the first elected officials to endorse Sanders over Clinton in the primary, and part of the reason he has garnished his reputation as a progressive is because of his association with the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now, he is the overwhelming favorite to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a position Donna Brazile resigned from in October. 

Make no mistake, this will be one of the most difficult jobs to undertake for the next four years. The next chairperson is responsible not only for organizing a party in disarray after an embarrassing loss but will also often be the figurehead of opposition to a Donald Trump administration. They will have unrivaled influence when it comes to funding and organizing congressional races in 2018 (a year in which the Senate map does not look friendly for Democrats) and the selection of a presidential candidate in 2020.

This is why I would caution Democrats who are all too ready to jump on the Keith Ellison bandwagon. Bernie Sanders’ blessing is a coup for anyone looking to succeed with progressive voters today. He’s a great option. But take into account the fact that this job will be as much about tone as it is about content.

Some Democrats have responded to Ellison’s status as heir-apparent with an interesting, if unlikely, proposition: Joe Biden. They salivate over the idea of “Uncle Joe” taking the reins as a kind of post-vice presidency project, adding that this undertaking requires someone’s undivided attention and that Ellison will be busy fulfilling his duty as a congressman. Why? Because it’s Joe Biden’s tone that the Democratic Party needs right now.    

The Clinton campaign was at a disadvantage from the very beginning when it came to tone. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could be angry, they could yell and scream and wave their arms around in frustration. Meanwhile, double standards stripped Clinton of these tools; as a woman, whenever her voice went above a normal speaking volume or became the slightest bit aggressive, she was accused of being shrill and harpy-like. It seems as though the DNC is poised to put itself at the same disadvantage.

Keith Ellison is calm and collected. He looks and sounds like a professor in many ways. He doesn’t get animated, he doesn’t get loud. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — I’m just saying that it’s not what Democrats need right now. Right now they need Uncle Joe. They need someone who can bridge the gap between the Obama coalition and the white working-class voter that abandoned Hillary Clinton. They need someone who can be stern yet statesmanlike, express anger and frustration, but do it in a productive way. Go re-watch his speech from this year’s Democratic National Convention — that’s what they need.

The work that Bernie Sanders is doing right now is important. He’s building an A-team of progressive lawmakers to act as a counterweight to the Trump administration, to lead a broken party in a new direction and to set up politicians like Elizabeth Warren for a potential run in 2020. But when it comes to the chairmanship of the DNC, there’s a discussion still to be had. The election is in February, and I’m not so sure that Keith Ellison is the right man for the job. A fired-up Joe Biden, ready to scream right back in Donald Trump’s face, though? Well that’s another story entirely.

Brett Graham can be reached at