Why a Member of Congress Shouldn't Lead the DNC
After Debbie Wasserman Schultz dissed his candidacy, it’s understandable that Sen. Bernie Sanders is promoting a supporter, liberal Rep. Keith Ellison, to replace the woman who misused the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee to assist Hillary Clinton. But selecting any sitting member of Congress to be the public face of the DNC is inconsistent with the history and purpose of the institution, the oldest continuing party committee in the world.
The DNC was formed in 1848 to call a convention every four years and to guide the campaign of presidential nominees in an era of limited continental communication. It has evolved to become a modern service organization for 56 state and territorial parties that are part of it, to which it provides dollar and technology assistance for candidates at all levels. But the basic mission of the national committee continues to be that of an honest broker for the party’s presidential nominating process.
The House and Senate caucuses of both major parties created their own committees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (after direct election of senators was enacted) because they felt the DNC and RNC were not representing the interests of each party’s congressional wing. They were right.
The history of the Republican National Committee, created in 1856, reflects the constitutional reality that we are not a parliamentary democracy in which the national leader emerges from the legislative caucus of his or her party. For most of its history, the DNC, as well as the RNC, has been led by operatives, who ran campaigns, served as state party chairmen, were major fundraisers, or who either retired or were defeated for public office before seeking the chairmanship.
I worked as a DNC press secretary for five years, from 1983-87. Both chairmen I served fit the historical model of the chairmanship. Charles T. Manatt was chair of the California Democratic Party and Paul G. Kirk Jr. was a former top political aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy. Both stayed neutral in the presidential nominating processes they oversaw, and both worked to strengthen state party committees, to grow the grassroots and help fund get-out-the-vote functions of state and local organizations.
Manatt and Kirk were leaders of the DNC when Republicans held the White House. Both understood they didn’t get to set public policy for the party. But they embraced the modern role of national chairman, communicating policy consensus that develops from the Democrats’ congressional and gubernatorial wings, as well as from grassroots interests.
Both had to focus on raising money to strengthen state party organizations--the “party building” that helps candidates at all levels running under the Democratic label.
In recent decades, each party has experimented with failed attempts to meld congressional and presidential wings by naming a “general chair” from the Congress (or a governor) with a day-to-day chairman, an administrator fitting the usual mold described above. That configuration left many--not least of whom were the chair and the general chair--wondering, “Who’s in charge here?”
There are several attributes a 21st century party chair should possess, in addition to not being a sitting congressman, senator or governor, all full-time jobs. She or he should be an eager fundraiser and an articulate spokesperson, extra important when the other party holds the White House. And a chairman should have administrative skills to choose operatives to run the half-dozen divisions of a committee: political, communications, field, fundraising, administration, and research.
Bernie Sanders’ choice for chairman, the very liberal Rep. Ellison, is a talented member of Congress. His African-American heritage and his Muslim religion (he converted from Catholicism) would contrast with the nativism expressed by the incoming president. That seems to be why Sanders and fellow liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren have endorsed Ellison’s bid. Another supporter is presumptive Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, the senator from Wall Street, who finds himself aligned with Donald Trump against the Iran nuclear deal, in deference to the right-wing government of Israel and its American support group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The conflicted senator from Brooklyn apparently sees his endorsement of Ellison as entree to liberals concerned about his neo-conservative, Middle East interventionist foreign policy and his coziness with crony capitalists at New York’s big banks.
The Democratic Party is facing a challenge to its relevance, as young voters, especially rising millennials, are not enchanted with either big party brand. A new chairman needs to be more than an identity group symbol, or an advocate for economic and fiscal policy prescriptions favored by failed former and potential presidential candidates. A new chairman should be an honest broker of the policy debate that needs to take place within the Democratic Party.