Democrats Should Dump Pelosi, Abandon Ellison for DNC

Democrats Should Dump Pelosi, Abandon Ellison for DNC
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Democrats still smarting from Hillary Clinton’s historic defeat don’t sound like people licking their wounds -- some of them sound like people sniffing glue. House Democrats are still leaning towards re-electing San Francisco liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi, age 76, as their minority leader, while several key party leaders have thrown their weight behind Rep. Keith Ellison to lead the Democratic National Committee. Doing either would be a huge mistake. 

As the new administration of Donald Trump takes form, progressives are howling over the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist, given his work promoting Breitbart as a platform for the “alt-right,” replete with anti-Semitic, misogynistic and anti-Muslim content.

Why aren’t they hearing alarm bells of their own? Few have stepped up to question why the party would elevate Ellison, who has a past connection to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and famously compared the 9/11 attacks to the Reichstag Fire. Though Ellison, an African-American who is the first Muslim to serve in Congress, later walked back his involvement with the Nation of Islam by agreeing the group was anti-Semitic, he would be an easy target for a party that can no longer win the heartland. Breitbart, no shock, has labeled Ellison a “radical leftist.”

While enough nervous members of Pelosi’s caucus pushed to delay leadership elections until after Thanksgiving -- a sign of younger members’ concern over re-electing the woman they hoped would relinquish her post -- it doesn’t appear that a challenge by Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio can prevail. The former speaker, and first female to hold the title, insists she still enjoys support from two-thirds of her colleagues.

Meanwhile, David Brock is forming a network of big donors to attack Trump throughout his term. This is hard-core denial. After watching the GOP reach its peak power since the 1920s, introspection and accountability seem to be in order, but Democrats are struggling to muster the requisite dose. 

Certainly there is plenty of reassuring data they cling to: Clinton lost by only 107,000 votes in just three key states, so Trump’s self-described electoral landslide is not a mandate; Trump likely didn’t expect or possibly even want to be president; his negative ratings are terrible; the GOP remains divided and are all holding their collective breath as they risk overreaching for the next two years. And Clinton’s growing popular vote win has many Democrats feeling sore, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who said last week the election was “split.”

Yet Democrats must acknowledge what they did to send blue-collar workers into the arms of the GOP instead of smugly wishing Trump’s victory away, confident that demographic trends will correct this one-off soon enough.  The party can pass off the fact they nominated a lemon in Clinton, but if they keep talking only of climate change, police brutality, transgender bathrooms and abortion rights, Democrats in largely rural counties or states Trump won won’t stand a chance.

Newly elected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to expand a coalition that is diverse but no longer big enough. “Some think we need to make a choice and spend all our energy focused on one group of Americans or another,” he said. “I believe that there does not have to be a division. In fact, there must not be a division.”

Shrewdly, Schumer not only appointed Sen. Bernie Sanders to a leadership position but put Sen. Joe Manchin, who might have switched parties, in charge of outreach to the Trump administration. Sanders won working-class whites in his primary campaign against Clinton, and was blunt about the party's failure. “I think it's time to rethink how we go forward,” he said last week. “We can’t just keep doing the same old same old and keep losing.”

Schumer and some Democrats plan to work with Trump on issues that few in the GOP will champion, like costly infrastructure; a review -- if not a rebuke -- of trade agreements; fighting currency manipulation; eliminating the carried interest tax loophole; and maybe even paid maternity leave.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has already contacted Team Trump about their like-minded trade agenda, should lobby progressives and moderates alike in the House to help Tim Ryan upset Pelosi on Nov. 30. His Youngstown colleague is still young at age 43, but experienced enough in the House, as he has served there for14 years. Ryan said the leadership of the party must represent the voters they’re trying to reach. He told the Youngstown Vindicator that the party needs a leader “like me, who has constituents and friends who are steelworkers or work in construction. ... We need leaders who can go into these Great Lake districts.”

House Democrats know Ryan is right, but will they defy Pelosi on a secret ballot?

While endorsements from senators won’t win anyone the race for DNC chair, which will be decided across 50 states instead (many of them red), Ellison’s early support from Schumer, Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is designed to force out potential competition long before the vote in mid-February.  Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network who ran for DNC chair 2005 and is neutral in the current race, expects others to enter in the weeks ahead. While Rosenberg said Ellison is off to an impressive start, he added that the Minnesota congressman “has two things working against him -- a full-time chair is clearly better than a part-time elected official, and skepticism in the redder areas of the country that a candidate who has been so closely associated with the most progressive wing of the party is the proper response to our losses in recent years.”

Democrats, locked in the Clinton era for decades and unable to win without President Obama on the ballot in 2010, 2014 and 2016, have a chance to course-correct and grow their party. They won’t get another one like this for a long time. They should choose wisely.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.

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