Few Disagreements Among DNC Candidates at Forum

Few Disagreements Among DNC Candidates at Forum
David Wallace/The Arizona Republic via AP
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With Donald Trump and the Republicans hours away from completing their takeover of Washington, seven Democrats vying for a chance to lead the rebuilding of their party met for a forum to discuss, in part, how to navigate this new era. One consensus: take it to Trump.

“Hit him between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him the way Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama,” outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez suggested.

 “The question about whether we fight back right away, that’s been answered,” said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, calling Trump’s incoming senior adviser Steve Bannon a “renowned” white supremacist. “Of course we have to fight.”

“My life is literally on the line,” said South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, referring to the fact that  the new commander-in-chief will be responsible for sending people like himself -- a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve -- to war (or not). “It’s life and death stuff.”

Perez, Ellison, and Buttigieg are three of the candidates competing for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, a vacant position that has taken on a greater significance in the wake of the party's losses in November. When President Obama leaves the White House for the final time Friday, Democrats will be without a clear leader. The race to chair the DNC has become a race to fill that leadership vacuum -- or at least one component of it. This year’s election is more than a popularity contest.  Complex strategic questions about whether the party should focus on voters it lost in 2016 or on new voters it could gain in the future – along with ideological tensions between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton factions of the party -- have added urgency to the voting.

The 447 DNC members will choose their leader next month. In addition to Ellison and Perez, who have garnered the most high-profile endorsements of the group, and Buttigieg, the slate includes South Carolina party chair Jaime Harrison, New Hampshire party chair Ray Buckley, Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, and Fox News contributor Jehmu Greene.

When the candidates met for a forum Wednesday night sponsored by the Huffington Post at George Washington University, they sought to downplay their divisions and play up party unity. There was so little dissent among the seven participants that at one point, when asked whether they thought the DNC tipped the scale for a candidate (Hillary Clinton) in the 2016 primary -- a criticism lodged frequently and vociferously by Sanders’ supporters -- none of the participants raised their hands.

On other contentious issues facing the DNC, such as whether the party should continue to incorporate superdelegates or ban financing from corporate lobbyists, the candidates were also restrained and conciliatory.

“I don’t see, with Republicans in complete control of every aspect of our government, how we take money out of our coffers,” said Harrison, who served as a top aide to Rep. James Clyburn before working as a lobbyist for the Podesta Group.

“When lobbyists give money, what do they get from the DNC? We don’t determine laws,” he continued, adding that the committee should also focus on increasing its small-dollar donor list. “If they are committed to helping us get the majority back ... bring it on.”

Ellison, a top backer of Sanders and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been supportive of the ban, but said during the forum he would let the committee vote on whether to accept corporate donations. “I’m not going to impose policy on anybody,” he said, adding that they would also have to find a way to replace that money if  a ban were enacted.

The Minnesota congressman also said he would push Sanders to share his valuable database of supporters with the DNC, which the Vermont senator has not yet committed to do. “We are in an emergency situation,” he said.

The candidates discussed the party’s use of superdelegates, which alienated grassroots progressives during the primary process, and how to make the committee more inclusive to those who want to run for office. The DNC came under fire for its closeness to Clinton, and many Democrats were critical of past chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned at the start of the national convention in the wake of leaked emails

“We should never sign a joint fundraising agreement ever again,” Buckley said, referring to the financial arrangement struck between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Buttigieg added that Democrats should be “free of any perception, let alone reality, that there is a thumb on the scale.”

“It’s not a party driven by Washington,” the mayor continued. “It doesn’t take its instructions from the mother ship.”

The candidates were also largely in agreement about empowering state parties, expanding voting rights, and returning to the 50-state strategy envisioned by former chair Howard Dean.

“We have to come together and have a values message we can deliver to all 50 states,” said Boynton Brown, who noted the Democratic brand is damaged in her state. “Facts don’t matter to people anymore,” she said. “We have to connect to their emotions.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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