How to score the candidates for DNC chair

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Story highlights

  • CNN to host Democratic National Committee chair hopefuls in debate Wednesday night
  • Julian Zelizer: Leader needed who can rebuild party, connect to grass roots, avoid scandal

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He also is the co-host of the podcast "Politics & Polls." Tune in at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday as CNN hosts a debate with candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN)Democrats are about to make one of their first big decisions since the election. They will be selecting a new chair of the Democratic National Committee. At 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, CNN will host a debate in Atlanta to learn how the candidates plan to shape the party's future.

Julian Zelizer
The pick is significant since the winner will be one of the point persons, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in taking on the GOP and building support for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm campaign and the 2020 presidential election. He or she will also be a public spokesperson for the party who will be pivotal to challenging the administration as it finally begins to move forward with its legislative agenda.
As Democrats listen to the CNN debate, what are some of the key criteria they need to consider? What should the party be looking for?

    Rebuild the party

    This is the biggest challenge that the Democrats face after the devastating loss of seats they have experienced at the federal, state and local levels as well as in gubernatorial races. Many of the losses have come from the weak state of the party outside Washington. When President Barack Obama was in the White House, the DNC did not devote enough resources to building the kind of organizational infrastructure that the party needed to compete in local races. With an eye toward the White House and a focus on this transformative party, many critics argue the Democrats allowed the local base of their party to whither. The result was that Republicans were able to turn blue parts of the map red. In the coming years, Democrats will need to reverse these losses, or they will be unable to retake majorities on Capitol Hill and regain control of state governments. And state governments are critical in the fight against redistricting, which is usually designed to disadvantage Democrats.
    Perez: What's the future for Democrats?
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    Perez: What's the future for Democrats? 05:54

    Public advocacy

    In the modern era, party leaders have to be adept at handling the media. They are expected to go on television, radio and the Internet and be one of the prominent voices for their side. In an era when many Democrats feel they have lost control of the message, including on issues such as the economy, where they should have a natural advantage, this job is more important than ever before. They are also facing off against a Republican President who might be considered the master manipulator, a leader totally comfortable in the chaotic and fragmented environment of the modern news media. The Democrats need to elect a figure who will be able to strike back and who won't be swallowed alive by a President content to exist in this new reality.

    Connect the party to the grass roots

    The Republicans rebuilt after the devastating losses of 2008 by forging connections between party leaders and grass-roots organizations, leading to the emergence of the tea party. The connections that the Republican National Committee built between the citizens who were part of this movement and the main elements of the party organization were instrumental in obstructing the Obama presidency.
    Democrats have started to mimic some of these tactics, following the playbook of the Indivisible Guide produced by some ex-congressional staffers. This can only be a start. The march on Washington that took place after the inauguration, combined with the ferment in the town halls, suggests there is a lot of anger and frustration to harness.
    Sen. Bernie Sanders demonstrated in the Democratic primaries just how much political energy this kind of movement-based approach can achieve for the party, even though he was fairly left of the mainstream and didn't have the same kinds of financial resources as his opponents.

    Avoid unnecessary controversy and scandal

    The party now faces a President who brings with him to the White House an immense amount of political baggage. Thus far, his early record suggests that controversy won't go away. Democrats will need to keep the focus on Donald Trump's problems, not their own. The titular leader of the party needs to have a clean record and needs to be someone who will work with extraordinary care to stay out of trouble.
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    Democrats are at a crossroads, not just for their own party but for the policies that their party has been fighting for since Franklin Roosevelt was in office. This Republican President and Congress are intent on rolling back many of the gains that have been made over these decades. The party can't afford to put someone in this position who will drown their efforts to push back against this Republican line of attack.
    It's time for Democrats to make a decision, and this is a big one. As Democrats watch the debate unfold Wednesday night, they might want to keep a score sheet by their side as they determine who can meet all of these criteria.