Jen Psaki: To rebuild party, Democrats must seek a chairman presenting an optimistic and positive vision for the future
She says South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg is a young, energetic, and a military veteran. Why not give him a chance?
Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and Spring Fellow at the Georgetown Institute of Politics, served as the White House communications director and State Department spokesperson during the Obama administration. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Debates rarely change the course of history. Instead they cement what viewers already think about a candidate’s strengths or weaknesses.
I came away from the CNN debate among candidates for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship Wednesday night even more certain that Democrats heading to Atlanta to vote this weekend should give Mayor Pete Buttigieg a chance.
Yes, each of the other candidates brings something to the table. Keith Ellison has connected with the same anger and frustration that helped draw millions to Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign (we should not lose that). Jehmu Greene shows the kind of spirit and straight talk that is currently lacking in most leaders of the two parties in Washington.
Tom Perez would be a good, maybe even a great DNC chairman. He has an uncanny ability to bring people from different viewpoints together, as he did around issues related to overtime rules and trade during his time as labor secretary. He would get the ship in order and be an accessible and open-minded chairman at a time when the party is in serious need of rebuilding.
But the times we are in do not call for safe choices. We may have won the popular vote, but we lost the presidency, and Senate seats in North Carolina, Indiana and even Wisconsin that we should have won. We only picked up six House seats, including three that were the result of redistricting.
We Democrats have spent a lot of time licking our wounds since the election in November. We have debated who was at fault, whether it was a foreign power, a flawed candidate, an angry electorate or a combination.
We need to stop reliving and relitigating what happened and focus all our energy on preventing it from happening again. That means pushing harder for an independent investigation into the Russia hacks of the election, investing in a year-round organizing infrastructure across the country and thinking hard about the kind of people we want to lift up and put forward to represent the future of our party at the local and national level.
For a while we hung on to Barack Obama for dear life. In his final weeks in office, we asked questions about whether he would be vocal in opposing Trump policies, whether he would lead the party in the shadow government, whether Michelle Obama would save us all in 2020. The answer to all those questions is no.
There has been some criticism, fair criticism, of whether he and the Obama apparatus did enough during his time in office to rebuild the party, to stack the bench in local races and to find the next leaders. My bet is he is going to spend some time working on that in the months and even years ahead. He will raise money and help find and train the kind of leaders who will lead our party in the future. But he will be a citizen, not the President or a candidate for office.
It is time for a new voice, even a new set of voices. A proxy fight between the supporters of two former candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – in their seventies and with no plans for higher office – is not a battle that represents the party’s future.
We should be looking out for leaders who can relate to the challenges Americans are facing, who can articulate why they are running for office and who they are fighting for with the kind of authenticity that sent our last two Democratic presidents into the White House.
I am still practicing how to pronounce South Bend Mayor Pete Buttegieg’s last name, though people apparently call him Mayor Pete. But here is what everyone should know. He is a young, energetic, second-term mayor. He was re-elected with 80% of the vote in 2015. He is a military veteran and serves as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, deploying to Afghanistan as recently as 2013. And he is the first openly gay executive to serve in Indiana, a red state.
But even more important than his bio is what he has to say about the future of the Democratic Party and where we go from here. He recognizes what is the most pivotal challenge for Democrats during the Trump presidency. “Yes, we’ve got to take the fight to him,” he said at the CNN debate. “But we can’t let him dominate our imagination, because it’s our values and our candidates that matter.”
This is not just about opposing, about shouting louder than our neighbors, about protesting. That is important, too, and the energy we have seen at town halls, and the grass-roots movement to hold elected officials accountable, is encouraging.
But we also must be focused on rebuilding the party and presenting an optimistic and positive vision for the future, whether that means taking on how we are going to address income inequality or how we will start talking truth about the impact of the rise of automation and technology on communities that have long relied on human labor. People want to vote for something, not just against.
This period is also about the organizing we do on the ground. Howard Dean may have been on to something with the 50-state strategy. We need to stop making it a false choice between focusing on the Southwest, states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and even Ohio, in the Midwest.
The Democratic Party has become a group of Christmastime churchgoers where church is the presidential campaign. We make T-shirts, we door-knock, we organize our hearts out every four years. And then we disengage. This needs to change.
Finally, let’s stop telling ourselves we won. Yes we won the popular vote. Yes we have some great new members of Congress who lend not just new voices, but much needed diversity. But we didn’t win.
On the flip side, let’s not get too depressed. Hillary Clinton won 23 House districts that are currently represented by Republicans. Those are good places to start.
We must be thinking about more than picking a DNC chair — it is much bigger than that. There is still a massive vacuum in the Democratic Party.
For many of the people biting their nails and wondering who will lead the party, the answer is: Maybe you will. It’s not time to just focus on the big names including Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Kamala Harris. Instead, this is a period in which someone — or maybe more than one person – whether a member of Congress, mayor, governor or state senator, is going to rise.
Maybe it will be Mayor Pete, maybe someone we don’t even know yet.
We have little to lose. So why not give Pete a chance?