For Dems, fracas over primary challenges obscures a critical component

Democrats and the pundits who cover them are enjoying (or not) the spotlight that comes with having change boiling inside the party, and the party establishment trying to tamp it down. Getting lost in the excitement is a political imperative – mutual, educational exchange of information from politicians to electorate. And vice versa.

The Democratic Party’s insurgent members of Congress – in the newly Democratic House of Representatives – are creating noisy news both good and (to some) worrisome as they settle into the House committee structure and find the edges of their power defined where they bump up against the residual clout of the established legislative power centers.

Four women of color – Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (styled “AOC” by friend and foe) – have come to symbolize this new strain in the ageing party headed by the aging Nancy Pelosi of California and her lieutenants, the aging Steny Hoyer of our Maryland suburbs and the aging James Clyburn of South Carolina. Two of them – Pressley and AOC – primaried and beat well-established Democratic House members, both of them male. They, and other members of the Democrats’ crew of progressive insurgents, are seen as threatening fragile Democratic control in some purple-ish or even red-ish districts won by Trump but won back by Dems in the 2018 midterm that regained the House for the party. AOC among others has suggested that some less-progressive Democrats could face primaries if they trend too Trumpy in order to placate their voters.

Now the pushback from the Democratic establishment is beginning, with plenty of help from the ever-compliant mainstream media. The pushback is being led by the Democratic National Committee, which (through Rep. Cheri Bustos’ [Ill.] lead on the DCCC, or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is threatening professionals in the campaigns-and-elections employment sector with enforced unemployment if they work for insurgents in future Democratic primaries.

Harold Meyerson, executive editor of American Prospect and longtime DSA member, wrote in the LA Times about how pernicious an idea this is. A seasoned veteran, and chronicler, of campaigns from the left, Meyerson sees this as an even more explosive hazard for a party that depends on skilled professional support for (usually) low-skills political candidates. As he points out, Barack Obama’s 1999 challenge to US Rep. Bobby Rush in his Chicago district (Obama was a state senator at the time) would have disqualified a whole generation of top election operatives.

Bustos’s “new blacklist rule has been backed by her fellow centrists, who are concerned that members like AOC are identifying the party with policies that go beyond the center-left orthodoxy of the pre-Bernie Sanders Democrats,” Meyerson writes. “It also has been supported by some longtime members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who fear challenges from a new generation of Obamas, only this time with AOC’s politics.”

Jacob Weindling, writing in Paste, quotes a DCCC memo: “The core mission of the DCCC is electing House Democrats, which includes supporting and protecting incumbents.” And he further quotes a National Journal account saying the memo -- threatening that the DCCC would withhold contracts from about 100 big-time professional campaigns-and-elections firms for working for incumbents’ primary opponents -- was deliberately timed in advance of the primary hiring season for the 2020 election. The DCCC threat “presents a stark financial deterrent to the country’s top firms that provide essential services ranging from polling to TV advertising to strategy. It could cripple would-be primary opponents’ ability to entice top talent to join their staff.”

Ocasio-Cortez, atop a social media collective stretching well outside her Bronx-Queens district, responds that the DCCC might find its fundraising arm boycotted by donors supporting individual, progressive candidates instead, as Charlotte Alter recounts in the Time cover treatment.

Meyerson, acutely, laments that Bustos’s effort “will effectively freeze the party’s congressional delegation as is, delaying the legislative impact of the massive, and in large part generational movement of rank-and-file Democrats to the left.” That, Meyerson adds, amplifies “the potential vulnerabilities that often come with long incumbency: growing out of touch with rapidly transforming districts [which] will turn off many in the Democrats’ leftward-moving base.”

The fearful DCCC Democrats are, along with actually “freezing” the party’s Congressional incumbents in effect is also also conceptually freezing an electorate that – as we know, in Maryland and across the country – is actually trending progressive in important ways. The insurgents’ success in turning their signature issues -- like Medicare for All, cutting college costs and indebtedness, raising working-family incomes and the multiple benefits of the many- faceted Green New Deal -- from fringe notions to powerful near-term prospects shows where that electorate is going.

The job of political figures who take their roles seriously has always been educational – to bring their electorate along as they illustrate and demonstrate the pathways to better lives for individuals and the community. That’s what skilled politicians do, after skilled operatives have helped them get elected by measured educational practices. And, in turn, they learn from the electorate the edges of what they can accomplish, with a measured level of courage.

The DNC-DCCC circling of the wagons around incumbents actively depresses that informational-educational exchange, freezing both the incumbents and their view of the electorate in a little glass globe of politics-as-usual until it is shaken up, and turned upside down, by outside forces. The total mendacity of the Trump campaign did just that – in the short term. Democrats who cravenly coddle what they see as a Trump-addled electorate, however, won’t last. Trump’s carpet-bombed pack of lies soon enough shows itself as fantasy because of its stark contrast with the lives that people in those purple-ish districts continue to live, every day. If the elections consultant establishment – the one Meyerson worries about -- can’t gin up campaigns that billboard Trump’s failed promises in stark relief while effectively articulating the real solutions in Trump-addled communities – well, the newer cohort of political operatives, including many DSA members getting their spurs every day, may in effect primary the consultancy old guard as well.

Hillary didn’t lose because John Podesta’s emails got hacked – she lost because John Podesta was John Podesta.

Those purple-district voters don’t need, and will come to mistrust, incumbents who numbly agree with Trump. Incumbents who can’t – or won’t -- raise and defend the standard of proof in their own communities deserve to be ousted in primaries, and will be. It’s the progressives in the Democratic Party, learning reciprocally and actively with their communities and equipped with genuine solutions, who are in it for the long haul, with a long view to match.

A version of this article was first published April 12 in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace.

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