Democrats Need New Leaders

On November 11, Saturday Night Live ran a parody advertisement (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/11/12/snl-hits-the-nail-on-the-head-the-dnc-is-old-and-out-of-touch/? ) that claimed the leadership of the Democratic Party is old and out of touch.  The skit made public what many Democratic stalwarts have been whispering since the disastrous 2016 presidential election: It’s time for a new generation of Democratic leaders to step forward. This stance is based upon a simple assertion: to win at the national level, Democrats have to attract younger voters and their septuagenarian leaders aren’t capable of doing this.

It’s no secret that the current Democratic leadership is old.  SNL actors portrayed Nancy Pelosi (77), Chuck Schumer (66), Diane Feinstein (84), Hillary Clinton (70), Tim Kaine (59), and Bernie Sanders (76).  (By the way, this past week rumors circulated that former vice-president, Joe Biden, is preparing to launch his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination.)  But it’s overly simplistic to state that Democrats will solve all their problems by deposing their “elders.”

It’s understandable that, in the wake of the 2016 debacle, Democrats would want to “clean house,” to replace the leaders that seem to have contributed to the Trump/Republican victory.  But it’s useful to remember the famous “life cycle of a big project”: stage one is “unwarranted enthusiasm;” stage two “unmitigated disaster;” stage three “hunt for the guilty;” stage four “punishment of the innocent;” and stage five ” promotion of the uninvolved.”  Obviously, Democrats are now in stage three, “hunt for the guilty.”

Who exactly was responsible for the 2016 debacle?  We can start with Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And add the head of the Democratic National Committee, at the time Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  To this we might add the senior folks in the Clinton Campaign such as campaign manager Robbie Mook and campaign chairman John Podesta.

If we move to stage four, “punishment of the innocent,” there are several obvious names from the Democratic opposition:  Bernie Sanders, his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, and his small group of political supporters: Senator Jeff Merkley and nine representatives (Ellison, Gabbard, Grayson, Grijalva, Kapture, Lipinski, Peterson, and Nolan).  Next comes the congressional leadership: should Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer be punished because Clinton lost?  If disgruntled Democrats go down the “punish the innocent” road then there is a long list of prominent Dems that could be blamed: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, and so forth.  Anyone who endorsed Clinton over Sanders could be put on the list.  But is that wise?

Rather than clean house of the septuagenarians or purge everyone who supported Hillary Clinton, Democrats should take a more pragmatic course: which leaders do we absolutely need going forward?  Which leaders, regardless of their age, do the Democrats need to triumph in 2018?

Before answering this question, it’s useful to consider the results of the November 7th election in Virginia.  Democrats did better than expected; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam beat his GOP opponent by nine percentage points — when some had called the race a tossup.  In addition, Democrats picked up at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and, depending upon recounts, possibly a majority.

There are two reasons why Democrats did so well in the Virginia election.  They ran up huge numbers in suburban and exurban districts; more than offsetting large numbers of Trump voters (white, non-college-educated) in rural districts.  And they ran many appealing female candidates — 11 of the 15 House pickups saw Democratic women replace Republican men.

On November 6, 2018, Democrats should prevail if they remember what worked in Virginia: build on the enthusiasm gap in suburban and exurban districts and run appealing female candidates.  Application of these rules should determine the Democratic leadership going forward.

If Democrats are going to feature female candidates in 2018, it doesn’t make any sense to purge the leadership of high-profile women such as Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren.  (Pelosi may be 77 but she’s far from over the hill.)  It does make sense to de-emphasize white male leaders such as Chuck Schumer and Tim Kaine.

For any particular Senate or Congressional district race, the standard ought to be: “which candidate or national advocate can generate enthusiasm?”  The answer will depend upon the particular race.  In 2018, 84-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein is running for reelection against 50-year-old State Senate leader Kevin de León — another Democrat.  The latest Los Angeles Times poll shows Feinstein with a 58 percent to 31 percent lead over de León primarily based upon name recognition — 80 percent of voters did not know enough about de León to form an opinion of him.  (Nonetheless, the very-well-known Feinstein is viewed favorably by only 34 percent of the prospective California voters.)  The Virginia results suggest that if de León increases his name recognition he’ll have a good shot against Feinstein because his voters will be much more enthusiastic than her voters.

Of course the Democratic Party needs new leadership.  Some leaders such as Barack Obama are going to fade away.  Others, mostly older white men, have lost their relevance.

Going forward it’s obvious that the face of the Democratic Party has to change in a way that reflects the actual demographics of the United States — where white non-hispanic males are only 32 percent of the population.  That suggest emphasizing women, in general, and other under-represented minorities.