Democratic Party’s “Democratic Values” Omit Democratic Process

Rigging nominations may or not win elections, but it’s despicable

The Democratic Party is showing some ugly faces these days, as entrenched party leaders find both their president and much of their constituency headed in directions that the “party” disapproves. From Sen. Chuck Schumer choosing to risk war to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz stifling supporters of her party’s president and the peace deal with Iran, to the insurgent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, party leaders find themselves leading toward goals widely rejected by others.

This is actually a hopeful sign – that there’s resistance. But the struggle to define Democratic values as more than just another oxymoron is still in its early stages. It’s also something of a shadowy war in which the party “leaders” seek to deny insurgents oxygen by limiting the number of debates, thereby helping Hillary Clinton ascend to her predicted coronation as the party’s nominee. Another way of looking at that is that the party “leadership” is engaged in a delicate game of attempted vote-rigging by ignorance. What about that can be good for the party, never mind the country?

Leading up to the recent Democratic National Committee (DNC) summer meeting August 26-29, the National Journal (NJ) offered an unintentionally hilarious “insider” assessment of the state of the Democratic Party. “Looming” over the meeting, NJ pontificated, was: A Bernie breakthrough? A Hillary resurgence? O’Malley coming up on the outside? No, none of those. What loomed over the meeting was “Joe Biden’s phantom candidacy.” Seriously, according to NJ, Biden was getting “much of the buzz” from the party delegates even though he wasn’t even attending the meeting. NJ quotes two of the DNC’s 450 members as wanting an “interesting race” and not wanting an “anointed candidate” (the unnamed Hillary Clinton). NJ had no trouble mentioning Clinton over and over in its story, treating her as the only looming alternative to Biden (who had a conference call with DNC members on August 26).

So what might these insider tea leaves mean? Apparently the party hierarchy is pretty much solidly behind Clinton and willing to rig the rules (on debates, for example) in her favor. And one might infer that, whatever dissatisfaction the party leaders might have with Clinton, they have no interest in Bernie Sanders or anyone else. NJ doesn’t even mention Bernie till the last paragraph, and then only to say he will be speaking. NPR, on the other hand, wonders if this is “2008 all over again?” when the “unbeatable” Clinton lost to another insurgent. So there’s some ferment in our official media.

Contending for the lead doesn’t make you visible in all media 

Omission is a pretty odd way to treat a candidate who is competitive in the first two primary states. In Iowa, Sanders has come from 50 points behind Clinton to trail by just seven, and he leads her in New Hampshire. So it looks like the party poobahs are willfully trying to ignore a candidate who they desperately hope against hope will fade. And it seems designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of the wishful calculation that Sanders “can’t” survive Super Tuesday. But it’s still a long way to February 1 when the Iowa caucuses set the real circus on the road (with or without Joe Biden), when the party begins to choose some 3,700 delegates to the Philadelphia convention July 25-28, 2016.

To become the party’s nominee for president, a candidate will need roughly 2,242 delegate votes. That number represents one more than 50% of all the delegate votes (4,483), representing the roughly 3,700 elected delegates together with 450 DNC member-delegates and more than 250 elected-official/dignitary-delegates.

Democratic “leaders” are apparently indulging their dislike of Bernie Sanders so much that their pique threatens to align them with a minority of American voters, committed to nominating a damaged candidate with a 55% disapproval rating, and 43% favorable (Sanders is 36% favorable, 29% disapproval, with 33% still unsure). As the certified frontrunner, Clinton remains well ahead of Sanders in national polling, but recently there have been media pieces like the September 1 Huff Post story headlined:

Polling Trajectory Shows Bernie Sanders Winning the Democratic Nomination. It’s Time for America to Notice.

It might also be time for the DNC decision-makers to notice, too, and to level the playing field to allow a more democratic process to choose the candidate. If they’re given a fair opportunity, Democratic primary voters might even choose a truly Democratic candidate for the first time in decades.

At the DNC meeting, campaign reps were lobbying delegates to commit to their candidates, but reports suggest there are few committed delegates yet. Clinton reportedly has more than anyone else, but reporting suggests her total may be fewer than ten.

DNC meeting hears four candidates in beauty-contest setting 

Four of the five declared Democratic candidates spoke to the DNC in alphabetical order (Jim Webb did not attend), which turned out to be in increasing order of intensity, substance, and specificity. They were all in agreement in a general way about basic domestic issues and “re-building the American Dream.” They all avoided direct criticism of each other and they all had sharp lines about Republican failures. It was all on C-Span, where differences, both subtle and glaring, emerged, including these:

Lincoln Chaffee spoke only eight minutes (everyone else would go over twenty), mostly in genial generalizations. But he pointedly expressed pride in voting against Sam Alito for the Supreme Court.  Of Democrats generally, he said, “We’re right on income inequality,” as well as healthcare, and immigration, and the environment – without getting specific about any of them.

Chaffee said he supported the Iran deal, not just on its merits – keeping Iran from building a nuclear weapon – but also because the deal was the result of important international cooperation among the US, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany in negotiations that began in 2003 (joined by the US in 2006). He was alone in saying that that kind of cooperation was needed to solve the world’s most serious problems.

And only Chaffee called for ending all American conflicts overseas, calling them “Republican wars.” He did not offer specifics.

Hillary Clinton also spoke mostly in familiar generalities – in support of women, children, the middle class, and working class families. She also took a series of shots at Republican Donald Trump. Clinton said she’s worked her “whole life” to even the odds for the poor and middle class. She mostly spoke in a flat, polished manner, carefully waiting at the expected applause lines. She made clear that she was still running as Bill Clinton’s wife. (The New York Times falsely reported that she delivered “a fiery speech” and “a red-meat speech.”) Clinton hit most of the party’s major domestic policy clichés without any strong show of passion, punctuating her points with lots of deadpan head nodding.

At the end, Clinton promised to help re-build the Democratic Party, a thinly-veiled criticism  of the party’s present leadership, including the president. She promised to help candidates up and down the ticket nationwide.

Martin O’Malley didn’t veil his criticism of the party’s leadership, lashing out at policy (but not naming names). He called the party’s decision to have only four debates before the primaries a “rigged process” that left the Democratic Party largely silent and unresponsive to unacceptable Republican racism and trickle-down economics. He particularly mocked the party’s scheduling of the one New Hampshire debate in the middle of the holiday shopping season when almost no one would watch. “This is no time for silence,” O’Malley said, “we need debate.”

O’Malley lamented the party’s abandonment of a 50-state strategy, a reference to former party chair Howard Dean’s effort to turn the Democrats into a truly national party. He proclaimed that “we are the Democratic Party, not the undemocratic party.”

But he also touted a fake populism, saying people could make change on their own, claiming that it was “not about big banks, big money taking over elections  – it’s about us.” That was a not-so-veiled jab at the Sanders campaign, with O’Malley claiming he, too, has progressive values. But O’Malley offered no justification for leaving banks too big to fail or allowing big money to buy politicians. This seems to position him as the “populist” alternative to Sanders, but the one who won’t do anything serious to disturb the status quo.

Bernie Sanders was attending his first DNC meeting. After thanking his audience of Democrats “for what you do” for the good of the country, he noted that his campaign “calling for a political revolution” was striking a chord in grassroots America. He compared the current enthusiasm for his message to the Democrats’ “abysmal” showing in 2014, when low turnout contributed to Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress:

In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate or the U.S. House, will not be successful in dozens of governor races across the country, unless we generate excitement and momentum and produce a huge voter turnout. With all due respect – and I do not mean to insult anyone here – that turnout, that enthusiasm, will not happen with politics as usual. The same old same old will not work.

The people of our country understand that given the collapse of the American middle class, and given the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing, we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics – what we need is a government willing to take on the billionaire class …

Sanders spoke with his usual energy and intensity, enumerating many specific positions unmentioned by others. These included defeating the TPP, rebuilding US infrastructure, ending “cowardly voting suppression by cowardly Republican governors,” leading the world away from fossil fuels, defeating the Keystone XL pipeline, providing free college tuition to all Americans by taxing Wall Street speculation, providing quality childcare, and expanding Social Security.

Sanders, like Chaffee, affirmed that he stands with the president on the Iran deal.

How divisive is the Iran accord for the Democratic Party? 

In the twelve years since negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons, Iran has started no wars. Compare that record with the United States. Or Israel. Or even Saudi Arabia. Then ask yourself why you believe Iran is part of an “axis of evil” (if you do believe that). The reality is that Iran has been successfully demonized beyond all rational reality. Iran is even helping the US and others fight ISIS.

All the same, US senators like Schumer and others are willing to turn on their party’s president, ready to reject a pact negotiated not just by the US but an international coalition with a wide spectrum of interests, none of which is a nuclear-armed Iran. Hillary Clinton endorsed the deal almost as soon as it was announced. Sanders endorsed the deal. But when an apparent majority of members of the DNC proposed a resolution endorsing the Iran deal, DNC chair Wasserman Schultz barred the DNC from voting on it.

The Iranian nuclear bomb program has never been much more real than President Obama’s Kenyan citizenship, yet there are those who fervently believe in each imaginary horror who will not be swayed by any evidence of an actual reality. With potentially game-changing opportunities of such vitality at home and abroad, it bodes ill for democratic values for the Democratic Party to be so heavily influenced by people so deeply in denial.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.