Tom Perez: Figure from a Forgettable Past

Barack Obama and Tom Perez (Photo by Pete Souza)

The election of Tom Perez as chairman of the Democratic National Committee was a mistake. It is stupid politics because, rather than advancing the party into a clear future (and away from a losing past), it prolongs and deepens the divide between an establishment that just blew an election to you-know-who and an insurgent wing that wants to take the party back to the progressive policies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Antiphonal voices are rising from the establishment now, one side singing, “The progressives have no other place to go than the party,” the other intoning, “Shut up and get in line; you lost and now it’s time to unite.” Here’s what’s wrong with each chorus.

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The progressives can go the same places they did in 2016. They can vote Democratic, they can go Green, or they can stay home. Between Bernie Sanders’ supporters and African-American Democrats, enough took the latter two options in November to kill off Hillary Clinton. What establishment (read Clinton-Obama) Democrats still fail to grasp is that those people are horrified by Donald Trump, but not put off in the least by Clinton’s political demise. Here’s a bet you can put in the bank: they’ll be there in 2018 to vote for Democrats. But 2020, the presidential year, is quite another matter.

As to uniting the party, it can happen in only one way. If Elizabeth Warren and her kind bolt the party, either to join Sanders as independents, or to join the Greens or form a new party, then what’s left of the Democrats will be united, thinking they represent a political center that in fact does not exist. That’s about as likely as a second term for Trump. So what lies ahead for Democrats is a continuing struggle for the soul of their party, to be decided only in 2020, with the selection of a new presidential nominee. That primary fight will pit a new Democrat against an old one – a Clinton-Obama-Perez-style tool of Wall Street against a Sanders-Warren-style economic populist. Either can probably win the general election, but if it’s the former, he or she will have put the final nail in the party’s coffin.

Democrats struggle for party’s soul

Among the many important facts that seem to have eluded the party’s elite is this: Sanders’ campaign, not Clinton’s, was a huge builder for the party, but the edifice he constructed is fragile and can prove quite temporary. Clinton’s supporters insisted that he was not even a Democrat, and that she, by spreading her enormous campaign treasury around state parties, was the party loyalist. In fact, he was the one bringing in new voters, and what she was up to was purchasing the loyalty of the superdelegates who secured the nomination for her.

So the next question is, what is the Democratic Party? Notwithstanding a lack of standard entrance criteria, it is a private organization at its core, which allows the party elites to treat it like one of the country clubs to which they also belong. The base, though, is increasingly young and increasingly progressive, and what they want it to be is a movement. They’ve just been disappointed again.

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Why are they so disappointed at the Perez election? Because he is a spineless, toadying coward who does not have the moral fiber to stand up to monied interests. He is one of the people who gave us Hillary Clinton as a nominee and, thus, Donald Trump as president. Which is why he is where he is.

Perez once worked for the Obama Department of Justice, as assistant attorney general for civil rights. A number of large banks, including Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase and Steven Mnuchin’s OneWest, were caught foreclosing mortgages on military service members who were serving in the various undeclared wars. This was a criminal violation, and the bankers could have been prosecuted and sent to prison. They were not. Who made that decision? Tom Perez.

No doubt he would have had to buck the will of President Obama and that of Attorney General Eric Holder to do it. Holder, in a too-big-to-fail argument, warned of “collateral consequences” of prosecuting big bankers. But the point is, Holder’s failure became Perez’s failure. Because he is a spineless tool of Wall Street.

Same thing when Perez was Secretary of Labor. In that job, he was able to grant waivers to banks whose brass wanted to manage pension funds, even though law forbade their doing so if they were guilty of certain crimes. UBS, Barclays, JPMorgan, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland Group got the waivers anyway, although guilty of rigging foreign exchange markets.  Because Tom Perez is a gutless front for big banks.

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Same thing during the fight for the chairmanship. Perez publicly admitted that the nomination process had been rigged for Clinton, then walked back the statement when big contributors complained. Because he is their cowardly tool.

There is nothing in Perez’s background to suggest that a 50-state strategy, a la Howard Dean and Sanders, is in his plans. To win the presidency – which they’ve failed to do half the time – they’ve put resources only into places where they think they already have a good chance of winning. The strategy has destroyed the party at its roots. Meantime, they’ve advanced social causes while utterly failing to address the economic anguish of a working class that hasn’t seen a collective raise in half a century.

There are Democrats, and Democratic-leaning independents like Sanders, who not only listen, but hear the young people who are the party’s future. Those people are not particularly interested in the old social issues, not because those issues are unimportant, but because compliance with their opinions on those issues is taken for granted. What they are interested in is economic justice. If you believe in that, and you’re willing to do something about it, they don’t care whether you call yourself a Democrat, a Green, a Socialist, or something else. They’ll be for you.

Finally, a word about Keith Ellison, the Muslim, African-American progressive congressman from Minnesota who lost the DNC chairmanship to Perez. He accepted the vice chairmanship in an apparently pre-arranged gesture, but jeers from young people at the meeting met that news. Ellison was hardly a perfect candidate. He had a past with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, with all of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. Sanders, a Jew, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York backed him anyway, so they obviously believed Ellison had his head right about that. But Ellison’s own religion would have made a powerful statement of tolerance. And his economic populism was the right stance at the right time.

The Clinton-Obama wing, which sold the party to Wall Street 25 years ago, wouldn’t have it.