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The Party Bosses Decide

Democratic Party elders are making the usual primary mistakes

As our logorrheic Strongman-in-Chief dials in a virtual confession of criminal conspiracy to his favorite cable chat show, it seems like a good time to check in on the gang of political professionals entrusted with the urgent task of upending Republican mono-party rule in Washington during the coming midterm cycle. How fares the Resistance, in its guise as a trademarked subsidiary of the Democratic Party?

Well, Dear Reader, it doesn’t look good. In a revealing scoop for The Intercept, Lee Fang published a tape-recorded account of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland leaning on a left-leaning candidate in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, Levi Tillemann, to bow out of the party primary in favor of a more conservative pro-business Democrat, Jason Crow. Hoyer, calling on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), laid out how the kingpins there channel its multimillion-dollar budget into key races the party thinks it can win in Republican districts like Colorado’s Sixth. The DCCC, he explained, aggressively pursues a “policy that early on, we’d try to agree on a candidate who we thought could win the general and give the candidate all the help we could give them,” and Crow was the happy beneficiary of that determination. “Yeah, I’m for Crow,” Hoyer said. “I am for Crow because a judgment was made very early on. I didn’t know Crow. I didn’t participate in the decision. But a decision was made early on by the Colorado delegation.”

Tillemann, a former Obama Energy Department appointee who supports Medicare for all, reasonably countered that this policy skewed critical primary races toward candidates preferred by remote party elites rather than activists and other engaged voters on the ground in House races throughout the country. “So your position is, a decision was made very early on before voters had a say, and that’s fine because the DCCC knows better than the voters of the Sixth Congressional District, and we should line up behind that candidate,” he noted archly. And with some creditable candor, Hoyer replied, “That’s certainly a consequence of our decision.”

Meanwhile, per Fang’s Intercept colleague Ryan Grim, an uglier version of the party establishment dissent-throttling strategy has taken shape in New York’s Twenty-fourth District. There the Bernie Sanders-affiliated frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Dana Balter, has faced a last-minute challenge from another DCCC-anointed candidate, Juanita Perez Williams, who boasts, among other establishment credentials, an opposition to abortion rights on her resume.

“The party decides,” we are told, but like most Washington shibboleths, this one covers up a world of plain incompetence and professional-class myopia.

But it seems in this instance that national Democratic Party bosses weren’t merely content with using their financial clout to bigfoot primary outcomes: many of the 3,200 signatures on Perez Williams’s qualifying petition appear to be “improper and invalid,” in the judgment of Diane Dwire of the Onondaga County Democratic Committee—meaning that names and towns do not match up in many cases, or that signatories are not, in fact, registered Democrats. Activist resentment of the DCCC’s strong-arm tactics in this race is so robust that Dwire and a team of pro bono volunteers took it upon themselves to scrutinize the petitions the Perez Williams campaign submitted; so far they’ve identified some 2,400 signatures that appear to be compromised. Toggle over to the Texas Seventh Congressional District for the saga of how the DCCC’s thuggish sachems actually paid for negative primary campaign ads against Laura Moser, a prominent Trump resistance activist. (The coverage of that debacle was so devastating that Moser enjoyed a major infusion of grassroots donor funds as a result, forcing a May 22 runoff with Lizzie Fletcher, the DCCC’s insider pick there.)

There is, of course, a bit of hackish D.C. conventional wisdom that justifies such mobbed-up tactics: the party decides on its preferred candidate field, we’re all assured. And it’s critical for the party’s success, as Hoyer told Tillemann, that the party’s leadership allocate its resources in races most likely to net a win in the November general balloting. (In his phone confab with candidate Tillemann, Stoyer sought to drive his point home with an ill-advised parallel between Tillemann’s entirely above board bid for the Democratic nomination and the doomed insurgent senatorial run of Alabama fundie icon and apparent serial pederast Roy Moore.)

But like most Washington shibboleths, this one covers up a world of plain incompetence and professional-class myopia. To begin with the obvious, it’s not exactly true that the DCCC has accrued a distinguished track record in recent midterm contests. Even in the Democratic wave election of 2006, the party’s D.C. pooh-bahs enthusiastically lined up behind a string of centrist-to-right-leaning candidates who flamed out in the general; this was how DCCC head Rahm Emanuel abjured then- DNC chairman Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy of engaging the nation’s outrage over the miasmic Bush track record at the grassroots.

Among other things, the legacy of the 2006 midterms has left congressional Democrats without a firm infrastructure for harnessing populist reform sentiments within the ranks of the notional party of the people: time and again, the Democrats have sought to woo a mythic strain of disaffected centrist voters to swing general election results their way—and time and again that strategy has proven an unqualified failure. As a result, the geniuses atop the Democratic establishment have presided over a world-historic decline in party influence at the national, state, and local level—so that the Democrats’ electoral clout now stands at its lowest ebb since 1924, the height of Republican national dominance in the twentieth century.

This state of tactical sclerosis also reflects a striking drift into gerontocracy on the Democratic side—an awkward look for the party that styles itself the vanguardist voice of reform and new ideas in the American two-party system. In lieu of the sort of dizzying churn that routinely purges GOP leaders from perches of national influence, the drama of Democratic Party control resembles nothing so much as the torpid, unchanging status quo in a banana republic or a monarchy. Hence political observers have to play-act interest in the struggle for House Democratic power that—in the event of a battle to become the new Speaker of a Democratic House—could see seventy-eight-year-old corporate fundraiser Steny Hoyer supplant seventy-eight-year-old corporate fundraiser Nancy Pelosi. Dig the new breed!

The party hacks are out in full force, like a plague of Spring cicadas, chirping the same old talking points about the higher wisdom of a Democratic agenda that won’t inspire anyone to do much of anything.

Nevertheless, as the crucial 2018 midterm cycle lurches into gear, the party hacks are out in full force, like a plague of Spring cicadas, chirping the played-out neoliberal talking points about the higher wisdom of a Democratic agenda that won’t inspire anyone to do much of anything—anyone, that is, who’s not a big-ticket donor. Last year, no less an eminence than Rahm Emanuel himself—the diehard foe of the fifty-state strategy who now is spending the bulk of his time attacking teachers unions and fleecing Chicago on behalf of the rentier class—took to the obligingly quisling pages of The Atlantic to argue (with fellow centrist hack Bruce Reed) that all the Democrats need to win in 2018 is to copy his brilliant 2006 playbook. The maximum leader of congressional Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, has been warning 2018 candidates off any talk of impeaching Trump, insisting that invoking oversight duties of the congressional opposition is somehow “a gift to Republicans” and that the “serious matter” of impeachment “has to be a bipartisan initiative.” You know: just like the Republican members of the House did all throughout the Obama years. (Just kidding, everyone.) Amid such high-profile pearl clutching, it was heart-warming to see Pelosi—who launched her electoral career by bigfooting her way into her San Francisco and Marin County district race thanks to her own distinguished achievements as a fundraiser—managed to read into the congressional record a posthumous appreciation of professional austerity ghoul Pete Peterson; the very sort of person, in other words, that any sanely populist Democratic Party would regard as a mortal enemy. Instead, the House Speaker-in-waiting delivered a wide-eyed panegyric steeped in horseshit like this:

[Peterson’]s prophetic voice on the importance of fiscal sustainability brought together generations of policy makers no matter their political background to find common ground and effect solutions.  His strong moral leadership to ensure our children and grandchildren inherit a healthy fiscal future leaves a remarkable legacy.

Another fake-truism of the D.C. scene is that a liberal is someone too principled to take their own side in a fight; indeed, the general consensus among our elite election-watchers is that Democrats are just too high-minded to go for the jugular the way the bloodthirsty ideologues charting GOP strategy do. But as the party leadership’s antics show in painful detail, principled conflict aversion is hardly what ails today’s Democratic Party. No, the Pelosis, Schumers, Hoyers, Podestas, et al., simply understand that a genuinely reform-minded, populist Democratic Party represents a direct threat to their collective livelihoods, and to their New Democratic vision of liberalism as the plutocracy’s cultural agenda of first resort. Just ponder this no-nonsense appraisal of Pelosi’s otherwise inexplicable staying power in an admiring profile by The Atlantic’s Andy Kroll:

According to her office, she attended 750 fundraising and campaign events in 115 cities in 2013 and 2014, raising an eye-popping $101 million for congressional Democrats and the DCCC. All of which makes her in many ways uniquely suited to a time in which money rules politics. “I don’t think she’s going anywhere anytime soon,” the source close to Pelosi told me. “She is the only one who can raise the amount of money needed to compete in this era of virtually no campaign-finance regulations.”

And there you have it: Nancy Pelosi generates the donor revenue that Steny Hoyer and other designated establishment apparatchiks use to pick favorites and bully out reformist voices in primary contests. It’s small wonder that a party leadership so accustomed to bribing its way into a position of maximum influence should profess fondness for the Pete Petersons of the world; he, too, managed to get a stunningly unpopular and unjust economic agenda before the front ranks of power on the strength of nothing more than his donor largesse. The only real difference here is that Pete Peterson never professed to represent a movement of mass Resistance to the excesses of Trumpian corporate power—and that the balance of democratic self-rule didn’t hinge on his own tactical incompetence.