Members of the Democratic National Committee will meet on Saturday to choose their new chair, replacing the disgraced interim chair Donna Brazile, who replaced the disgraced five-year chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Even though the outcome is extremely unlikely to change the (failed) fundamentals of the party, the race has become something of an impassioned proxy war replicating the 2016 primary fight: between the Clinton/Obama establishment wing (which largely backs Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who vehemently supported Clinton) and the insurgent Sanders wing (which backs Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress, who was an early Sanders supporter).
The New Republic’s Clio Chang has a great, detailed analysis of the contest. She asks the key question about Perez’s candidacy that has long hovered and yet has never been answered. As Chang correctly notes, supporters of Perez insist, not unreasonably, that he is materially indistinguishable from Ellison in terms of ideology (despite his support for TPP, seemingly grounded in loyalty to Obama). This, she argues, is “why the case for Tom Perez makes no sense”: After all, “if Perez is like Ellison — in both his politics and ideology — why bother fielding him in the first place?”
The timeline here is critical. Ellison announced his candidacy on November 15, armed with endorsements that spanned the range of the party: Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Raúl Grijalva, and various unions on the left, along with establishment stalwarts such as Chuck Schumer, Amy Klobuchar, and Harry Reid. He looked to be the clear frontrunner.
But as Ellison’s momentum built, the Obama White House worked to recruit Perez to run against Ellison. They succeeded, and Perez announced his candidacy on December 15 — a full month after Ellison announced. Why did the White House work to recruit someone to sink Ellison? If Perez and Ellison are so ideologically indistinguishable, why was it so important to the Obama circle — and the Clinton circle — to find someone capable of preventing Ellison’s election? What’s the rationale? None has ever been provided.
I can’t recommend Chang’s analysis highly enough on one key aspect of what motivated the recruitment of Perez: to ensure that the Democratic establishment maintains its fatal grip on the party and, in particular, to prevent Sanders followers from having any say in the party’s direction and identity:
There is one real difference between the two: Ellison has captured the support of the left wing. … It appears that the underlying reason some Democrats prefer Perez over Ellison has nothing to do with ideology, but rather his loyalty to the Obama wing. As the head of the DNC, Perez would allow that wing to retain more control, even if Obama-ites are loath to admit it. …
And it’s not just Obama- and Clinton-ites that could see some power slip away with an Ellison-headed DNC. Paid DNC consultants also have a vested interest in maintaining the DNC status quo. Nomiki Konst, who has extensively covered the nuts and bolts of the DNC race, asked Perez how he felt about conflicts of interest within the committee — specifically, DNC members who also have contracts with the committee. Perez dodged the issue, advocating for a “big tent.” In contrast, in a forum last month, Ellison firmly stated, “We are battling the consultant-ocracy.”
In other words, Perez, despite his progressive credentials, is viewed — with good reason — as a reliable functionary and trustworthy loyalist by those who have controlled the party and run it into the ground, whereas Ellison is viewed as an outsider who may not be as controllable and, worse, may lead the Sanders contingent to perceive that they have been integrated into and empowered within the party.
But there’s an uglier and tawdrier aspect to this. Just over two weeks after Ellison announced, the largest single funder of both the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign — the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban — launched an incredibly toxic attack on Ellison, designed to signal his veto. “He is clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,” pronounced Saban about the African-American Muslim congressman, adding: “Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
Saban has a long history not only of fanatical support for Israel — “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” he told the New York Times in 2004 about himself — but also an ugly track record of animus toward Muslims. As The Forward gently put it, he is prone to “a bit of anti-Muslim bigotry,” including when he said Muslims deserve “more scrutiny” and “also called for profiling and broader surveillance.” In 2014, he teamed up with right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson to push a pro-Israel agenda. In that notorious NYT profile, he attacked the ACLU for opposing Bush/Cheney civil liberties assaults and said: “On the issues of security and terrorism I am a total hawk.”
There’s no evidence that Saban’s attack on Ellison is what motivated the White House to recruit an opponent. But one would have to be indescribably naïve about the ways of Washington to believe that such a vicious denunciation by one of the party’s most influential billionaire funders had no effect at all.
The DNC headquarters was built with Saban’s largesse: He donated $7 million to build that building, and he previously served as chairman of the party’s capital-expenditure campaign. Here’s how Mother Jones’s Andy Kroll, in a November profile, described the influence Saban wields within elite Democratic circles:
No single political patron has done more for the Clintons over the span of their careers. In the past 20 years, Saban and his wife have donated $2.4 million to the Clintons’ various campaigns and at least $15 million to the Clinton Foundation, where Cheryl Saban serves as a board member. Haim Saban prides himself on his top-giver status: “If I’m not No. 1, I’m going to cut my balls off,” he once remarked on the eve of a Hillary fundraiser. The Sabans have given more than $10 million to Priorities USA, making them among the largest funders of the pro-Hillary super-PAC. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, he vowed to spend “whatever it takes” to elect her. …
The ties go beyond money. The Clintons have flown on the Sabans’ private jet, stayed at their LA home, and vacationed at their Acapulco estate. The two families watched the 2004 election results together at the Clintons’ home, and Bill Clinton gave the final toast at one of Cheryl Saban’s birthday parties. Haim Saban is chummy enough with Hillary that he felt comfortable telling her that she sounded too shrill on the stump. “Why are you shouting all the time?” he says he told her. “It’s drilling a hole in my head.” Clinton campaign emails released by WikiLeaks in October contain dozens of messages to, from, and referencing Saban. And they show that he has no qualms about pressing Clinton and her aides on her position toward Israel. “She needs to differentiate herself from Obama on Israel,” he wrote in June 2015 to Clinton’s top aides.
When Clinton, during the campaign, denounced the boycott movement devoted to defeating Israeli occupation, she did it in the form of public letter to Saban. To believe that Democrats assign no weight to Saban’s adamantly stated veto of Ellison is to believe in the tooth fairy.
Saban’s attack predictably spawned media reports that Jewish groups had grown “uncomfortable” with Ellison’s candidacy (the ADL pronounced his past criticisms of Israel “disqualifying”), while whispers arose that the last thing the Democratic Party needed to win back Rust Belt voters was a black Muslim as the face of the party (even though the Detroit-born Ellison himself is from the Rust Belt).
As both Chang and Vox’s Jeff Stein have argued, the fact that DNC chair is a largely functionary position, with little real power over party policy or messaging, is all the more reason to throw Sanders supporters a symbolic bone. If Democrats were smart, this would be the perfect opportunity to capture that energized left-wing movement without having to make any real concessions on what matters most to them: loyalty to their corporate donor base.
But it’s hard to conclude that a party that has navigated itself into such collapse, which deliberately and knowingly chose the weakest candidate, who managed to lose to Donald J. Trump, is one that is thinking wisely and strategically. As Chang persuasively argues, it seems Democratic leaders prioritize ensuring that the left has no influence in their party over strengthening itself to beat the Trump-led Republicans:
The same could be said of today’s battle over the DNC and the push to install a loyal technocrat like Perez. This reluctance to cede control comes despite the fact that Democrats have lost over 1,000 state legislature seats since 2009. There is no case for Perez that cannot be made for Ellison, while Ellison is able to energize progressives in ways that Perez cannot. The question that will be answered on Saturday is whether Democrats have more urgent priorities than denying power to the left.
That view, one must grant, is deeply cynical of Democratic leaders. But — besides fearing the wrath of Saban — what else can explain why they were so eager to recruit someone to block Keith Ellison?
If the plan to sink Ellison succeeds, the message that will be heard — fairly or not — is that the Democratic Party continues to venerate loyalty to its oligarchical donors above all else, and that preventing left-wing influence is a critical goal. In other words, the message will be that the party — which to date has refused to engage in any form of self-reckoning — is steadfastly committed to following exactly the same course, led by the same factions, that has ushered in such disaster.
Top photo: U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison during a press conference at the Farview Recreation Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Nov. 30, 2015.