Democrats, we need this new direction

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(CNN) — After Tuesday’s election, Republicans will continue to hold power in 67 of the 98 state chambers, and, for the first time in history, will control every statehouse in the South. Republicans also upped their control of governors’ mansions to 33 by winning races in Missouri, Vermont and New Hampshire (the North Carolina race is still undecided).

Finally, notwithstanding tiny gains Tuesday by Democrats in congressional races, Republicans still hold a near-record margin in the House of Representatives (because of the 2010 shellacking in which Republicans gained 63 seats) and will likely increase their slim Senate majority in 2018 when the electoral map appears quite hostile to Democrats.

Broadly speaking, the Democratic Party has shrinking power and influence over the shaping of public policy.

This new era of Republican control in Washington has startled — some might say shocked — many Democrats. However, looking a bit deeper, it shouldn’t be a surprise; the party’s national leadership has been a colossal failure for a long time. That makes the choice of who will lead the Democratic National Committee — and steer the direction of a renewed party — a matter of survival.

And it has only itself to blame. This isn’t simply a reflection of the incompetence of DNC leaders such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, or the foisting on us of a truly weak presidential candidate. It goes to the core of what the party stands for and the guiding principles of its leaders.

We need new leadership, and as Sen. Bernie Sanders has argued persuasively, Rep. Keith Ellison fits that bill.

As I wrote this week, for a quarter of a century, the party embraced Clintonomics as a central guiding principle. Clintonomics, boiled down to its essence, is a kinder, gentler neoliberal philosophy: It embraces so-called free trade, deregulation, extols the free market and worships the “honest” financial sector (partly for campaign contributions), all with a light touch of regulation and meek taxes on the wealthy.

But that philosophy has been a resounding failure, not just in this country but around the world. Seeds of the revolt against Clinton-like neoliberalism can be found in the many rejections of governments in Europe and elsewhere. And, indeed, that anger, in many instances, has spawned Trump-like racism and bigotry.

When Wasserman Schultz was shown the door (because of her manipulation of the party’s primary contest on behalf of Hillary Clinton — and because the party lost 910 state legislative seats during Barack Obama’s presidency, the names of a number of possible replacements surfaced. Those included elected officials, longtime party activists and some leaders of Democratic-affiliated organizations. Most of them are precisely not the people the party needs.

It’s not that former governors, past members of Congress or heads of advocacy groups are not competent. It is that they have either been longtime advocates of Clintonomics or, while the party spiraled downward in loss after loss because neoliberalism-lite alienated voters who had been robbed of their jobs and livelihoods, they sat silently at the DNC or in Washington.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is now in the race. Dean is running on his past advocacy of a 50-state political strategy and an undeserved reputation as a progressive. I give credit to Dean for speaking up against the Iraq War when, in the wake of 9/11, most Democrats were cowering before George W. Bush.

But, on economics, he was a pretty moderate governor who embraced most of the failed principles of Clintonomics. More recently, he’s turned into a classic political insider. He’s been working for a firm that lobbies the health care industry. He is the absolute wrong person to head up the party.

Ellison, however, is the right DNC chair to lead the party forward. He represents an urban-suburban district in Minnesota that is quite diverse: two-thirds white, 18% black, 9% Hispanic and 5% Asian. He is a Muslim. In other words, he understands, and can speak to, a huge swath of the public on matters of justice, race and tolerance.

Ellison was one of the few elected officials to support Sanders. But more important he rejects the model of the Democrats as a big-donor, Wall Street-driven party. As co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus — the largest Democratic caucus — Ellison has espoused for many years the principles that Sanders ran on in 2016, principles I believe would have carried Sanders to the White House had he been the Democratic nominee: Medicare for all, free college tuition, expanded Social Security benefits (in contrast to the hand-wringing, and factually incorrect, “crisis” rhetoric too many Democrats spew about Social Security), reining in and cutting down the size of the financial sector and a rational foreign policy where diplomacy is paramount.

Some of the more traditional party bigwigs seem to be waking up to Ellison’s vision. Sen. Charles Schumer, perhaps the most visible Democrat with longstanding ties to Wall Street, endorsed him. My hunch is that Schumer, a fairly canny political operative, sees two trends. He came up short in his quest to become majority leader because Democrats did not connect with the economic-based anger coursing through many key states. He also understands that the progressive wing in the Senate caucus — led by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown — is ascendant, and he will need their loyalty to stay in his perch as Senate party leader.

The position of DNC chair is not the only important choice facing the party. But, in the aftermath of the recent election, it will send a signal that Democrats have consigned Clintonomics to the sidelines and are moving forward with a different agenda.