Real talk from one Ellison to another: This isn’t really the right time for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to chair the Democratic National Committee.
That’s not to say Ellison doesn’t know what he’s doing. And it’s not saying he isn’t the on-the-ball tenacious champion of progressive causes we know him to be. But if there were ever a mistake made in the sloppy postelection panic that is the modern Democratic Party, it would be that moment when it soul-searched for leadership and could only come up with Ellison as its standard-bearer.
Not that it wouldn’t be tight to have a namesake (unrelated) placarded in the Democratic Party’s executive Hall of Fame. But faced with a reckoning unlike any other moment in the party's relatively brief history as the “liberal” or “progressive” wing of American politics, Democrats need not venture down any more paths filled with uncertain heroes.
Of course, I know this is not the most popular sentiment. There is justifiably fiery excitement around the black Minnesota congressman’s bid to lead the party. Hard left-of-center luminaries like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are laying chips on Ellison, along with incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is also vouching for Ellison. He’s under enormous pressure to do so—he needs to keep peace on the left side of the chamber so he can leverage greater political opportunities for a minority party with little power.
Feeling the sting of the racist King Birther about to replace the first black president, many in the black political and activist universe view Ellison as a shared comeback kid, a consolation prize in the wake of a horrific political insult once complacently thought of as unimaginable (“No way in the world white people would be that stupid”). There will likely be no black faces in the Trump Cabinet, so some may find some emotional solace in one leading the most discombobulated and directionless party apparatus since President Jimmy Carter lost to B-list actor and “commie” hunter Ronald Reagan.
Yet, should Ellison rise to party chairman, here are three solid reasons why those who support him will end up regretting it sooner than they think:
Yeah, sorry, but this move feels a bit like the time Republicans picked former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as their party chairman. Steele, too, was supposed to be that special black salve soothing wounds in the wake of electoral disaster: candidate Barack Obama, the black man with the funny non-Anglican name, trouncing a white Republican war hero in the race for the White House as Democrats snatched eight seats in the Senate to retake it and a historic 21 seats in the House to form a political triangle much like what Republicans will be enjoying soon.
Republicans knee-jerked with their own token black response, plucking the telegenic, pinstripe-suit-wearing, hip-hop-citing Steele as the answer. And even though Steele, rightfully, attempts to take credit for 2010—the biggest congressional midterm majority-party swing in more than 50 years—we all know how his tenure ended up: in crushing humiliation and defeat to present Chairman and soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Steele’s conservative colleagues used racial brushes to paint him as ineffective, some saying that he was too wrapped up in party-chair trappings, and others complaining that he was equally beguiled by media attention.
A similar scenario potentially awaits Ellison should he become DNC chairman. The party will be distracted by inevitable accusations that he’s more polished for TV cameras than fundraising, more inclined toward rhetorical gab and platitudes than the tedious work and routine of executive-level management.
Ellison won’t take over as the Democratic Party’s first African-American chairman; that’s been done before. But he will certainly take over as its first Muslim chairman—a historic feat that, in this current political environment, will quickly turn into an enormous and fatal distraction for Democrats desperately attempting to recover.
Stunned and finding few limits to their outrage, Democrats want the most outrageous response to Trumpism they can find. No better way to lift a collective middle finger than to pick a highly vocal and controversial Detroit-bred, black, Muslim congressman as the head of their party. You see where this is going, right?
Emotion shouldn’t guide Democratic Party response, which, at the moment, appears as flat as its nominee for president was. Nor should Ellison give in to the whims of disobliging progressives unwilling to accept any slice of personal blame for this cycle’s unmitigated political disaster.
But if you think that Republican messaging masters had a field day molding the fake scandal that was Hillary Clinton’s email server, the entire Republican machine—in conjunction with a new government itching to repress political enemies—will convene an Olympic-sized show over the biography of one Keith Ellison, the very public black Muslim with former ties to the Nation of Islam and a perceived history of dubious associations. It’s already starting.
It will be an enormous, energy-sucking distraction for Democrats and progressives. That’s tragic, considering that they must be laser-focused on an effective counter message to Trumpian public policy on and off Capitol Hill. Yet, at a time of proposed Muslim bans and talk of a registry, Democrats will find themselves mired in Islam-bashing headlines culled from juicy opposition research on Ellison.
Clearly, Democrats miserably failed at pushing back against trifling email-server allegations, and they were even worse at crisis management when Moscow-sponsored WikiLeaks pulled back-to-back October surprises. Not only will they permanently hemorrhage large blocs of white voters they think they need from places like the Rust Belt, the Appalachians and Rocky Mountain West, but they’ll also be unable to adequately protect a Minnesota congressman whose heart seems in the right place.
It could get so bad that they’ll lose the trust of loyal black voters, too. Look at how much fun Republicans had with the non-Muslim cat who had a Muslim name. Imagine how much destructive fun they’ll have with the Muslim cat who has a non-Muslim name.
Because that’s the type of well-oiled, completely funded and fully functional apparatus the Democrats will need if they have any chance at recapturing (at least) the Senate in 2018 and the White House in 2020. As we saw in 2016, Democrats can’t get lazy and simply rely on the promise of a new demographic majority: More voter registrations mean nothing if you can’t persuade people to vote … and to vote for you.
Beyond a knack for spinning progressives’ greatest hits, there’s not a lot of evidence that Ellison can actually lead a massive national organization in dire straits. Of course, that’s not the only requirement. But it’s a valid question given that building and then managing a 50-state operation is essential—especially for an organization that’s in crisis.
Critics are already questioning how he’ll run the DNC and maintain a congressional seat (that didn’t work out so well for the last chair). And not only would Democrats need Ellison focused on the elephant-sized task of regaining lost ground on the federal level, but they’d also need him creatively constructing a strategy to recapture state legislatures and governor seats.
That’s not something you can do part time and press the snooze button when you want. He’ll need his head completely in it, and there’s just little information that says he can.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.