Is Perez Setting Bernie Up to Fail?

by Jeremy Fassler

Within the last week, DNC chair Tom Perez has embarked on a Unity Tour with runner-up for the Democratic nomination and independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders. The tour, to put it mildly, has been a disaster: from Sanders’ refusal to call himself a Democrat in a joint interview with Perez, to his endorsement of an anti-abortion candidate in Nebraska, to his repeated attacks on the Democratic party. When Democratic candidate John Ossoff lost his election to represent the Georgia 6th by less than two points (he will face his Republican opponent in a June run-off), Sanders claimed he wouldn’t endorse Ossoff because he didn’t know whether or not he was progressive. To his credit, he endorsed Ossoff two days later, but it was a heavily belated endorsement that should have come much earlier — just like his endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

Tom Perez, whom the BernieBros have booed at rallies for being “the establishment,” seems like a mild-mannered guy. Just this week he’s been under fire from two of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party: women, and women of color, angry that he has given an old white man the power to define who gets to be progressive or not — and he isn’t even in the Party! They’re not wrong to be angry, since the primary leaders of The Resistance are women of color, and women are stepping up to the plate to run for office in numbers that nearly double the 2016 total.

It’s easy to blame Perez for misreading the tea leaves, as many Democratic leaders have before him. But what if this is a set-up for Bernie to fail so he can kick him to the curb? To understand why this could be the case, we must go back to the 1930s, when FDR had to get rid of his closest rival to power: Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

It’s hard to imagine, with nearly eighty years of hindsight, that the Kennedy patriarch could ever have come close to becoming President of the United States, given his disgraceful tenure as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, but that’s precisely why FDR gave him the appointment. Kennedy, who had been instrumental in helping FDR secure the Democratic nomination in 1932, served as an unofficial adviser to the President in matters of finance, and as his fortunes grew, so did his presidential ambitions. When he was offered the Ambassadorship, all Kennedy’s closest friends begged him not to do it, knowing he was a political novice. But Kennedy refused to listen to their advice and, in 1938, moved his entire family to England.

Much has been written about this period of Kennedy’s life — much of it inaccurate. What cannot be denied is that his fervent isolationism, engendered by his Catholic upbringing which taught him to despise all wars, put him on the wrong side of history. He was never an anti-Semite a’la Henry Ford, or a Nazi sympathizer, but he wrongly believed a deal could be made with Hitler in spite of not having any authority to arrange a meeting with him outside the guidelines of the State Department, or any understanding of how badly this worked out for Neville Chamberlain. What’s more, Kennedy lacked a knowledge of meeting the British on their level. He made the same mistake FDR had made as a young man by refusing to drink with a tenacious British official named Winston Churchill (Kennedy, being a teetotaler, would not stoop to such a low; Roosevelt, whose refusal to drink made a bad first impression on Churchill, pretended the incident had never happened when they met again at the start of the War.) He could not play politics, something his second-oldest son took careful note of when he wrote his thesis, Why England Slept.

Kennedy came back to America in 1940, his tail between his legs. He continued to oppose the war, and the needless death of his firstborn son in the European Theater didn’t change his mind. In 1941, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act to help the Allied Nations, and by the end of that year, he had officially brought the United States into the war. No one doubts FDR’s heroism in those turbulent years, but in order to turn the country away from isolationism, he had to hang the English out to dry for a bit by wrecking Kennedy’s career. Only then could he lead the charge to their aid, as if to say, “This is what happens when isolationists speak for our country!”

Could a similar strategy be at play here? It’s possible. Throughout the primary, we saw how Bernie’s campaign morphed from standing for bold new policies into the character assassination of his opponent when he realized he could not win the nomination. Congressional colleagues like Barney Frank insisted that he did not work well with others; John Lewis criticized him for not being enough of a civil rights advocate. And, in a damning interview with The New York Daily News, he could barely articulate how he would get his proposals through Congress. Many Hillary supporters who had welcomed his quip about being sick of her “damned emails” regretted their niceties by the time he had begun calling her “unqualified.” These errors betray an impetuous man with a short temper and unmistakable condescension when people don’t agree with him 100%. All these qualities were revealed before, and they’re being revealed again on the tour, to disastrous effects.

If this is what Perez wants, then he’s using Bernie to make the case against opening the party up to the white working class people across the three states that handed the election to Trump. Yes, he also endorsed the anti-choice candidate in Nebraska as well, but given the outcry from women of color who feel their voices aren’t being heard, what if the first thing Perez does when this is done is to kick Bernie out and bring in someone like Maxine Waters or Kamala Harris? He must know deep down that compromising their principles to welcome white working-class rust belters whose support cannot be relied on is not a winning strategy for 2020, nor is elevating Bernie’s chances for the nomination that year. Every time Republicans have done that (Bob Dole losing in ’88, becoming nominee in ’96, McCain in ’00 and then ’08, Romney in ’08 and then ’12) they have lost, and there’s no indication that, once he received proper vetting from the media, Bernie would be able to shrug off Republican attacks on his “environmental racism,” or the video of him saying JFK made him want to throw up (shades of Rick Santorum, anyone?)

Maybe I’m overthinking this to give Perez the benefit of the doubt, since I want him to succeed. But if this disastrous unity tour is intentional, and Perez takes steps to correct it, then let’s hope we see a rise in progressive women, both white and those of color, who send this braying old man to the bleachers where he belongs.

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