The battle for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee was far from the most consequential decision that party leaders were facing. But it offered an instructive lesson over how identity politics—putting one’s skin color or gender over political views and the quality of one’s résumé—has become the defining principle for today’s Democratic Party actists. With a progressive grassroots obsessed with checking privilege, it’s difficult for even the most appealing white male candidate to overcome this political handicap with the base.
Former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s narrow win over Bernie Sanders-backed Rep. Keith Ellison was a victory for establishment forces within the party. But the bigger, less-appreciated story was the implosion of 35-year-old South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, considered a rising star in the party and a serious contender for the chairmanship. With support from well-placed party leaders (like former DNC chair Howard Dean, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, David Axelrod, and Obama communications director Jen Psaki), Buttigieg looked like a plausible compromise candidate who could unite the party’s progressive and pragmatic factions. Instead, he dropped out of the race before the first round of balloting, recognizing his low vote total would be an embarrassment.
On paper, Buttigieg offered everything the party needed for a public face—a young, charismatic small-town mayor from the Midwest who is outspokenly liberal and openly gay. But being a white guy in today’s Democratic Party has become a glaring political vulnerability.
Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a respected pragmatic jurist, recently failed to hit the sweet spot with the Democratic base as well. Obama hoped that Republican obstruction of his nomination would hand Democrats a tailor-made issue for the presidential election. Instead, the opposite happened. The liberal base hardly cared about the fate of a boring white guy, even though the stakes were so high. Democrats stopped using Garland as a campaign issue after realizing his nomination wasn’t resonating with their voters.
Democrats must improve on their appeal with white men. Only 22 percent of white men view the Democratic party favorably, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, with a whopping 57 percent viewing it unfavorably. Not coincidentally, just 22 percent of Hillary Clinton’s voters in 2016 were white men, according to analysis from my Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman.