I may join the Republican Party and start pinching women on elevators. I swear I’ll do it. The one thing that could drive me to it, the only thing that might actually push me out of the Texas Democratic Party for good is the Texas Democratic Party. It’s the party that doesn’t know how to party.
The latest how-to-lose idea from the Texas Democratic Party? Some regulars are suggesting that Beto O’Rourke may be killing Ted Cruz in fundraising for the U.S. Senate race, but he’s behind in the polls, so O’Rourke should start preparing for defeat by giving away his money.
Other tried and true how-to-lose ideas O’Rourke might want to consider from the Texas Democratic Party: 1) Screwing up all his election paperwork, misspelling stuff on signs, not knowing how to use a computer, 2) Not doing any advance work so that when an ex-president comes to town to campaign he winds up in the back of a pickup in front of 200 people, 3) printing flyers with pictures of Trump and Hitler side-by-side and saying they’re the same guy, 6) opposing school reform because it might hurt bad teachers.
I’ve actually seen all that. I have lived through it. I have gritted my teeth and continued to vote for Democrats. But it’s hard.
What makes it even more difficult is that every once in a while, we Texas Democrats get this wonderful little glimmer, this hint or suggestion of what the party could be. In 2008 when Obama and Hillary were duking it out in the presidential primary, Dallas suddenly found itself in a very unaccustomed glare of importance.
The Obama people floated to earth here like an army of digital paratroopers, unrolling all of this social media and online stuff that nobody at that time had ever seen before, marrying all of it to a bullet-proof system of logistics. Every event from the big rally to the quiet little house party was nailed down, on-time, attended and choreographed like ballet. Obama spoke to 20,000 people at Reunion Arena while thousands more stood outside leaning in with cupped ears.
Hillary, bless her heart, was in the hands of the old-time Dallas County Democratic hacks, who had no idea what online even was, whose planning amounted to calling up old UAW organizers in nursing homes to see if any of their friends were still mobile enough to get out. That’s how former President Bill Clinton wound up somewhere off Harry Hines talking to 200 people from the bed of a blue pickup.
I naively thought that would be the final curtain for the Texas Democratic Party hacks. Somewhere in Washington someone would whisper grimly into a telephone: “Purge them all, purge them now!”
But, no. Let’s see, more recently we had the state party leadership dipping ham-fistedly into a Dallas school board race. In that contest, Texas Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa dismissed the entire school reform movement with a line straight out of the 1940s labor union wars: “People always use these merit pay arguments,” he said, “to try to justify putting teachers down.”
School reform is the one window younger progressive voters have found by which they can address social inequity right now pragmatically. But those are ideas that fly right over the heads of Texas Democratic Party leaders, probably because they’re afraid of losing the financial support of the public education lobby.
One of the wonders of the O’Rourke fundraising miracle — vast sums raised from small donors — is an echo of what Obama was able to accomplish in 2008. Both of these campaigns have been notable for their successes in mobilizing voters outside the regular party realm.
Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau this week reacted to a suggestion that O’Rourke share his fundraising bounty with other Democratic candidates by pointing out that campaign money comes from different kinds of people with different reasons for giving.
“People will, because of the internet and because of how people now access information, donate to any candidates and causes that inspire them most,” Favreau told The New York Times. “The idea that there is some entity in D.C. that can direct the fundraising for how people give is thinking that is so 10, 20 years ago.”
Oh, Mr. Favreau, let me tell you, you don’t know the half of it. You want to see Democrats still thinking in terms of 10, 20 years ago, come to Texas. People in Washington are trying to sleuth out Russian bots, while the Democratic Party here is still trying to get its voicemail set up.
Well, listen, not to be totally dismal, the O’Rourke campaign is showing us the same thing the Obama 2008 primary campaign in Texas showed us — a bright, shining window on a better tomorrow. The part that’s missing is the purge.
By purge, I mean purge. Last time around, the Dallas County Democratic Party narrowly rejected Chris Hamilton, a smart new progressive candidate for county chairperson, reinstating instead Carol Donovan, who tried to blame her own mismanagement of elections on a racist Republican conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Donovan group had been working to malign state Rep. Eric Johnson, a whip-smart young lawyer who’s the closest thing Dallas has got to the next Obama.
That picture right there tells the story. The real divide in the Texas Democratic Party is generational, not truly philosophical. I don’t know that the new wave has settled in on a philosophy yet.
They do see that a stubborn loyalty to teachers unions has done nothing to salvage the lives of hundreds of thousands of Texas children born into urban poverty, consigned at birth to the kindergarten-to-prison pipeline. Painting every Republican as a racist doesn’t work, either, for younger Democrats, because it’s what they heard from their parents growing up, and, frankly, their parents don’t look all that cool themselves on that score.
The explosion of support for O’Rourke, whether or not it produces a hard win at the polls, is an exuberance of sunshine and oxygen on a dark field of despair. Favreau is right. You can’t tell the sunshine and oxygen people, “We’re giving your money to the dark field of despair people.” That won’t wash.
Back to purges. If the people who are the wind beneath O’Rourke’s wings can learn anything from the Obama experience, it should be that they will ignore the party regulars at their immediate peril. Campaigns come and go, after all. The machinery grinds on forever, and the keepers of the machinery care more about the machinery than they care about changing the world. They even care more about the machinery than they do about winning.
Politics has these hiding places, safe niches where people are protected by their relative anonymity, encrusted beneath layers of obscurity. Take, for example, the terrible example of the weird Dallas school district that had no schools, only buses, abolished recently by the voters after being swept by a wave of guilty pleas on federal bribery charges.
That school board was a safe place for perennial candidates who couldn’t get elected to any office that voters actually cared about. It was also a local Democratic Party stronghold.
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As exciting as it may be to take part in the Beto surge, the Beto wing of the Democratic Party will never put down roots and build strong, lasting momentum until it purges the socks off the old party machinery. I am talking root and branch, going down into those cellars and those hidey-holes and rousting the inmates for good.
If anybody really needs an illustration, then take a good hard look at this latest idea. Less than three weeks from the election, with O’Rourke blowing the roof off in fundraising, the Times reports “long-simmering tensions … between Democrats.” The Times quotes veteran Texas Democratic Party strategist Matthew Miller as saying, “He could have a huge impact for the party by sharing some of it with the D.S.C.C. so it could be spent in states where candidates just need a little extra to get over the hump.”
Sure. Or the veteran Democratic Party could go hump itself. The fact that anybody in the party would look at the Beto campaign at this moment and talk about losing is bad enough. But trying to filch some money out of the campaign is like sticking a foot out to trip him, and then, when he’s good and knocked out, reaching down to roll him for his wallet.
It’s proof that in politics the big picture cannot be divorced from the little picture. If the Democratic Party is to be the vehicle for change — a big if right now — then the champions of that change are going to have to reach down into all those smaller places and root out the rascals who have been feeding there for decades. Little may not be where big starts, but it’s where it lasts.