04.06.11

Obama's Ballsy DNC Choice

Debbie Wasserman Schultz has no statewide, let alone national, experience. But as a tough-talking liberal who can work with Michele Bachmann, she might just be what the Dems need.

The new head of the Democratic National Committee is Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. If you happen to know her, or would like to, you might consider sending her a condolence card, rather than one of congratulations. It is a job that few sane people could want and one in which even fewer could hope to succeed.

First, the pluses. Wasserman Schultz is well-liked and performs well on TV. She is from Florida, which, together with Ohio and Pennsylvania, forms the crucial crucible through which all presidential nominees must pass on the way to Pennsylvania Avenue. She is not shy about raising money and her name, unwieldy as it may be, remains a great deal easier to pronounce than that of her Republican counterpart Reince Priebus. And related to all of the above, albeit in complicated ways, is the fact that she’s a strong Jewish woman, which is, for better or worse, a good thing in the head of a party that is almost as dependent on Jewish funders as it is on woman voters.

She is also fortunate in that the president has chosen to run his campaign from Chicago, meaning she won’t have to worry about a meddlesome White House operation in Washington constantly looking over her shoulder. The timing will allow Wasserman Schultz to hire a staff that is loyal to her, rather than her predecessor, Tim Kaine, who is running for James Webb’s Senate seat in Virginia.

Then again, she may be being set up. All signs at the moment point to a conventional wisdom train upon which President Obama cruises to reelection. The economy is gaining some serious steam, job numbers are improving, and the Republican field is so weak it even includes a few people who appear to be receiving their talking points from other solar systems via the fillings in their teeth. Obama is likely to win in a campaign that looks more like Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 campaign than that “hopey-changey thing” that brought tears to so many eyes in 2008. (Though to be fair to Ike, he turned out to have been a bit more liberal than Obama did.)

In its coverage of the appointment, the Times Caucus blog avers that “Democrats are eager to reclaim some of the seats they lost in the 2010 midterms and perhaps win that chamber back.” This is, as my friend Jon Stewart likes to say, “crazy talk.”

Having undergone seven breast-cancer operations without telling almost anyone, including her close friends, and doing her job at the same time, she has proven to have a kind of toughness that Democrats all too often appear to lack.

What is far more likely is that the Democrats will also lose the Senate, which if the president gets reelected, would be a first in American history. They would have lost it last year, but for crazy Republican Tea Party candidates screwing up what otherwise would have been sure things in Nevada and Delaware (at least). Next time, however, fully 21 Democrats will be up for reelection, as opposed to just 10 Democrats and two independents. These are not happy numbers for a party that will almost certainly be outspent as a result of the Citizens United decision and the proliferation of new corporate-friendly political spending operations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads conglomerate. (Wasserman Schultz begins her job with her committee $9 million in debt.)

It’s not clear how much she can do about this, given what little concern the president has shown toward the fate of his party for the first two years of his presidency. But given the fact that she has no statewide—much less national—experience, and comes from the wing of the party that’s been giving him the most grief, Wasserman Schultz is a risky but actually ballsy choice, and therefore rather out of character for President (as opposed to candidate) Barack Obama. Wasserman Schultz is a tough talker and an unapologetic liberal. In opposition to recent Republican efforts to curb abortion services in the health-care legislation, she called their bill “nothing short of a tax increase,” slamming the plan as an “outrageous” “anti-women” tax increase to “reach deep into the personal lives of all American women.” She also took the lead in opposing offshore drilling, and was widely quoted explaining that a "5 percent increase in domestic production would increase the world supply by less than 1 percent and do almost nothing to our dependence on foreign oil. This would also have virtually no effect on the price of gas at the pump.” Lest she be tarred with inevitable accusation of being an “ideologue,” as anyone to the left of, say, Joe Lieberman inevitably is, she has shown that she can jettison principle for the sake of expedience, she joined crazy Republican Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and conservative landsman Eric Cantor of Virginia to keep the funding for the Strike Fighter engine—even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it “a waste of taxpayer money."

All in all, her appointment is a rare piece of good news for Obama’s beaten-down base. Democrats have a depressed core constituency, and she is a much better bet than her closest competition, ex-Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland would have been. Having undergone seven breast-cancer operations without telling almost anyone, including her close friends, and doing her job at the same time, she has proven to have a kind of toughness that Democrats all too often appear to lack.

Interesting, albeit perhaps inevitably, once again, the people with the cojones in this party are, more and more, the ones with the ovaries.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.