Like many, I find it hard to be tremendously enthused by the 2017 Democratic Party. But in this day and age, if anyone is leading a hall of some hundreds in a fiery pro-choice, anti-wall sermon then I’m much more likely to stamp my feet and cheer than ask how they intend to reverse their party’s economic abandonment of the working class. Which I suppose is a good explanation of how the Democratic Party got to where it is today.
At her Saturday Town Hall meeting in Lowell High School, San Francisco, Rep. Jackie Speier (14th District, CA) did acknowledge that the Democrats need to listen to what is being screamed at them. She agreed that they need to get better at messaging, and that they need to nurture young leadership within the party. She appeared to nudge the party leadership a few feet into the bus lane when she described in eye-rolling terms how she had declined to join the bulk of the party on the “strategy retreat” that was taking place this weekend. “I wanted to spend time with my constituents - I’m sure I’ll get the memo on Monday.” Presumably this kind of line is at least implicitly pre-authorized.
Rep. Speier’s relatively safe “we need to do the same but better” self-admonishments were picked up on by several in the audience. One constituent delivered what began a slightly rambling question-cum-desperate-hand-wringing at the state of his beloved Democrats (“I do love them, God bless ‘em”) that ended as a passionate channeling of what I imagine many of us in the audience were thinking. Yes you need to get much, much better tactically, but maybe you need to completely change absolutely everything else as well. I don’t remember how Rep. Speier responded, but it wasn’t with a strident defense of Leaders Pelosi and Schumer.
Those who felt powerless wanted to know how they could become powerful again. “How can we stop the ACA from being repealed?” “How can we make sure our neighbors don’t get deported?” At the beginning of the Town Hall, Rep. Speier’s answers were upbeat - call your representatives, run for office, support Planned Parenthood. But as the two hours wore on, the same kinds of questions were repeated, only with more desperation and more demands that the theoretically-powerful do something now. “Why haven’t you forced an investigation into Trump’s ties with Putin?” “Why didn’t you stop Betsy DeVos?” One attendee pointed out that her representatives’ phone lines are so jammed that they are only rarely able to get through and wanted to know what to do about it. Speier’s answers became a little more blunt and real. She often returned to the fact that the Democrats don’t control either federal house, and so whilst they could vote against bad bills until they were blue in the face, that wouldn’t stop them from passing. She promised that she will still vote against bad bills, and that her friends will still vote against bad bills, but only time and VoteSmart.org will tell whether she was telling the truth.
On a brighter note, she sounded positive about the impact she can still have from her position on the House Intelligence Committee. She did not go into further detail, asserting (without proof of capability or willingness to follow through) that if she told us she would have to kill us.
“I’m sure that not all Republican lawmakers are irreparably evil, what can be done to reach them?” asked a hopeful constituent. Rep. Speier agreed that not everyone rightwards of Ross Perot has an IOU instead of a heart, and told us (in general terms) of frank conversations she has had with her opponents in congress who confide to her that they know they really shouldn’t be voting in favor of the Death Star And Seal Clubbing Bill, but that their constituents will kill them and then vote for a further-right challenger in a primary race if they don’t. No one wants to lose their job. “There’s not a lot of courage in Congress,” she added.
A lot was blamed on Those Darned Republicans. Obstructionism, money in politics, and several other things that I can’t remember because I didn’t take detailed enough notes. And whilst Those Darned Republicans do have a rapidly growing tire fire of sins to repent for, the post-Clinton Democrats have triangulated themselves into a good deal of complicity as well. But somehow neither “It’s all the Republicans’ fault” nor “They’re both as bad as each other” really sound right. The truth is that if we’re talking about structural inequality, both parties are guilty as all hell. On the other hand, if we lose Roe vs Wade or the ACA, the blame should be placed squarely at the jackboot-clad feet of Those Darned Republicans. Yes the Democrats contribute to the partisan climate of etc etc, but if we go down that route we probably have to bring in the butterfly that flapped her wings in Japan that started the whole thing as well.
Rep. Speier won her district in 2012 with almost 79% of the vote, and many questions at the town hall began with profuse thanks for her service. She seems very popular, and has voted against Donald Trump at every opportunity in the current Congress. When asked to commit to “being more of a leader” on a particular issue (I forget exactly which one), she responded with an impressive amount of evidence that she was already doing her level best and said that she “took umbrage” with the suggestion that she wasn’t.
She did get a little flustered when she briefly engaged with hecklers from the floor (I did not hear what they were saying). At one point she was discussing why the Democrats lost the election, and a corner of the audience started shouting out “racism”. Understandably she acted as though she had heard nothing, and I could almost see the ghosts of the deplorables following her closely around the stage.
Audience members described a very wide range of fears, and Rep. Speier was candidly unable to offer much concrete reassurance to many of them. This made the times when she was emphatic and definite about the future particularly marked and valuable. She was clear that the wall would not be built. She explained that whilst Betsy DeVos will have the authority to roll back some amount of progress on civil liberties in schools, she will not have the authority to mandate vouchers nationwide. That said, these guarantees came from somewhat technical details in the way that American government works today. And last May Nancy Pelosi guaranteed that Donald Trump would never be president.