Only seconds after the mere mention of Senator Bernie Sanders provoked loud cheers at the Democratic party’s first “Come Together and Fight Back” event, another man’s name yielded immediate boos. Tom Perez, the new chair of the DNC — and Sanders’s partner on the so-called “unity tour” — was not welcomed kindly.
“Regardless of why you showed up tonight, you showed up for a reason. Something compelled you to find the space and time to be here and I want you to ask yourself what that reason is,” said Claire Cummings of the Maine Young Democrats, to growing cheers. “Maybe it’s because you love a certain senator from Vermont,” she suggested, prompting chants of “Bernie!” amid extended applause.
Then she made another suggestion. “Maybe you came because you’re curious about the new DNC chairman and the future of the Democratic –” But at that point, boos drowned her out.
Those jeers served as a stark reminder that there is a lot more to unity than the mere insistence that it exists. Sanders’s popularity continues to be a thorn in the Democratic establishment’s side, and turning him into an asset has proven a difficult balancing act. Just three weeks ago, Perez’s predecessor Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had to go on Greta Van Susteren’s show and argue that the party didn’t have unity problems — even as Van Susteren played video of Sanders stressing that “the Democratic party needs a top-down overhaul.”
During his talk last night, Sanders again targeted perceived Democratic failures, saying “Our job is to radically transform the Democratic party.” Throughout, Sanders stuck to his talking points, even touting single-payer health care, which demonstrates the ample leeway Perez and the party are providing him on this speaking tour.
Evidently, Perez is working hard to rally the base. He curses about Republicans from the podium; praises Sanders often; and has so far stuck considerably to the left of the political center. Given the state of the party — and the scale of the challenge that it faces — an ecumenical approach makes sense. But the power of anti-establishment sentiment can swiftly overwhelm even the most ostensibly sensible strategies, as Tom Perez may soon discover to his detriment.