War Games

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


“We have met the enemy and he is us,” opined Pogo, that sage possum of the Sunday comics.

That could have been the theme of the recent California Democratic Party Convention in Sacramento.  There is a pertinent rule of political thumb: “A party is never more united when it’s out of power, struggling to get in. A party is never more disunited than when it’s in power, fighting over how, where, and who decides to use it.” With Republicans in the Golden State relegated to the sidelines, California Democrats have turned to fighting each other.

At the CDP convention it was the “Berniecrats” versus the “Establishment”–vitriolic contempt for Donald Trump was their only common ground.

With crusty Democratic Chairman John Burton retiring, the race for party chair came down to long-time LA County Chairman, and political insider, Eric Bauman and San Francisco Bay Area activist Kimberly Ellis, who had strong support from the Bernie Sanders crowd—spearheaded by the California Nurses Association.   The California Nurses were among the staunchest Sanders supporters and led the protests at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.  Their disdain for the party regulars holds no bounds.

When Bauman—the early favorite—eked out a  62- vote victory, the Bernie people cried foul and demanded a ballot audit.  It appears the Bauman victory will stand, but so will the hard feelings intensified in the process.

Aside from the race for chair, the big issue on the convention floor was health care.  The Nurses Association is pushing a bill—SB 562—to establish a single-payer health care system in California.  The group  was relentless in pressuring candidates and the party to support the measure not-so-gently hinting that Democratic candidates opposing single-payer could find themselves “primaried” by the party’s left.

“We’re not going to unify around the status quo,” Rose Ann DeMoro, the powerful head of the California Nurses Assn., told delegates. “Consensus for consensus’ sake is over.”

A legislative staff analysis tagged the cost of implementing the bill at $400 billion per year. That equals, according to Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters,” more than three times the entire state general fund budget.” That sum would probably wipe out just about every other spending program in Sacramento.  It is hard to imagine the California Teachers Association and other Sacramento power players jumping for joy at that prospect. Or California taxpayers, who would likely have to assume a hefty part of the cost.

The intra-party feuding is a hangover from last year’s Presidential nominating process when Senator Bernie Sanders faced off against Hillary Clinton.  Although Clinton won the nomination convincingly and carried California in the primary by a substantial margin, the Bernie folks have never accepted that the nominating process was on the up and up

Addressing the convention, potential gubernatorial candidates, by and large, gave lip service to single-payer health care without endorsing SB 562.  None of the contenders appeared to electrify the house—not even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the nurses’ fave, whose speech may have set a record for consecutive clichés and slogans.

However, Elvis (aka Congressman Adam Schiff) was definitely in the building! Schiff has become a highly visible (and audible) symbol of the anti-Trump “Resistance.” As the convention’s keynote speaker, Schiff delivered an Obamaesque address that had the crowd on its feet. The workhorse lawmaker, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has been cast into the national spotlight by the snowballing investigations of the Trump White House and campaign operatives. Calling for party unity at the convention, Schiff warned delegates, “We cannot afford division when the fate of the republic is at stake,” he said. “Our people are stronger united, our party is stronger together.”

Actually, California Democrats don’t look to have much headwind in the statewide races; nonetheless,  but they still have to hold the supermajorities in both houses and run the table on Congressional seats if national Democrats have a hope of regaining the US House majority.

In the Golden State, where Democrats are riding high, and nationally where they are poised to cash in on President Trump’s unpopularity, the Democrats’ biggest obstacle may be overreaching by the party’s left.  Bernie Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton last year, but in the process he reinforced every negative perception of the former Secretary of State and validated the populist mantra that carried Donald Trump to the White House.  The Berniecrats’ hostility to “the Establishment” shows no sign of abating and will at the very least be a distraction from the job of taking back Congress.   And the party’s efforts to appease the left through policy positions could easily alienate voters in the middle—where elections are won.

Russia and former FBI Director James Comey may have contributed to 2016 disappointments, but if the Democrats stumble in 2018, particularly in California, they ‘ll likely have no one to blame but themselves.

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