- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On paper, Pete Buttigieg is the dream candidate for Democrats: He is a millennial, a military veteran, a Midwesterner, an Episcopalian, and he’s openly gay. Plus, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, he’s left-handed.

But the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is vying for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, says one lesson of 2016 is that identity politics can take the party only so far and that Democrats would be better off finding a values-based and economic message that cuts across demographics.

He calls it the party’s “salad bar problem.”

“We have to recognize that there has to be a glue, there has to be a foundation, that is bigger than any one group,” Mr. Buttigieg told The Washington Times. “We have become so micro that we forget the higher values that bring us all together — freedom, fairness, families and the future.”

DNC members will gather in Atlanta over the next few days, leading up to a vote Saturday on the party’s leadership for the next two years.

The field of candidates runs the gamut: There are black men, gay men and straight white men. Hispanics are represented, as are Muslims. There is a black feminist who says she is the daughter of “undocumented immigrants” and a white woman from the Mountain West who wants to mandate “transforming white privilege” courses for DNC members and leaders.

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The DNC members also divide themselves by identity. The schedule for the first two days of the gathering feature breakout meetings for the Labor, Youth, Disability and Ethnic councils, as well as the LGBT, Women’s, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander caucuses.

“I don’t know which caucus I am supposed to go to first, second or third,” Mr. Buttigieg joked at a candidate forum last month.

Celebrating diversity is not surprising for a party that has built itself as a coalition of identities, trying to convince environmentalists and unions, blacks and Hispanics, and gay, young and female voters that they all share one another’s interests.

The coalition was successful when President Obama was their candidate, powering him to two White House victories — though he oversaw big losses in Congress and in state-level races across the country.

Without Mr. Obama, the coalition couldn’t even deliver the White House last year — puncturing the theory that the nation’s shifting demographics and growing minority populations would create a Democratic majority for years to come.

Now some of the members of the Democratic National Committee say they wish the field of candidates spent more time mulling over the issues, crafting a message for the working-class voters who defected from the party in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in November.

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“When you have identity politics, it is not a matter of a game where everybody wins,” said Fred Hudson, a DNC member from Virginia. “It is a game where those who are not a part of the selected group will believe that they are being pushed away, and while that is not the intent or the effort of the Democratic Party at all, it is still the perception.”

“I think we instead need to be talking about how we have policies that will help everyone from all the diverse areas of our population,” he said. “That is the message we need to get out because there are a lot of people who feel ignored and abandoned to a large degree by the Democratic Party, and we have to stop that.”

Mr. Buttigieg said he sees the danger as focusing too narrowly on messaging to individual groups: a message for blacks, a Spanish-language appeal to Hispanics and gay-rights support to the LGBT community.

The front-runners in the chairman’s race are Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez — each of whom has been unable to escape identity politics.

Mr. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has been haunted by his past ties to black nationalists, earning him some praise from David Duke and other white nationalists who embrace identity politics of a different sort.

Hispanic groups, meanwhile, have lined up behind Mr. Perez, who as the son of Dominican immigrants could become the first Hispanic chairman of the DNC.

“Identity politics has become the coin of the realm within the Democratic base and particularly with the activists, and it is out of step with the mainstream of America, and that is why Donald Trump was able to blow a hole in it and reject that way of thinking,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican Party strategist.

He said Mr. Trump managed to turn that on its head by winning the presidency.

“He identified that identity politics is a minority position because you can’t fuse all those parts together,” Mr. Gerow said. “He took the broadest piece, what he called ‘the silent majority’ and cobbled them together into political movement.”

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Howard Dean, who led the DNC from 2005 to 2009, said part of the reason he wants Mr. Buddigieg, 35, to lead the party is because he comes from a generation that is less beholden to old ways of thinking.

“They don’t think like that,” Mr. Dean said. “They don’t play identity politics.”

Mr. Buddigieg has said his basic rule of thumb is to never say something to one group of people that he would be embarrassed to say to another.

“We can’t just orient our politics to talking to each of these groups one at a time, as if each group didn’t care about the others,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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