Home Ralph Northam Northam or Perriello: What Message to Send the Democratic Party?

Northam or Perriello: What Message to Send the Democratic Party?


I’ve written before about the upcoming primary contest between Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello (here and here).

Upon reflection, there is a whole additional dimension that ought to be considered: this primary, and the subsequent election of a governor in November, will play more than usual role in shaping the future of the Democratic Party– and I mean at the national level.

Several factors combine this year to make that so:

1) As usual, because of the Virginia election schedule, our elections — being among a comparatively few in the nation — will get a disproportionate amount of national attention.

2) Not so usual is the level of turbulence these days in our national politics. May I assume that point needs no elaboration?

3) That high level of upheaval in our politics, combined with the distressing reality that the Democratic Party has lost control of all the branches of the federal government –as well as the great majority of state governments — make this a time when the Democratic Party is itself unusually ripe for serious self-examination. The circumstances require the Party to be confronting the questions:  How should we define ourselves, and how should we conduct ourselves, as a Party?

4) Northam and Perriello represent different kinds of Democratic politicians. Their presentations dramatize that difference; their endorsements reflect that difference; and the media coverage depicts that difference– all in consistent ways.

Combining those four elements, we can see: the choice we make as Virginia Democrats between Northam and Perriello will send a message to the wider world of Democratic politics.

If Northam wins the nomination and the governorship, that will be one message; if Perriello wins the nomination and the governorship, that will be another message. (And the futures markets indicate at this point that there is nearly a 3:1 likelihood that the winner of the June 13 Democratic primary will be the next governor)

All of which raises two questions: 1) what would be the difference between those two possible messages? and 2) which of those two messages should we wish to send to the Democratic Party?


I’ve written before that — although I hope that Tom Perriello is the nominee — I will gladly support whoever wins on June 13. Also, I want to be fair in how I now characterize what a Northam victory vs. a Perriello victory would mean in terms of how it will be interpreted — as a message– by the Democratic Party nationwide.

Would it not be fair to say that Northam represents greater continuity of style and tone and approach, for Democratic politics, than Perriello? I use the phrase “greater continuity” because some others that also seem to me to apply — status quo, politics-as-usual, more-of-the-same — tend to have pejorative connotations, even though they mean the same thing.

And would it not be fair to say that Perriello represents more boldness in style, more willingness to be morally impassioned in tone, more confrontational in approach than Northam?

It seems clear enough to me that the stunning political developments of our times — and the disastrous loss of power to today’s Republican Party — make this a time for a major course correction for the Democrats.

Given that the “status quo” of the Democratic Party has allowed them to be defeated by a Party that has lied on virtually everything, don’t we need some kind of bolder, more impassioned messaging?

Why would we want “more of the same” to be the message sent to a Democratic Party that has lost so much ground to a Republican Party that for a generation has done virtually nothing that improves the life prospects of average citizens (and indeed has taken wealth and power away from them to give to the wealthiest and mightiest)?

Quiz question: What is it that Einstein called doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

If now is not a time for a break from “politics as usual,” when would be?

In Virginia, politics as usual has meant a stunningly corrupt system that allows, among other things, a supposedly publicly-regulated monopoly like Dominion Power to buy influence in the government that is supposed to do the regulating.

Tom Perriello has shown much greater determination to resist that system, and has forsworn taking Dominion money. Northam has not. I recognize that everyone has to compete in the game as it stands, but one can still show more or less eagerness to correct the flaws in that game.

At a different level, there’s the question of how to deal with the Republicans. Chances are that the next governor — like the present one — will face a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

It is not only at the national level that the Republican Party of today is an atrocity. Consider how Virginia’s elected Republicans willingly joined in to block the expansion of Medicaid, sacrificing the right to health-care security of 400,000 Virginians, and squandering billions of dollars of Virginia taxpayer money– all just to try to deprive the Democratic President (Obama) of a victory.

Which kind of Democrat — Northam or Perriello — can you more readily picture being able to exact a real political price from the Republicans, over the next four years, if they fail to do the right thing?

Which leads to the similar issue of how Democrats will deal with the toxicity that Trump and the Republicans in Congress are spilling into the country.

What kind of candidates do we want our fellow Democrats around the nation to choose as their champions to take back control of Congress? And what kind of message do we want to send to the Democrats in Congress about how bold to be in calling out and confronting Trump and his allies?

Our choice on June 13 will have some impact on those things.

An old movie, titled Fear Strikes Out, tells the true story of 1950s Boston Red Sox great, Jimmy Piersall. Piersall has had a mental breakdown, and his psychiatrist is trying to get him to recognize how his father has contributed to that breakdown. Piersall becomes furious and, defending his father, declares: “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today!” But then, seeing that where he is today is in a mental hospital, he sees also what he has just said.

Let us look at “where we are today,” and ask ourselves: Is it not clear that we need a different kind of spirit to animate the Democratic Party than the one that has brought us to this pass?

And would not the nomination and election of Tom Perriello to the Virginia governorship be a meaningful way to encourage the rest of the Democratic Party in the direction of that different kind of spirit?


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