Commentary: DNC Chair Brings “Unbridled Optimism” To IU’s McKinney School Of Law

Tom Perez was in town as part of the university’s sixth annual Birch Bayh Lecture at the Indiana Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that DNC Chair Tom Perez resides over a Democratic Party in disarray. The party has lost more than 1,000 elected positions in the past 10 years. It controls neither house of Congress, nor the White House. Only 31 of the 99 state legislative bodies are Democratic majorities and governorships, at a meager 16, are even fewer.

Furthermore, while both parties are fracturing, the division in the Democratic Party—between the social-democratic left and the neo-liberal center—is more ideologically fundamental, and more perniciously expressed, than its Republican equivalent. Far from seeing each other as friends disagreeing, the two sides often question if they’re even allies. Perez himself is viewed by the left wing of the party as a shill for the neo-liberal establishment.

So at last week’s event, one might have been surprised to hear Perez telling his audience at IU McKinney School of Law that he comes to Indianapolis with “unbridled optimism.”

Perez was here giving the Sixth Annual Birch Bayh Lecture—a lecture established by the Simon Property Group to honor the former U.S. Senator from Terre Haute. Perez’s speech was titled “The Lawyer’s Duty: Social Justice, Racial Justice, Economic Justice,” and it somehow managed to walk along all the delicate strings holding the Democratic Party together.

In a nod to his left, he talked about how those who work full-time ought not have trouble feeding themselves or their families, how civil rights and economic rights are intertwined, and how union revitalization is essential to income equality.

In a nod to the center, he talked at a slightly lower frequency about the importance of bipartisanship, messaging, and pragmatism. “The policy graveyard is full of great ideas,” said Perez, because they weren’t communicated effectively. Perez, however, recently appointed an anti-minimum-wage lobbyist to the DNC’s financial committee, so his critics in the room no doubt thought to themselves that the party’s policy problems lie much more with its intents than with its slogans.

Perez enumerated Birch Bayh’s many political accomplishments from his time in the Senate (1962–1980)—which included authoring two Constitutional amendments, introducing the Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act, and making one of President Nixon’s infamous lists of enemies and opponents.

One of Bayh’s last legislative causes before leaving office was eliminating the Electoral College and replacing it with a simple popular vote. It was a cause somewhat progressive for its time, although—given that Democratic presidential candidates have won six of the last seven popular votes, but only actually won the presidency four of those times—one that has recently come back into vogue.

As the lecture was hosted by the law school and ostensibly given for the enlightenment of future attorneys, Perez specifically focused on the importance of lawyers in supporting and defending past judicial reforms.

During his days in the Labor Department and the Civil Rights division of the attorney general’s office, Perez too often found that new laws weren’t necessary to alleviate some injustice, but merely that old laws be actively enforced. “Don’t let these [civil rights] laws gather dust,” he warned the audience.

Besides Bayh, the next-most-mentioned person by Perez was perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. He quoted from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and spent a few minutes discussing the unifying principle behind the Civil Rights leader’s activism. King, to Perez, saw no difference between marching with black citizens for their right to vote and marching with garbage collectors for their right to unionize.

Behind Perez’s invocation of King there seemed a plea for unity within the Democratic Party. There are few historical figures the party’s two factions mutually agree are worth celebrating, but King is unquestionably one of them. He at once embodies the urgency of a radical and the discipline of a moderate.

Earlier in the day, before his lecture, Perez gave a brief talk at the Skyline Club to a few donors and local party insiders. To those inclined to distrust Perez—to see him as nothing but a surrogate for the Democrat’s corporate boosters—a meeting of such a swanky nature is an encapsulation of the former Labor Secretary’s character.

Perez’s speech at the law school offered no message other than that the Democratic Party still lacks one. Perez is optimistic, but without an energizing vision, optimism is no better than naiveté.