Saturday, October 26, 2019

Honoring Elijah Cummings by not repeating a mistake made at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

I think it's fitting on the day that the great civil rights and congressional leader Elijah Cummings is laid to rest to take a look back at the disrespect he endured giving an opening speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Reflection on this cautionary tale is critical because failure to take what happened then into account at next year's convention could very well mean a continuation of the political nightmare we have been experiencing for the last three years.

The setup for this video is pretty simple. It was July 25, Day 1 of the 2016 convention. The opening speeches, as always, were intended to strike unifying themes, the kind of things upon which it was imagined all Democrats could agree.

Accordingly, Representative Cummings had prepared a speech that emphasized the the need to address environmental concerns, including global warming, while creating jobs and maintaining U.S. global economic competitiveness; the related need to provide American children with a first-class education to accomplish this economic goal; the need to protect women's access to reproductive health services; and the need to secure and extend the access to healthcare that had been made possible by President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

What's not to like, right?

Well, it wasn't easy going for Representative Cummings. From the get-go he had to contend with resounding shouts of "Stop TPP" from the crowd, in particular from a cadre of very vocal Bernie bros. The shouts were so loud that they made his remarks impossible to hear in the conventional hall itself. The audio feed from speaker's microphone is what saved Cumming's speech from being lost to history and internet streaming.

I recall this situation first hand. I had tuned in to listen to the opening day speeches because I knew that Stacey Abrams was scheduled to be making her first appearance on the national stage. I was already a big fan of Leader Abrams, as she is called, and wanted to witness what I believed would be a historical moment in her political career, one that a good year  before the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that would make her a Democratic superstar. The shouting infiltrated her later appearance as well.

I remember sharing Representative Cumming's frustration as he tried to do his assigned duty by calling Democrats together to recognize, in spite of their differences, the many things that united them in common cause. And I shared in his disappointment that his important message was drowned out by those who had much more narrowly focused agendas.

Of course, it's hard to argue with true-believers of any stripe, those people who would see a promising party platform dashed to pieces unless it included a particular plank of their own insistence. Besides, as many thought at the time, the presidential election was in the bag, so why not take the opportunity to make a lot of noise about TPP, especially given how poorly the Democratic establishment had treated then upstart contender Bernie Sanders. What harm could it possibly cause?

One of the great ironies of this situation is that, as far as my informal survey would indicate, very few people now even remember what the initials TPP stand for. It's Trans-Pacific Partnership, by the way; a trade deal approved by President Obama and backed by candidate Hillary Clinton which was anathema to Democrats who saw it, understandably, as yet another big concession to multinational corporations to the disadvantage of American consumers and working people.

However important an issue TPP was at the time, it is recalled now as a vague skirmish in a fratricidal, intra-party conflict which preceded a war that Donald Trump and the Republicans would win three months later. I should add that shouts of Stop TPP will forever remind me of the unwarranted disrespect shown to the great Elijah Cummings, a man who had committed decades of his life to improving the lot of his party and the American people.

I hope that the salience of this video from July 2016 to our particular political moment is not lost. I fear that history could very well repeat itself as some notable, perhaps long-serving, well-respected Democratic leader like Elijah Cummings tries to offer a unifying message at the 2020 Democratic National convention. My genuine expectation is that person will drowned out with shouts of one sort or the other. My money is on "Medicare for all" as the deafening shout if, say, Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg is the nominee apparent, but I imagine that there is a chant available for every variation of Democratic presidential primary outcome.

Whatever slogan the crowd is shouting  in July 2020, what they won't be hearing - or allowing others in the hall to hear - is the list of things that the opening speakers are enumerating that unite us.

These will include, but not limited to: securing and extending current access to healthcare; reestablishing and defending women's right to reproductive health services; recognizing and safeguarding the rights of LGBTQ citizens in the workplace and in our society at large; restoring the EPA to former glory with a commitment to keeping our air and water clean; rejoining the Paris Climate Accords; returning our country to a progressive tax policy designed to narrow the growing chasm of wealth that separates the very rich from the middle class and the poor in this country; preserving our national wilderness for future generations to enjoy; and addressing and correcting the crimes being committed against people of color not only on our borders but also in our own communities. The list goes on.

It would seem to me that one of the most significant ways we could honor the memory the late Elijah Cummings is to remember this stain on the 2016 Democratic National Convention and vow to not let it happen again next summer. Whatever single issues inspire us, in the final analysis we need to keep focused on the constellation of concerns that bring us together. By insisting defiantly on any one thing, we risk - once again - the possibility of losing them all.