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Perez: GOP Must Answer for ‘Appalling Silence’ on Trump

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Tom Perez says Democrats can’t go into the midterms campaigning just as anti-Donald Trump, but he wants to tie Trump like an ankle weight to every Republican official, whom he accuses of “appalling silence.”

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“On a basic level, this president is the antithesis of Martin Luther King,” Perez said. “And more than that, Dr. King once said, ‘To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.’”

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee since last February—one of the most thankless jobs in politics—Perez has been trying to save the institution from death amid internal fighting that won’t stop and skepticism from many party leaders that there’s even a point to its existence.

His opponents are in worse shape, he insists, even though they control every branch of government in Washington, and most governors’ mansions and state houses beyond it. “The party of Lincoln is officially dead,” Perez told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “It has become the party of Trump, [Roy] Moore, [Joe] Arpaio, [Paul] Ryan, [Mitch] McConnell.”

To Ryan—who, unlike when he decried the “textbook racism” of Trump’s citing the Mexican heritage of the judge in the Trump University case during the 2016 campaign, said only on Friday that the president’s reported “shithole countries” comment was “unfortunate”—Perez says: Take a long, hard look at yourself. “It’s ‘unfortunate’ when it rains before a Nats game,” Perez said. “It’s unconscionable when somebody does something like that.”

Perez is a civil rights lawyer and former labor secretary, and his natural state is wonky, with a knack for coming up with lines that he thinks come off as catchy and repeating them over and over. But put him behind a podium at a political rally, and he goes full rabble-rouser.

At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast at the Mayflower hosted Monday morning by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Perez let some more of that rip. “I don’t know whether that was sincere ignorance or conscientious stupidity, but I think it’s a little of both,” he said of the House speaker. As for Ryan’s counterpart in the Senate, “I don’t know what Mitch McConnell said because he’s in the emergency room getting the sock in his mouth removed.”

In the podcast, Perez went with a line about how “our democracy as we know it is at risk,” and compared Trump to the proto-fascist leader of a small European country in the former Eastern bloc. “You look at [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary,” Perez said. “What did he do when he got into power? He cut the media off at the knees. He attacked the institutions of civil society. He attacked institutions within his own government that were supposed to be independent.”

In late 2014, when he was making a dark-horse play to be Eric Holder’s replacement as attorney general and in 2016, when he was a surprise finalist to be picked as Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Perez and his advisers worked to assert his fiery side and get him attention.

In this new job, drafted by President Barack Obama in his last political act in after years of the DNC withering from his ambivalent neglect, Perez has been more careful about stepping out front. He’s rarely on TV, though much of that is because of how much of his time has been consumed pressing donors in a fundraising catch-up game, a desperate scramble to fill a gaping hole in the DNC’s budget. He’s arguing with members of Congress who have no faith in the committee and no interest in getting any, and other party leaders who have learned over the years to operate on their own and aren’t about to take marching orders from a man whose previous political experience consisted of being elected to Montgomery County council and being kicked off the ballot for Maryland attorney general based on a technicality over how long he’d been practicing at the Justice Department instead of in-state.

But slowly, by taking charge of Democrats’ official infrastructure apparatus and by being a conduit to former president Obama, Perez is starting to assert himself as a party leader—though only through the end of his four-year term in 2020, with insistent plans not to run for re-election as chair and a non-committal attitude toward whether he’ll ever want another job in politics or government again.

All that while he’s looking out a party and institution in such bad shape that it’s an open question how well Democrats will do in the midterms even with Trump’s approval rating topping out at 35 percent and voters saying they’d prefer Democrats to Republicans on “generic polls” by at least 15 percent. In a Quinnipiac University poll out last week, 65 percent of people said Trump doesn’t share their values, 63 percent said he isn’t honest and just 40 percent said he’s fit to serve in office.

Perez takes it as a given that Trump is a racist and a misogynist. Some voters who went with Trump are gone, out of reach forever by the Democrats, Perez acknowledges. But he believes that more voters than most people expect can be won back, though they supported the president without his views about ethnicity and women being much of a secret.
That’s the approach he’s pushing his party on.

“For many people, they felt the Democratic Party let them down, and so they were voting for change, and they thought Donald Trump would bring them change,” Perez said. “Well he is bringing you change—but it’s not change for the better.”

Perez’s message for Democrats: despite how threatened they feel, Alabama shows how much politics is changing, and how much backlash there is to tap into under Trump.

Standing Monday morning at the NAN breakfast, he started rattling off core values, from unions’ right to bargain to D.C. statehood to reproductive rights.

“Organize,” he yelled repeatedly into the microphone, “and vote everywhere.”

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