April 27, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Truth about the Steny Hoyer Tape

The Intercept thinks it caught the Democratic Party red-handed. It didn't.

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The Intercept was given an audio recording featuring a leading Democrat that on Thursday set the world of Twitter on fire.

In it, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, asks a novice candidate for Congress to drop out in favor of an established figure in Colorado politics.

Reporter Lee Fang writes that Hoyer “laid down the law” for “progressive” candidate Levi Tillemann, who returned home from Washington to challenge GOP Congressman Mike Coffman. Hoyer told Tillemann that the decision “had been made long ago” to favor Jason Crow, “a corporate lawyer at [a] powerhouse Colorado firm.”

It wasn’t personal, Hoyer insisted, and there was nothing uniquely unfair being done to Tillemann, he explained: This is how the party does it everywhere.

Fang presents the recording as evidence of party  hypocrisy, power-wrangling and double-dealing, as yet another example of the Democratic Party thumbing its nose at the democratic process while putting its thumb on the scales, undermining the will of the people while at the same time claiming to be the people’s party.

Yet on listening, one can arrive at a much different conclusion: that the party is healthy and functioning as it should. Fang frames the audio recording as a kind of “gotcha” but it’s not. Anyone who understands what parties do, why they do it, and how, is left to wonder honestly: what on earth are you talking about?

The loudest critics
Remember that it’s entirely appropriate, even desirable, for party insiders to make choices they believe are best for the party, and it’s appropriate, even desirable, for party insiders to make those preferences known, directly or indirectly, before party members go to primaries and caucuses to choose party candidates.

Remember, too, that primaries and caucuses were invented as a check on the power of party insiders. That they exist at all contravenes the widely held belief among some progressives that the party controls everything. It has influence, yes, but only so much.

Again, they were invented to check insider power, not neutralize it, because that’s not possible. This is a party we are talking about. Yet there has been, since Bernie Sanders’ failed bid, a growing notion that the party should be hands off, always. If it dares to do what a party is entitled to do—that is, exert influence—it’s guilty as charged.

That’s just stupid.

Yes, parties are sometimes unfair. Unfairness is the cost of being an organization bent on winning control of government and taking hold of power. It means some people lose and some people win. It also means the party can make spectacular mistakes, which give critics more reason to blast it for not being progressive enough.

It’s true that some candidates might not be progressive enough. It’s also true that some candidates might be too progressive. Politics is an art, not a science. But the party’s critics can’t know. They believe they do. But they can’t, because knowing is not possible short of omniscience. Yet this is the heart of the disagreement.

When all is said and done, the difference between knowledge and blind faith is often the difference between the Democratic Party and its loudest critics.

Getting played
Now, I should note here there is no such thing as consensus among Democrats. Some say it’s OK for the party to exert influence. Others, like Matt Yglesias, say the Democratic Party should focus on Republicans more than it does primaries.

That’s a real debate taking place within the context of party politics. The progressives I am talking about, however, doubt that political parties are legitimate. Worse they believe parties taint democracy with power. This, as I said, is stupid, but it’s more.

It’s a belief that pure democracy is best, but that’s not anywhere close to being a certainty. When Hoyer said the following, I kept nodding in agreement. Fang wrote:

“Staying out of primaries sounds small-D democratic, very intellectual, and very interesting,” said Hoyer. “But if you stay out of primaries, and somebody wins in the primary who can’t possibly win in the general,” the Maryland representative said, citing the surprise victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election, “I’m not saying you’re that person.” But staying out of primaries, he argued, is “not very smart strategy.”

Believing anything blindly is naive, and from naivety comes vulnerability and from vulnerability comes the risk of getting played. Case in point: Lee Fang’s “gotcha.”

Faith triumphing over knowledge
Who gave him the tape? “Progressive” Levi Tillemann.

Why? Because:

he had trouble gaining an audience with senior DCCC officials, obtaining polling data promised by the DCCC, or even gaining access to resumes of Democratic campaign staff. The party continued to promise neutrality while inviting only Crow to a candidate training seminar.

Sour grapes? You bet. But it’s more.

Levi Tillemann is the son of a well-connected political family with deep roots in Colorado and other states. His mother, Nancy E. Dick, was Colorado’s first female lieutenant governor. His grandfather, Tom Lantos, was a long-serving congressman from California. His uncle, Richard Swett, used to represent New Hampshire.

While Tillemann was in Washington, rival Jason Crow did the hard work of establishing himself, so much so he was the pick of Colorado’s congressional delegation. Yes, democratically elected Democrats made “the decision,” Fang wrote, “long ago.” This fact is buried so deeply that is allows good-faith readers to believe the decision to pick Crow was made in smoke-filled backrooms in Washington.

Why campaign against Jason Crow when you secretly record audio of a party insider doing what party insiders do and then leak it to a friendly journalist who believes party insiders should not do what party insiders to? Why campaign when you can sabotage?

Fang got played.

And he got played because faith triumphed over knowledge.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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