If I owned a time machine, I would have used it to send House Democrats for a ride before their impeachment vote. Setting the dials for about 1915, I would bid them to stop on 14th Street in New York City, where they might see Frances Perkins striding into the headquarters building of Tammany Hall, the notorious political machine.
What’s a heroine of progressive politics doing in this den of corruption and compromise? Today’s Democrats know Perkins as a name on a massive federal office building, the one that houses the Labor Department. The first woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet, Perkins was goad and conscience for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal from his first day in office to his last.
But that’s far in the future for this woman in her mid-30s headed into Tammany’s inner sanctum. She’s here because she understands that to change the world she must first win elections. Perkins has principles and high ideals, yes. But what makes her different from many reformers, the thing that will mark her name on that Washington edifice, is that she’s come to realize that politics is more than being right on principle. Ideally, politics is winning while being right on principle.
Much of what Perkins knows about winning she learned from the machine hacks of Tammany. With help from the likes of Big Tim Sullivan, undisputed boss of the Bowery, and Al Smith, whose education includes “an FFM” from working at the Fulton Fish Market, Perkins has recently organized passage of a law limiting the workweek to 54 hours. This concrete result was fresh in the minds of working men when they went to the polls in 1913 and rewarded Tammany with a statewide landslide victory.
Our modern-day Democrats would see Perkins approach the desk of Charles Murphy — Silent Charlie, the brilliant enigma who seems to pull every string in New York while barely speaking a word. Arguably the most powerful boss in Tammany history, Murphy listens stonily as Perkins asks his blessing on a new round of reforms, as Perkins biographer George Martin recounted.
After a long pause, Murphy replies: “You are the young lady, aren’t you, who managed to get the 54-hour bill passed?” The Boss opposed the bill, having taken many donations from factory owners. Perkins swallows hard and says “yes.”
Another silence. At last, Murphy says: “It is my observation that the bill made us many votes. I will tell the boys to give you all the help they can.”
Perkins is starting to leave when, to her surprise, the Boss speaks a third time. Does she support women’s suffrage? Squaring her shoulders, Perkins says of course.
I don’t, Murphy replies. But in the event that women ever get the vote, “I hope that you remember that you would make a good Democrat.” Perkins nods and leaves, and a few months later, Murphy flips and blesses the suffrage movement. His finger on the pulse of public opinion has registered another flutter. That is the only signal Murphy cares for.
After encountering the soul of their party — the cities, the working class, the spirit of progress — today’s House Democrats might return to the present with fresh eyes. It was the likes of Charlie Murphy and Frances Perkins who lifted the Democrats from their post-Lincoln malaise to perch the party on the seat of 20th-century power. They did it by “making votes,” as Murphy put it. Moving the public.
Impeachment doesn’t appear to be making many votes. According to the nonpartisan Quinnipiac poll, self-described independents overwhelmingly oppose removing President Trump from office based on the case presented in the House. The latest Post/ABC News poll paints a less disastrous picture for the party but still shows that the autumn of impeachment left persuadable voters unmoved.
Two generations of Democrats have fought many of their biggest battles in courtrooms: abortion, affirmative action, marriage equality. They’ve come to act as if winning an argument is sufficient to win an election. They’ve forgotten how potent a landslide can be.
When I’ve written before about the importance of influencing public opinion before taking the leap to impeachment, I’ve encountered a lot of anger from righteous Democrats. I’m told the problem isn’t unpersuaded moderates; it is the recalcitrant Republicans of the Senate. No amount of persuasion can possibly reach them.
Maybe Charlie Murphy, with his carefully selected words and impeccable Democratic credentials, could explain what I cannot: that senators are senators because they are able to count votes. They live and die by their networks of support, which vibrate like a spider’s web at the slightest tremors and feints of public opinion. You move senators by moving the public first.
Walking into Tammany Hall, Frances Perkins wasn’t just wearing the armor of righteousness. She was more powerful than that — armored in votes.
David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post.