MILWAUKEE — Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez offered a full-throated defense of his decision to give Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich a prominent role at the 2020 convention, brushing back criticism from progressives who say the former GOP presidential candidate doesn’t represent their party.
“I disagree with John Kasich on issues of real importance, whether it’s women’s reproductive health or the right to form a union. But Ted Kennedy taught me that progress was the search for Venn diagrams,” Perez told NBC News here late Monday after opening night. “The moment that you give up the search for common ground is the moment that governance gets really, really hard.”
“And John Kasich — we have, in that Venn diagram, agreement on a really, really important point which is: The rule of law matters. The guardrails of democracy must be retained,” he said. “The obliteration of those guardrails is where our democracy suffers and becomes extinct.”
Perez’s remarks came after Kasich had a remote dustup with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., earlier in the day. After he poked at her “outsized publicity” and questioned whether she “represents the Democratic Party,” the congresswoman tweeted that “a Republican who fights against women’s rights doesn’t get to say who is or isn’t representative of the Dem party.”
Kasich wasn’t the only Republican who spoke on Monday at the convention: He was joined by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman. In backing Joe Biden they described President Donald Trump as a mix of divisive, unstable and unable to deliver results.
Ocasio-Cortez, a 30-year-old progressive star from the Bronx, is slated to speak on Tuesday.
The first night of the all-remote Democratic convention was heavy on a mood of optimism, a theme of unity and, with the exception of a speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., largely devoid of policy. It suited Biden’s brand as a safe alternative to Trump who can show empathy for Americans of all ideologies and backgrounds.
The decision to give GOP luminaries a seat at the table is a source of tension between Perez, whose mission is to win the 2020 election, and progressive advocates whose goal is to advance their policy causes over the long haul by enhancing their clout within the party.
Perez said those Republicans who spoke out against Trump were creating a “permission structure” for Americans who don’t typically vote Democrat to pull the lever for Biden.
“There’s a lot of people I know across America who are watching John Kasich tonight and they’re having misgivings about Trump,” he said in the interview. “At the end of the day, what I say respectfully to my friends who say he shouldn’t be on the stage is that politics is about arithmetic. Addition beats subtraction any day of the week. I’m not asking you to support all the things that John Kasich has supported. Quite the contrary.”
Sahil Kapur is a national political reporter for NBC News.