“Wow. F**k the DNC.” That’s what I thought upon first reading excerpts of Donna Brazile’s first-hand account of Hillary Clinton’s “secret takeover of the DNC.” As published in a piece on Politico, Brazile’s reflections and retelling are apparently themselves an excerpt from her (Brazile’s) upcoming book. Yup—like the subject of her account, Brazile is seeking to profit off a relitigation of the 2016 election. But I digress.
As I alluded to in the title of my own piece, Donna Brazile’s insider information from her time as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee is both a confirmation of what many of us have suspected or known outright, and yet still startling. Even before we were mired in the era of President Trump—a tenure which has every possibility of lasting two terms, despite what approval ratings and legal entanglements might otherwise suggest—it was made evident through WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of E-mails from a hack of key DNC officials that there existed within the Committee a clear bias in favor of the Clinton campaign. It’s a bias that was suggested by a questionable Democratic Party debate schedule marked by relatively few debates (at least next to the Republican Party and its gaggle of uninspired candidates) on odd days and times, but ultimately confirmed in black and white by these E-mails, not to mention Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s particular animus toward the Bernie Sanders campaign and campaign manager Jeff Weaver. At the same time, it’s perhaps unexpected to have these revelations come from Brazile, someone who infamously was fired from CNN after it was discovered she was tipping off the Clinton campaign in advance of a debate televised by the cable news network, and someone who, within the DNC E-mails, expressed her own, even if momentary, irritation with the Sanders campaign.
Before we dive into Donna Brazile’s—shall we say—allegations, let me cut off a potential objection I see to my analysis here and clarify my purpose. Do I think the way in which the DNC “rigged” the primary, as some would say, cost Bernie Sanders a chance at the Democratic Party presidential nomination? While I may disagree with a number of my fellow “Sandernistas” on this point, I don’t think the pro-Clinton bias exhibited by the DNC prior to the Democratic National Convention tipped the scales so heavily that Bernie would have won even in a fair fight. Beyond the evident collusion between the Clinton camp and the DNC, Sanders faced significant challenges in going up against the larger Democratic Party establishment apparatus (“how dare this independent run as a Democrat!”), as well as a comparative lack of name recognition next to Hillary Clinton, an understandable disparity in support among older women, and a failure to establish a significant advantage among minority voters, a struggle which mirrors the progressive movement’s difficulties in reaching people and communities of color in American politics.
These admissions aside, to adhere to the notion that Hillary still would’ve won the Democratic Party nomination and to say nothing of the other shenanigans is to miss the point. If Hillary Clinton and her campaign didn’t need to game the system, why bother doing it in the first place and inviting criticism/risking low turnout in her favor? This kind of manipulation, even if legal—and that’s a big “if”—is the kind of unethical which undermines people’s confidence in political institutions and representative democracy as a whole. For younger or otherwise more idealistic voters who envision a reform of the political process and rejection of the status quo which favors the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, these hijinks are far more significant in their implications for campaign finance reform and political participation than the outcome of one election, disastrous as it was in ushering Donald Trump into the White House.
In other words, this aspect of the 2016 campaign season is significant, especially for a party that lost an election it was widely predicted to win and has been suffering down-ticket losses even in states in which it has historically thrived. So, let’s get to Donna Brazile’s “bombshell” account. Here are some of the more salient quotes from the excerpt featured on Politico:
My predecessor, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had not been the most active chair in fundraising at a time when President Barack Obama’s neglect had left the party in significant debt. As Hillary’s campaign gained momentum, she resolved the party’s debt and put it on a starvation diet. It had become dependent on her campaign for survival, for which she expected to wield control of its operations. Debbie was not a good manager. She hadn’t been very interested in controlling the party—she let Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn do as it desired so she didn’t have to inform the party officers how bad the situation was. How much control Brooklyn had and for how long was still something I had been trying to uncover for the last few weeks.
By now, Wasserman Schultz’s reputation as DNC chair has long been made sour; if you’ll recall, she was forced to resign in disgrace after the evidence of her Clintonian favoritism was made public knowledge. Hence, this is not exactly news that her managerial skills are suspect. Still, it does provide those who felt and continue to feel “the Bern” a certain sense of satisfaction. I know it did for me.
On the phone Gary told me the DNC had needed a $2 million loan, which the campaign had arranged.
“No! That can’t be true!” I said. “The party cannot take out a loan without the unanimous agreement of all of the officers.”
“Gary, how did they do this without me knowing?” I asked. “I don’t know how Debbie relates to the officers,” Gary said. He described the party as fully under the control of Hillary’s campaign, which seemed to confirm the suspicions of the Bernie camp. The campaign had the DNC on life support, giving it money every month to meet its basic expenses, while the campaign was using the party as a fund-raising clearinghouse.
Here, Brazile is describing her conversations with Gary Gensler, CFO of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to Gensler, Barack Obama’s campaign incurred some $24 million in debt, and between his slow repayment of that debt and the contributions of Hillary for America and the Hillary Victory Fund, a “joint fundraising vehicle with the DNC,” the majority of the remaining monies owed had been taken care of. But that still left some $2 million or so that required the approval of a loan, the arrangement of which was orchestrated by Wasserman Schultz and made possible by the direct connection between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Given the apparent dire financial straits of the DNC at the time, it is perhaps no wonder that Hillary and Co. had so much control over the allocation of monies in the Hillary Victory Fund. Still, that knowledge of this situation was not more widespread—whether within the Bernie Sanders campaign or within the DNC itself—keeps with the theme of a lack of transparency and ethical practices. Even if Hillary still would’ve won the primary nomination, this evidence of an unethical process leaves one to wonder if the race might’ve been closer if there were a more equitable arrangement, and to lament that we’ll never know for sure how close.
I wanted to believe Hillary, who made campaign finance reform part of her platform, but I had made this pledge to Bernie and did not want to disappoint him. I kept asking the party lawyers and the DNC staff to show me the agreements that the party had made for sharing the money they raised, but there was a lot of shuffling of feet and looking the other way.
When I got back from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, I at last found the document that described it all: the Joint Fund-Raising Agreement between the DNC, the Hillary Victory Fund, and Hillary for America.
The agreement—signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias—specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.
I had been wondering why it was that I couldn’t write a press release without passing it by Brooklyn. Well, here was the answer.
There are two particular reasons why Brazile’s references to this agreement are significant. The first is that, despite Hillary’s talk on the campaign trail about wanting to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up, the state Democratic Parties were getting less than half of 1% of what Clinton and her campaign were raising. Brazile references a separate Politico article from May 2016 by Kenneth P. Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf which details this suspect arrangement. Again, old news, but the severity of the situation merits underscoring. The second, though, is the timing of the agreement’s creation. It was signed in August 2015, less than six months after Hillary Clinton officially announced her candidacy, and long before she had officially secured the nomination. This kind of control for Hillary’s sake well in advance of state primaries and the election itself may be unprecedented, and—not to beat a dead horse, but—it flies in the face of a fair and transparent selection process. Some kind of democracy—and we’re the ones who don’t support democracy by not voting for her.
I told Bernie I had found Hillary’s Joint Fundraising Agreement. I explained that the cancer was that she had exerted this control of the party long before she became its nominee. Had I known this, I never would have accepted the interim chair position, but here we were with only weeks before the election. Bernie took this stoically. He did not yell or express outrage. Instead he asked me what I thought Hillary’s chances were. The polls were unanimous in her winning but what, he wanted to know, was my own assessment?
I had to be frank with him. I did not trust the polls, I said. I told him I had visited states around the country and I found a lack of enthusiasm for her everywhere. I was concerned about the Obama coalition and about millennials. I urged Bernie to work as hard as he could to bring his supporters into the fold with Hillary, and to campaign with all the heart and hope he could muster. He might find some of her positions too centrist, and her coziness with the financial elites distasteful, but he knew and I knew that the alternative was a person who would put the very future of the country in peril. I knew he heard me. I knew he agreed with me, but I never in my life had felt so tiny and powerless as I did making that call.
When I hung up the call to Bernie, I started to cry, not out of guilt, but out of anger. We would go forward. We had to.
Wonderful story, Donna. I’m sure your book is full of such vividly-written prose. As unsympathetic as I am toward Donna Brazile’s position as DNC chair, even under these circumstances, and all kidding aside, it is intriguing to hear her talk about how she had reservations even before the election about Hillary’s campaign and the challenges she (Hillary) faced in beating Donald Trump. Plus, it also is kind of nice to have Brazile say something positive about Bernie. He may not be a saint and I might not agree with every last one of his positions on issues, but I do have a lot of admiration for that man. Fellow Sanders fans, this last quote was for you.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee were in cahoots—fine, you may be saying. Still, even if you don’t believe this ultimately affected the outcome of the primary election to the extent that Bernie Sanders would’ve won instead, and even if Donna Brazile’s insider account reveals a broken political process that merits fixing, what is the utility of opening up old wounds? Why risk dividing a Democratic Party that has seen so much tumult over the past year and change?
Well, Esteemed Reader, the answers to these queries are manifold. First of all, there is the issue of money, and by that I mean, campaign donations. For all the donors who contributed to the Bernie Sanders campaign (myself included), it makes a bit of a difference to have them sink their money into a cause that the DNC worked so hard to ensure was a lost one rather than an equal and fair bid for the nomination. If you weren’t already aware, a class action lawsuit already has worked its way through the courts, with the case brought against the DNC by attorneys Jared and Elizabeth Beck being dismissed back in August by federal judge William Zloch on the grounds that “the named Plaintiffs have not presented a case that is cognizable in federal court.” As Bruce Spiva, on behalf of the DNC, argued, and as the court evidently agreed, there is no way to determine who is to be considered in standing to be defrauded and eligible for remediation. In doing so, however, Spiva essentially confirmed that the Committee favored Hillary Clinton, and theoretically that it could do so because the Democratic Party can do what it wants regarding the selection of its representatives at the Democratic National Convention and at the state level. Good for party unity, this line of thinking is not.
More pressing than this, though, is the notion that the Democratic Party never has truly healed in the first place from the divisions which surfaced during the primaries. While I’m not here to defend the actions of Sanders supporters who would demean Hillary Clinton and her supporters through thinly-veiled sexism, and while there is some degree of “to the victor goes the spoils” to be expected with how the Clinton camp and Hillary’s faithful reacted to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, if ever one was to have the impression that the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and newer members/fervent Sanders supporters were a cohesive lot, he or she was missing the signs of an ongoing battle for the soul of the party. Take Hillary Clinton herself. Why author and release a book about the 2016 election concerning “what happened” only to once again deflect responsibility and to blame Bernie Sanders for irreparable harm done to the Dems? For one thing, if Bernie Sanders as one man can bring down the entire apparatus of a major political party, that appeals to a weak party infrastructure even before the events leading up to the election began. Indeed, from the sound of what Donna Brazile is indicating, the debt created by the Barack Obama campaign compounded by poor management from Debbie Wasserman Schultz already had the DNC in dire straits. In this regard, Bernie is a fall guy as much as anything.
Besides this, though, and as Clinton and her parrots would insinuate, Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat,” and beyond Bernie self-identifying as an independent, this kind of deprecation begs the question: What does it mean to be a “true Democrat”? Does it mean blindly supporting the party’s chosen candidate despite any reservations about him or her? Does it mean holding lavish meet-and-greet fundraisers that are meant to exclude a large swath of would-be Democratic voters? Does it mean bypassing whole battleground states because making speeches about income inequality in Giorgio Armani clothing is generally not appreciated by blue-collar types? To me, attacking Bernie for not being a Democrat when the Democratic Party itself has moved away from its roots as a party of the middle class and of working-class Americans is as disingenuous as it is fruitless. At least he ran an authentically grassroots campaign and talked about income and wealth inequality in a meaningful way. And yet he is the divisive one when the class warfare perpetrated by corporations and the wealthy puts the bottom 99% at risk. If Bernie isn’t a “true Democrat” by these standards, I’m not sure I want to be either.
Hillary Clinton may choose to take her potshots at Bernie Sanders from behind the cover of her non-fiction—well, more or less; it’s not fiction if she believes it’s true, right?—book. On one hand, it appears as if Clinton’s personal political aspirations have subsided. That is, “Hill-Dawg” is unlikely to run again in 2020. Though you never know—she or Joe Biden just might rear her or his head in two to three years’ time to represent the Obama administration/Democratic Party establishment in full force. Either way, however, and on the other hand, as a political figure whose work has spanned her formative years as a woman interested in politics, her identity as a notably engaged First Lady during her husband’s tenure as President, her time in the U.S. Senate, and her service as Secretary of State, HRC’s voice carries a certain amount of weight, and she figures to still be involved in the world of politics.
Thus, when Clinton speaks about Bernie in this way—someone who is still directly involved in the political sphere as senator from the state of Vermont and who may yet have designs for another run at the presidency in 2020—it does matter. Perhaps above all else, it is a signal to party leadership that Sanders is not to be trusted with the keys to the car, so to speak. If the management of the DNC under Tom Perez, former Labor Secretary and Donna Brazile’s successor, is any indication, Democratic Party leaders already have this advice close to heart. Recently, Perez revealed his list of appointments and nominations for key Committee positions, and to a large extent, Democratic Party loyalists were favored over individuals who supported Bernie Sanders and/or Keith Ellison. If there’s a better symbolic gesture of just how unwelcome progressives are at the Dems’ table, you’d be hard-pressed to find one.
All this makes Donna Brazile’s depictions of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Clinton all the more curious. Is Brazile trying to stir the pot merely to sell copies of her own work of non-fiction? Does she legitimately believe the criticisms she leveled against these current and former bastions of Democratic Party infrastructure/leadership? Or might she primarily see value in throwing a bone to Bernie Sanders supporters rather than deliberately alienating them? One can only speculate as to whether or not Brazile’s true motivations are self-serving, but if someone who seemed as staunchly pro-Hillary as she can make these comments, maybe more than just Donna Brazile see the writing on the wall concerning the future of the Democratic Party for 2018, 2020, and beyond. Serious reform of the Democratic Party and of the DNC is needed if its leadership hopes to match the enthusiasm the Republican Party has been able to generate among its loyalists and within its conservative base. Certainly, there’s a long way to go on this front, and with only a year to go before mid-term elections in 2018, the short-term political outlook looks bleak for the party associated with the color blue.