The 2016 Mess
Did Clinton Commandeer the DNC—or Did Wasserman Schultz and Obama Let It Wither?
The real problem wasn’t that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was in the tank for her. It was that she ran a party operation so deep in debt that it needed outside money to survive.
Welcome back, my friends, to the primary that never ends.
The excerpt from Donna Brazile’s book that ran in Politico on Thursday was a tanker-truck of gasoline thrown on the still-burning bitter fires of the Hillary-Bernie primary. Start with the headline: “Inside Hillary Clinton’s Secret Takeover of the DNC.” Talk about button-pressing buzzwords! The only words in that headline that aren’t incendiary are “of” and “the.”
Then you go read the piece. I was at the car dealer’s early Thursday morning waiting on an oil change when I clicked on the story and started reading. What. The… The Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee made a secret deal to hand the DNC over to the Clinton campaign months before she nailed down the nomination, while Bernie Sanders was still running?
Oy, oy, oy. That doesn’t just sound bad. That is bad. And to Sanders partisans, it confirmed every suspicion and then some. Then I started emailing and making some calls. The truth is a little more complicated. There’s a story here, but it isn’t really Hillary’s secret takeover. The story is what the hell happened to the DNC between 2012 and 2016 and why it had—and for that matter, still has—so little money.
But let’s start with the takeover angle. Brazile writes—quite dramatically, it must be said—about a painful phone call she had to make to Sanders in September 2016 to tell him of the “cancer” she found in the DNC: a joint fund-raising agreement between the DNC and the Clinton campaign that gave the latter full control over the DNC “long before she became its nominee.” And it was pretty thorough, with the Clinton campaign getting to name the DNC’s communications director, for example.
As far as money went, the joint agreement spelled out a complex arrangement whereby Clinton would raise money both for her own PAC, Hillary for America, and for the DNC and its state committees.
The joint agreement between Clinton and the DNC wasn’t exclusive. The DNC routinely enters into such agreements with all presidential candidates. In 2007-2008, a tripartite agreement was struck between the DNC and the Clinton and Obama campaigns. And in November 2015, a joint agreement was reached between the DNC and the Sanders campaign. It was reported on at the time.
Brazile doesn’t mention it. She does make reference to “the fundraising agreement that each of the candidates had signed,” but without more explanation, that’s pretty cryptic. Maybe she mentions it somewhere else in the book, but it seems an odd thing to leave out here.
Brazile’s point, though, is that the Clinton agreement gave her campaign unprecedented control over the DNC before she was the nominee. That sounds like a dubious special deal between the DNC and Clinton, and in some ways, it was. Certainly, getting to dictate DNC staff before becoming the nominee was highly unusual.
But here’s the thing: The deal wasn’t struck for love (of Clinton by the DNC). It was struck for money. The DNC was $25 million in debt, and the Clinton campaign agreed to erase a lot of that debt. Sanders didn’t. Which is not a knock on him. Why should he have? He and his people knew that DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was pro-Clinton all the way, so there’s no reason he should have agreed to bail out the DNC.
But the Clinton people had different motivations. They sized up the situation and thought OK, we’re paying off your bills, but in return why shouldn’t we get some say in how you’re run? So it was in Sanders’ interest not to play ball with the DNC, and it was in Clinton’s interest to do so. Brazile reports that when she told Sanders the news, he didn’t “express outrage.” That may be because he was hardly shocked.
It was just an ugly situation, and it’s why I say the real story here is what happened to the DNC. To be $25 million in debt heading into a presidential election year takes some doing. National committees are always in debt after a presidential election year, but usually they’re in strong shape heading into a presidential race. That wasn’t the case here. Whose fault was that?
Partly Wasserman Schultz’s. Nobody liked her, nobody wanted to work with her. She would go see donors and ask them to write two checks, one to the DNC and one to her. Bernie Sanders obviously didn’t have much use for her. Barack Obama didn’t really like her. And ironically, as pro-Hillary as she was in 2016, even Clinton didn’t want her around. Clinton had reportedly been miffed back in 2008 when Wasserman Schultz was backing Clinton but quietly reaching out to Obamaland before the primaries were over.
So why did Obama reappoint her after the 2012 campaign was over? Lack of interest in the DNC, I was told. After he won re-election, he didn’t need it any more. A key figure in this narrative is Patrick Gaspard, an accomplished and trusted Obama operative who ran the White House’s office of political affairs from the Obama administration’s first days. In 2011, Obama moved Gaspard over to the DNC as executive director. But then, with the election won, Obama made Gaspard his ambassador to South Africa.
After Gaspard left, the White House lost interest in the DNC. Obama wasn’t out raising money to retire the 2012 debt. He did clear that debt eventually, and he raised a lot of money last year. But he really should have put a new chairperson in sometime in 2013. He almost did, I was told, but Wasserman Schultz protested, and Obama never pulled the trigger.
So that’s the fuller story. If the DNC had been functioning normally, it would never have needed to hand operations over to the Clinton campaign in exchange for Clinton helping to bail it out. And today? Literally the same day the Brazile excerpt ran, news broke that current chair Tom Perez fired his top fundraiser. The DNC has raised $51 million since January. But the Republican National Committee has raised $104 million.
And Brazile’s book, to be released in a few days, will also delve further in the 2016 mess—the convention battles, the WikiLeaks hacks, and more. Anybody’s allowed to write a book who wants to, and it sure looks like it’ll be interesting. But for Democrats, who’d love to find a way to put 2016 in the rear-view mirror in a hurry, it’s one more sign that the 2016 primary will end in 2020. If they’re lucky.