The revelations from former Democratic National Committee (DNC) interim chair Donna Brazile created quite a stir in national politics. Her Politico article, “Inside Hillary Clinton’s Secret Takeover of the DNC,” an extract from a forthcoming tell-all book, had everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Donald Trump buzzing about Hillary Clinton’s “rigged” primary contest against Bernie Sanders.
The details boil down to this:
- The DNC was in debt to the tune of $25 million after the 2012 election due to general neglect from the Obama administration and the inherited decisions of then-chair Wasserman Schultz;
- in 2015 Clinton’s campaign organization put the DNC on life support in exchange for influence over budgetary, hiring, and strategic decisionmaking; and
- by moving funds around from “party building” accounts to the campaign, the Clinton organization effectively circumvented campaign finance laws limiting the size of individual donations while depriving state parties of critical resources.
Brazile says she found these shocking arrangements to be “unethical” if not illegal, and believed they “compromised the party’s integrity.” But as the Atlantic’s David A. Graham put it, the real surprise here is that any of this came as a surprise to Donna Brazile.
Brazile has been a Democratic Party operative since the 1980s, working on presidential campaigns ranging from Jesse Jackson’s to Walter Mondale’s, Richard Gephardt’s and Al Gore’s. For decades, moreover, political scientists have been documenting how the national party committees are relatively weakly institutionalized organizations serving as junior partners to candidates’ personal campaign vehicles. For most of the twentieth century they were little more than dusty office spaces and a phone line during the years between presidential elections. Then they’d reactivate during campaign season, accumulating debt which they would then pay down after the election.
Since the 1970s and 1980s the committees have become better service providers for candidates, providing more fundraising, targeted data analysis, and campaign event coordination. But candidates haven’t returned the favor. Since 1945, Democratic presidents in particular have displayed a pattern of carrying on exploitative relationships with their party’s national committee, using it as an ATM to assist their own campaign efforts come election time, then neglecting to rebuild it afterward.
In this regard, Obama was no different than any of his postwar predecessors, notwithstanding Brazile’s expressions of surprise. And by 2015 the DNC was in such dire straights that the Clinton campaign may have had little choice but to refinance the committee’s operations ahead of the presidential contest. In fact, it’s possible the DNC got the better end of the deal.
Given that DNC staffers were always going to be more inclined to support Clinton than an independent socialist from Vermont — seeing her apparently assured victory as their own ticket to the Beltway elite’s inner circles — pro-Clinton sentiment among DNC staff members should have been assumed regardless of whether Clinton “took over” the party or not. There was no other game in town. When Bernie turned the heat on, they resented him as a nuisance and potential spoiler, and treated him as such in their snarky emails.
In light of all that, Brazile’s account is either deliberately misleading, a self-exculpatory maneuver in the ongoing fight over the party’s future; or it reflects deep naiveté concerning how the Democratic Party actually functions. Further revelations haven’t helped to clarify her motives. About a day after Brazile’s Politico bombshell, she revealed that after she’d sensed the “odor of failure” from the Clinton campaign, she considered pressuring the DNC to remove Clinton from the top of the ticket. This, too, is either opportunistic revisionist history, or an empty declaration of intent to do something that would have so far exceeded the authority of the DNC chair, it’s delusional, laughable, or both.
Brazile could no more have removed Clinton from the ticket than I could. Had she tried to convince the DNC to do so, they may have removed her instead.
But just as problematic as Brazile’s story has been the broader left’s reception of it. Despite wishful thinking, it doesn’t actually prove that the Democratic nomination was “rigged” against Sanders, if that word is meant to suggest that the process was deliberately manipulated by party elites to produce a Clinton victory after Bernie entered the race and became a threat.
The clearest instance of the DNC’s pro-Clinton manipulation was its scheduling of only a handful of debates, at times when low viewership was expected. Such an arrangement clearly disadvantages lesser-known candidates. However, with the circulation of clips and sound bytes through social media, even this was not an insurmountable barrier for Sanders.
Secondly, the rules governing the 2016 convention delegate selection process were set in 2014, well before Sanders was on anyone’s radar. And since most delegates are chosen through primaries, which are run by state governments, not parties, DNC operatives or state-level committee chairs had no real influence over the process. Moreover, changes to primary rules require new state-level legislation, something that cannot easily be accomplished on short notice in response to new campaign developments, like an unexpected insurgent candidate.
The real import of the Brazile revelations is their timing and intent as a jab at the Clinton campaign — part of the ongoing, multisided struggle to wrest control of the Democratic Party’s deeply uncertain future. The Left could be an important pole in that struggle while the window of opportunity remains open. But we shouldn’t be taken in by “revelations” that confirm what we already knew. Brazile’s disclosures can only surprise folks so deeply steeped in Democratic ideology that they believe in the possibility that the party would ever treat self-identified socialists in a neutral fashion and on an equal footing with the establishment.
Insurgents are an unwelcome presence by definition. We should accept the label. But while the Democratic Party can be a useful platform for promoting our political vision, we need to recognize it’s not our friend and treat it appropriately. That doesn’t mean calling for more “transparency” in an organization deliberately designed not to have a mass membership or democratic mechanisms of accountability. It means being sober about the odds stacked against us and responding strategically.
We’re never going to have a fair fight in the struggle against capitalism, but that hasn’t stopped the Left in the past. Why should the terrain of the Democratic Party be any different?