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The DNC and Clinton: Separating Signal From Noise

AP Photo/John Locher

There’s been a lot of chatter over Donna Brazile’s excerpt from her new book, which ran yesterday in Politico. The discussion centers on her claim that the Clinton administration assumed, in effect, control over the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in exchange for keeping it solvent.

Officials from Hillary’s campaign had taken a look at the DNC’s books. Obama left the party $24 million in debt—$15 million in bank debt and more than $8 million owed to vendors after the 2012 campaign—and had been paying that off very slowly. Obama’s campaign was not scheduled to pay it off until 2016. Hillary for America (the campaign) and the Hillary Victory Fund (its joint fundraising vehicle with the DNC) had taken care of 80 percent of the remaining debt in 2016, about $10 million, and had placed the party on an allowance.

The degree of the DNC’s debt is worrisome for a number of reasons, but it’s the purported terms of the agreement that have created the biggest stir. Brazile writes that:

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.

What are we to make of this?

First, we need more evidence that Brazille’s word. While commentators often focus on the struggle to define the Democratic Party after Clinton’s defeat to Trump, there is also a factional struggle going on. The Clintons and their supporters have dominated much of the party infrastructure for decades. Obama did not develop an alternative. Obama for America was supposed to convert into a major advocacy group, Organizing for America, after the 2008 election. That didn’t really happen. The DNC clearly languished. This vacuum means that the Democratic establishment faces a great deal of uncertainty about how best to secure their future and influence. As David Graham notes:

The fact that an operator like Brazile is willing to burn bridges with the Clintons, though, is important. Although one might have assumed Hillary Clinton’s time as a Democratic mover and shaker was passed, her frequent appearances to promote her book suggest she remains interested in staying in the arena, and earlier this week Jeet Heer argued that she should be the Democrat’s standard-bearer against Trump. (Never mind that we’ve seen how that turned out once before.) But Brazile’s bound toward the Bernie bandwagon is another indication of how Sanders is, at least for the moment, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party.

Second, a number of the efforts to downplay Brazile’s revelations sidestep what makes them explosive. These tend to focus on the fact that the joint-fundraising agreement was common knowledge, and that the Sanders campaign signed one as well. For example:

Nowhere in the piece does Brazile mention that Politico reported the fundraising agreement between the DNC and Hillary when it happened, nor does she mention that the Sanders campaign also signed a joint fundraising agreement with the DNC. Bernie could have raised more money through that agreement, which would have helped the DNC financially and also arguably helped down-ballot Democrats, but he chose to raise money through small donations.

However, the issue isn’t the existence of a joint-fundraising agreement, it’s that the agreement may have ceded a good deal of control over the DNC to Clinton. It would, if true, bear out many of the complaints made by the Sanders campaign. Moreover, while it’s ‘old news’ that the Clinton campaign did not really make good on its pledge to help local Democratic parties, this still galls. Clinton supporters used the agreement to criticize Sanders for not helping local Democrats. And while I think Sanders should have done more, the fact is that the Clinton campaign didn’t do much either. UPDATE: apparently Clinton did disburse Victory Fund money, and I feel sheepish for repeating apparently discredited information. And here’s more, courtesy of Bob.

Third, it simply does not matter that Sanders is not a loyal Democrat. This is a reason for the party establishment, and ordinary Democratic voters, to reject Sanders. It is not a reason for the DNC to violate the impartiality plank of its charter. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there’s a “Bernie exception” to the impartiality rule. This line of argument falls apart when you remember that, when the Clinton campaigned signed its agreement with the DNC, the field still included two contenders—Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley—who were not only Democrats, but former Democratic office holders. There was also Lincoln Chafee, who did become a Democrat in 2013, but we need better evidence that Chafee hails from our dimension to count him.

Fourth, Sanders did not lose the nomination because of the DNC agreement. Honestly, the DNC did virtually nothing to put its thumb on the scales. Sanders did not lose as the result of some nefarious plot. He lost, in no small measure, because he failed to swing older African American voters away from Clinton. After Super Tuesday, the campaign survived on a hope, a prayer, and a lot of small donations. It made a number of mistakes, and generally fought an uphill battle in key states like New York. In short, in the absence of the agreement, Clinton still wins.

In the past, I’ve been resistant to blaming Obama for the sorry state of the Democratic Party. In retrospect, though, I think I was just managing cognitive dissonance. The combination of weak parties and strong partisanship accounts for a lot of our current troubles. This trend is clearly broader than the Democratic Party. After all, it allowed Trump to capture the GOP and, after, the Presidency. But that does not mean the most successful Democratic President in decades lacks agency.

Indeed, Obama would do well to routinize his charisma by helping, at least through fundraising, the DNC rebuild. Democrats are raking in money, but we need an effective centralized infrastructure, especially when it comes to voter mobilization. Obama could also turn his attention to, perhaps in conjunction with “his” people, creating consequential left-liberal policy shops other than the Center for American Progress. Ironically, Sanders is doing more than most on this front—although I have misgivings about some aspects of the Sanders Institute; the page of “reports” doesn’t do much to resolve those. And, of course, such efforts have, at best, a tenuous relationship with the Democratic Party.

In the end, we should care more about Brazile’s claims for what they say about the state of the Democratic Party than anything else. Her piece provides another datapoint when it comes to the hardball tactics used by the Clinton campaign to clear the field, and the specific agreement appears—again, if true—unethical. The task is to make sure that this kind of situation never occurs again.

POSTSCRIPT: Reading (and engaging with) the comments, it’s increasingly apparent that I did not clearly articulate the valence of this post. So, I want to be clear what I think we should know:

  1. We have reasons to doubt Brazile’s account, as they are salvos in a factional struggle within the Democratic Party.
  2. If Brazile’s account is true, it reveals terms that contravene the DNC’s impartiality charter and does bear out the strong sense in the Sanders campaign that something was amiss with the DNC.
  3. But while these are troubling, they did not materially affect the outcome of the contest, and they are not evidence of a “rigged system” that made it impossible for Sanders to win.
  4. The important part of the story is related to the reasons why we should be wary of Brazile’s claims: the Party is in tatters; it needs to rebuild and expand its infrastructure. Obama has an obligation to throw his weight behind this project.

My apologies for not doing a better job of communicating my intended takeaways.

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