I have always had a great deal of respect for Donna Brazile. And I have tried to keep to a long time principle of not revising my view of a person simply because they do something I disagree with. I was stunned when I first read Brazile’s piece in Politico. But now having read it over a few times, I have a hard time not concluding that she’s done a serious disservice to the historical record and to all Democrats. Why this is the case, I truly don’t know. And there may be more facts to emerge that I’m not yet aware of. But here’s why I think this.
Brazile claims that the Clinton campaign and the DNC entered into a joint fundraising agreement in 2015 which gave her campaign control of the DNC long before she was the nominee – ability to sign off on messaging, hiring etc. If that’s true, that is definitely not kosher. The party is supposed to be formally neutral while a presidential primary is going on.
Whether this is actually true is not really clear to me. The existence of this joint fundraising agreement was public at the time. As NBC’s Mark Murray notes here, Sanders also had such an agreement with the DNC. The key difference is that he didn’t end up raising money through it while Clinton did. There are lots of reasons why this may have been the case, all reasonable, all tied to different campaign strategies, different fundraising bases, etc.
(David Graham has a general look at Brazile’s story and questions it raises. I strongly recommend it.)
But Brazile makes very specific allegations about the Clinton/DNC agreement.
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.
There is what at least appears to be a draft of the agreement in the Wikileaks Podesta cache of all places and from what I can tell it doesn’t include any of this. It’s just a barebones document going over funding allocations, legal matters, reporting and so forth. Again, that version is just a draft. The final copy could definitely have included other codicils or side agreements. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting the document. I’d ask campaign types to take a look.
Now, that’s the legal formalities. In practice, if the DNC was broke and it’s only significant source of money was money the Clinton campaign was raising for it that would have undoubtedly given the campaign a huge amount of pull in practice. But that’s very different from what Brazile says – a formal deal. At a minimum, we need to see the official agreement and these provisions Brazile is talking about.
In any case, I think even these details are largely beside the point. Read Brazile’s story, which is excerpted from a forthcoming book. She presents herself as having promised to Sanders to get to the bottom of whether the primaries had been “rigged”. With great drama, she describes learning that it, in fact, had been rigged. The agreement was a “cancer” in the party.
Here’s her description of reaching out to Sanders …
I had to keep my promise to Bernie. I was in agony as I dialed him. Keeping this secret was against everything that I stood for, all that I valued as a woman and as a public servant.
“Hello, senator. I’ve completed my review of the DNC and I did find the cancer,” I said. “But I will not kill the patient.”
I discussed the fundraising agreement that each of the candidates had signed. Bernie was familiar with it, but he and his staff ignored it. They had their own way of raising money through small donations. I described how Hillary’s campaign had taken it another step.
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?
As I wrote above, it’s not clear to me that the description of the joint fundraising agreement is accurate. Even if it is, accurate, “rigged” is a highly, highly loaded word. It slices into the heart of the divisions currently tearing at the Democratic party. But we watched the 2016 primaries unfold in real time. What did the DNC do to rig the primaries? We hear a lot about scheduling primary debates on Saturdays. But c’mon. If primary debate scheduling – which was eventually tossed aside in any case – was enough to defeat Sanders that’s a pretty sad commentary. Clinton was the establishment candidate. It’s no secret that Wasserman-Schultz favored Clinton over Sanders. The party’s establishment and apparatus were more supportive of her. We know that. That’s what it means to be the ‘establishment candidate’. But did she or the DNC do things that made it impossible for Sanders to win or even made it any harder for him to win? I see no evidence of that.
If this were a question of whether Wasserman-Schultz should stay on as DNC chair that would be another matter. She was terrible at it. She’s no longer running it. If this were a matter of Clinton being the nominee again … she’s not. That’s not going to happen. I know many people are deeply devoted to her and her campaign. My feelings are more ambivalent. But I think she was cheated in many ways. What’s most relevant though is that it is in the past. “Rigging” an election isn’t a technical term. It is total and inflammatory. It means an election was compromised, that people were cheated. If that happened, we need to know. But I see no evidence that happened. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear to me that even the description of the funding arrangement is accurate, though it may turn out to be. It is in the nature of insurgent candidacies to claim the ‘establishment’ is against them. They’re often right. That’s what an insurgent candidacy is. Cheating and claims of cheating are poisonous. It is to no Democrat’s true advantage to make such claims. But the reason not to make them is that they’re not true. At least there’s no evidence of it that has been provided.
Whether or not Clinton should have won the Democratic primary, she did. It wasn’t rigged. She had lots of advantages from simply being the establishment candidate, from long relationships with Democrats around the country, endorsements, promises and more. But she had all that and more in 2008 and lost to Barack Obama. She won because she got more votes. Indeed, Sanders relied (just as Obama did) disproportionately on caucuses where voting matters less than it does in primaries. The relevant point is that the Democratic party needs unity to combat the dangers and damage of Trumpism. False accusations are always bad but they are particularly bad when their immediate effects are so potentially damaging. That’s the case here.
Why Brazile chose to take this course I really don’t know. I think it is best seen as her read of where the party is going – in the direction of Sanders. I think she’s right in the sense that the party is moving toward Sanders-like policies and in many respects Sanders-like politics. I have no problem with that. But not everyone supports or supported Sanders. The Democratic party has different wings, different factions. It’s overriding interest is to find a mix of policies and politics that can bring those different groups together in a way that can win elections. There’s zero advantage to re-litigating the toxic 2016 primaries. Poisoning the well by purporting to validate that Sanders was cheated does the exact opposite. It’s toxic and much worse than toxic it’s not at all clear it’s even true. If Brazile wants to make these accusations she needs to provide the documents she’s referring to and something concrete about actions the DNC took to rig the primaries against Sanders. The fact that Wasserman-Schultz was a bad chair, the fact that the DNC was poorly run, that not enough money went to state parties – all true. But none of that is what made Brazile’s claims a bombshell. All of that was known. If she can’t back these claims up she owes every Democrat a huge apology. And I have to say that applies to Elizabeth Warren too who jumped on the bandwagon.