The head of the DNC just bucked Obama on deportations. But why?

August 21

We tend to make a lot of internecine political fights -- particularly during the month of August, when little else is happening. But the head of the Democratic National Committee going sideways on a subject that's touchy for the president shortly before difficult midterm elections is hard to ignore.

The scrap -- which isn't the first between the two sides (we'll come back to that) -- begins here, with an interview between Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), head of the DNC, and Fusion's Jorge Ramos earlier this week.

The issue of contention arises when Ramos asks if Wasserman Schultz agrees with the asseration of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that deporting unaccompanied minors back to their home countries put their lives at risk. O'Malley's suggestion that such deportations would lead to "certain death" caused tension with the White House last month.

"Not only do I agree with him," Wasserman Schultz replied, but she said she'd met a child that day who had been shot after having been forced into the drug trade after being kidnapped in Mexico. (His country of origin wasn't clear.) The boy's friend was killed. "They are in jeopardy. Many of them are in dire jeopardy."

There's reported evidence that this is in fact the case. In one town in Honduras, five to 10 of the 42 kids that had been killed since February had been deported from the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In response to public pressure over a surge of unaccompanied children crossing into the United States -- a surge fueled in part by that violence -- President Obama announced in July that it would deport most of them. That's why O'Malley's comments supporting allowing them to stay irritated the White House, and it's why Wasserman Schultz taking O'Malley's side raises eyebrows.

To Politico, Wasserman Schultz's staff explained that her response to Ramos was spurred more by her visit that day to a detention facility (where she met the boy who'd been shot) and not by specific agreement with O'Malley. "If Gov. O’Malley’s intention was to critique administration policy," communications director Sean Bartlett said, "then she disagrees with him."


Immigrant activists wait outside Wasserman Schultz's office. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you agree with Obama's push to deport the children and you think that they're at risk of death if they're deported, you're in a very tricky ethical area. For a junior member from the heavily Hispanic state of Florida, that wouldn't be a great explanation. For the head of the DNC, it's a particularly bad one.

Wasserman Schultz has repeatedly frustrated the White House. During the reelection in 2012, Politico reported that she was considered the least popular surrogate for the White House, and that she had "clashed with Chicago over her choice of staff and air-time on national TV shows" during the campaign. In 2013, she reportedly annoyed the White House by using her position with the DNC to bolster her own political future. One unnamed Democrat told BuzzFeed that her public admission of that ambition was a "car wreck," modifying the expressiong with a word beginning with F.

Given that Wasserman Schultz's goal for the next three months is the election of Democratic candidates, one might be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps her discussion with Ramos, a leading voice in Hispanic media, was meant to bolster her party at the polls. There's no question that Democrats would like more Hispanic voters to vote in 2014, which would provide a boost to Democrats. But voters on the whole -- including voters who are more likely to get to the polls -- support deportations according to a July CNN/ORC poll. A March Post/ABC News poll found that 38 percent of all voters were less likely to support a candidate who backed a path to immigration for undocumented immigrants. Thirty percent would be more likely to vote for that candidate -- though this was before the border crisis.

There are two other options for Wasserman Schultz's public disagreement with the White House. The first is that she isn't worried about frustrating a president who seems as aware as everyone else that the end to his time in the White House is approaching rapidly. The second is that she simply articulated her feelings without considering the political ramifications. In the first case, it suggests that there could be a significant rift within the Democratic Party. Her office's attempt to walk back what she'd said suggests that the second option is the case. Which would make her initial honesty admirable, the sort of thing we seek from elected officials.

But it's not necessarily the sort of thing Democrats want to see in their party leader.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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