On Thursday, former Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile made a surprising revelation: An August 2015 agreement gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign partial control of the DNC months prior to Clinton winning the nomination. The “agreement was not illegal,” Brazile writes, “but it sure looked unethical.” The news reignited a debate among politicos and activists over whether the DNC influenced the Democratic primary. Whether the primary was “rigged” or just business as usual though, Brazile’s allegations are only the latest evidence of the Democratic Party’s troubles, and why the party establishment is ill-equipped to solve them.
Start with something that Brazile’s article doesn’t touch on: the electoral record. At the federal level, Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. The GOP House majority is at its largest in 70 years. Though two-thirds of the Senate seats contested in 2016 were held by Republicans, Democrats only gained two seats, losing races against very vulnerable GOP incumbents. At the state level, Republicans are at their strongest since the 1930s. Republicans control both the state legislatures and governorships in 24 states, compared with Democrats’ five. The GOP’s ruthless exploitation of gerrymandering — aided by its control of so many states — has helped increase GOP control, but much blame still lies with Democratic leaders.
Then there’s the financial mismanagement. Money troubles for the DNC are hardly unprecedented, but the struggles appear to have worsened considerably in the past few years. Brazile says that the party’s monthly expenditures had doubled in the previous five years, in large part because of former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and President Barack Obama keeping expensive consultants on the payroll. (Given Democrats’ electoral failures, what these consultants were doing is anyone’s guess.) Of course, it’s in Brazile’s interest to blame things on her predecessor. But a former senior party official independently confirmed the troubles to the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, adding that the DNC was unable to make payroll in August 2015 and was “approaching the equivalent of bankruptcy.”
Combine the administrative and political mistakes, and you have a picture of total incompetence in the party’s central organization. The picture for the party as a whole is not much better: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, lost 23 districts that Clinton won. With problems this widespread and long-running, it’s not just the Clinton campaign and chief backers who should be blamed, it’s the whole party establishment (including Brazile, who leaked a question to Clinton ahead of a primary debate).
And yes, that means Obama deserves blame. He installed Wasserman-Schultz at the DNC. Despite a poor relationship with Wasserman-Schultz and widespread criticism of her leadership, Obama left her there for more than five years. Instead of integrating the historic fundraising and turnout success that was his 2008 campaign with the DNC, he set up Organizing for America, which became (intentionally or not) a competitor with party organizations. The DNC didn’t have access to the Obama campaign’s email list, crucial for fundraising, until 2015. Obama does not deserve all the blame by any stretch, but if Democrats are to reform, no one can be off limits to criticism.
Facing a Trump-ified GOP, Democrats need to rediscover competency more urgently than ever. The failures of the past decade suggest that their best chance lies with bringing in leaders and ideas that have been outside the party’s power structure. There’s not much reason to expect sweeping change though. Tom Perez’s victory in February’s race for DNC chair ensured the party remained in establishment hands, though the appointment of left-wing stalwart Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) as vice-chair was a notable change. The DNC just fired its top fundraiser after months of lackluster totals. With the 2020 Census and a new round of redistricting approaching fast, there have been some victories in state legislature races, but no sign that retaking the legislatures is a priority. Democrats have a real chance to turn the tables on Trump and the GOP in the next three years, but Brazile’s allegations are just another reason to wonder whether they can take advantage of it.