The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s list of enemies just keeps growing

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, addresses the crowd during a rally on Sept. 6, 2011, at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C. marking the countdown of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer via AP)

We will start by admitting this: It's not immediately clear what makes for a top-notch chair of a major political party in the super PAC era.

Is it the ability to raise big sums of money or skillfully lob bombs at the other party? Is crafting a successful strategy and tactics to expand the party's representation and voter base? Is it the willingness to put in one of those let's-get-this-debate-party-started performances like the one Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus delivered Thursday night (complete with the dubious claim that the GOP is the party of diversity)?

The answer to all three is probably "yes." But increasingly, there seem to be lots of Democrats and liberals saying Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) just isn't getting it done as chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Most recently, at least two groups overwhelmingly composed of progressives -- CREDO Action and marijuana legalization advocates -- have publicly called for Wasserman Schultz's resignation from the DNC post. Both are currently circulating online petitions to demonstrate how many people agree.

Now, in a town as insular and politically obsessive as Washington, calls for resignations do have a way of cropping up from time to time. Many carry little meaning. But, in the last four-plus years, there has been a real stream of events Wasserman Schultz really cannot be said to have handled particularly well. It would be hard for even her biggest supporters to dispute that.

When Wasserman Schultz took over the DNC chair in 2011 -- making her the first woman to lead the party since the mid-1990s -- Vice President Biden dispatched an email explaining the choice. He wrote: "In selecting Debbie to lead our party, President Obama noted her tenacity, her strength, her fighting spirit, and her ability to overcome adversity."

Wasserman Schultz was credited with raising millions of dollars and really giving life and meaning to the Democratic Party's claims that Republicans were engaged in a "war on women" in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. In short, people were saying that Wasserman Schultz was doing a good job.

Then, the 2014 midterms happened. Democrats lost a combined total of 22 seats in the two congressional chambers, handing the GOP its biggest majorities in many decades. Party insiders were not happy, and the idea of the decline of the Wasserman Schultz era seemed to set in. And what's happened since isn't just a matter of connected and powerful people grumbling to reporters eager to listen. A lot of it seems to involve substantive matters of policy, politics and a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Let's walk back in time a bit, shall we?

The Fix has chronicled Wasserman Schultz's downward slide in the esteem of some Democrats for a few years. We would refer you to stories here, here and here for bits of the relevant history.

Perhaps most damning was what happened in late 2014 and early 2015, when a series of stories debuted full of very Washington-insider, made-for-the-grapevine details about Wasserman Schultz's alleged ambition. (We just want to say there's nothing wrong or even unusual about that.) There were also stories about her allegedly flexible principles, fleeting loyalties and self-serving activities. (Okay, there may be something wrong that trio. But again, it's not at all unusual in D.C.).

The Fix described one Politico story detailing Wasserman Schultz's brand of politics as "devastating."

A spokesman for the DNC, Mark Paustenbach, told The Fix that the criticism misses some key points.

“Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz has successfully led the effort to pay off $24 million in debt from winning the White House in 2012, and to strengthen the Democratic National Committee’s infrastructure and outreach capabilities, and those of the state parties, in order to put the party in the strongest possible position to win across the country in November," he said.

But Wasserman Schultz's issues seem to be ongoing. So we'll focus on that which is pressing in the here and now.

A few weeks back, there was the odd handling -- and some alleged intentional mishandling -- of a DNC data breach by the Bernie Sanders campaign. More than a few political observers have said or written something arguing the DNC either mistakenly did all the wrong things to manage the situation or intentionally tried to make the data breach a bigger story in order to help Hillary Clinton -- even as it remains officially neutral in the Democratic presidential race.

We will simply refer you to a fast-moving list of related conspiracy theories compiled by Esquire magazine here. And then we will draw your attention to the display of frosty relations between Sanders and Wasserman Schultz caught on tape Sunday and deftly explained by The Fix's Peter Stevenson.


Then, of course, there is the ongoing matter of the very hard-to-explain DNC primary debate schedule. Really. Only six debates, many on weekends and one scheduled for a period between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas. Not surprisingly, some view the limited and oddly timed debate lineup as further evidence of a Wasserman Schultz-led DNC's efforts to undercut any non-Clintons. The theory goes something like this. This schedule gives candidates fewer and less-watched opportunities to upend Clinton.

The DNC has said this is not true. The number of debates planned is consistent with the 2004 and 2008 campaign seasons and that both parties have trimmed the number of primary debates. But as The Fix's Philip Bump reported, not all cutbacks are created equal.

And then there's the fact that Wasserman Schultz's own DNC vice chairs have called for more debates. One even came very close to calling for her resignation.

[The case for more Democratic debates]

Besides that, folks, this is 2016. And when one looks at the number and timing of Democratic primary debates in contrast to the plans made by the Republican Party (summary: lots of debates, weeknights, prime time, big networks and smaller, business-oriented cable channels), the credibility of the DNC's explanation gets pretty shaky.

It is difficult enough to imagine that the DNC could not have negotiated better dates for the six debates it is holding. But it's really almost impossible to believe that, if the Fox Business News network could and would host two Republican debates, that no other networks in the ever-expanding universe of cable networks hungry for original, ratings-grabbing content would have been interested in staging a few more Democratic primary debates. This is, after all, a presidential election cycle in which women's history -- nee American history -- could be made. No one at the many networks that target women or tend to report a little more news related to them -- think Lifetime, Oxygen, Bravo, Style, WeTV or MSNBC -- found that possibility commercially intriguing?

Presidential contender Martin O'Malley gets a less-than-enthusiastic handshake from chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. (Video: C-SPAN)

And, not to harp on the whole presidential primary debate issue, but some activists who staunchly support abortion rights and policy that makes access to highly effective contraception more widespread really didn't get the DNC's decision to allow the New Hampshire Union Leader to sponsor a DNC debate. The paper's very conservative editorial board has published a long-running series of editorials opposing abortion rights and Planned Parenthood.

And, the grumbling about this has continued into this very weekend.

So that brings us to the still early days of 2016, where some of the news about Wasserman Schultz and the DNC does not feel at all fresh and new.

Wasserman Schultz kicked off the new year with some most-interesting comments about young women's alleged complacency around reproductive rights. When asked whether there are generational differences in the level of enthusiasm that female voters feel about Hillary Clinton, the first woman with a strong shot at becoming a major party's White House nominee, this is what Wasserman Schultz told the New York Times magazine: "Here's what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided."

On the one hand, Wasserman Schultz may have been speaking to the fundamental and, some might say, natural shifts in expectations, political priorities and energy that develop between generations that have had much different experiences with safe, legal abortion -- or any other issue. There's no reason that this is any less true about young women than it is young black Americans who have never been legally mandated to abide by racial seating codes on city buses.

This phenomenon would seem to rank among the possible reasons that, in 2013, a full 62 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 30 (women included) told pollsters with the Pew Research Center that they viewed abortion as "not that important" on the list of critical political issues facing the country. That kind of data may well have been what Wasserman Schultz had in mind when she said what she did. No doubt, 62 percent is not a small figure.

Still, reasonable people could argue that today there are more young women making conscious personal  and in some senses, deeply political choices that are their generation's to make when it comes to reproductive matters. Young women -- including those who practice abstinence and those who use of more-reliable and long-acting forms of birth control -- have collectively helped to reduce both the unintended pregnancy and abortion rates dramatically in recent years. That's not really complacency; in fact, that's what some might say is progress.

Now, in fairness, if what Wasserman Schultz was referring to was the failure to politically defeat a raft of measures passed at the state level which aim to make safe, legal abortions more difficult to access, then Wasserman Schultz might be right. But, by that same measure, Wasserman Schultz has been a member of Congress since 2005.

That means she's had a vote and a voice in Congress over much of the nearly four decades that the Hyde Amendment-- an almost 40-year-old provision in annual budget bills barring the use of federal funds to cover the cost of an abortion with a limited set of exceptions -- has solidified. And she had a House seat when similar language was written into a 2009 House bill (which passed) identifying the standards that health insurance plans must meet under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.

So there's that.

We would be done here. However, in that very same January interview with the New York Times magazine in which Wasserman Schultz shared her ideas on the complacency of young women, she also managed to anger the forces who support marijuana legalization.

Wasserman Schultz described herself as opposed to making more "mind altering substances" legal. She views legalization as a move unlikely to discourage the use of other drugs (including medical marijuana). But, as the Intercept reported, Wasserman Schultz has received a significant share of her reelection campaign's contributions from beer, wine and liquor companies.

Again, Wasserman Schultz's belief that marijuana is a gateway drug seems surprisingly outdated and notably inaccurate as the chair of the pro-science party that appeals to young, progressive people. On a practical -- some might say cynical -- level, this also seems unwise. The politics of marijuana legalization and the voter allegiances that may stem from them are in their infancy. Plus, some of this group's interests intersect with those of the increasingly bipartisan coalition of people who support criminal justice reform such as an end to mandatory arrests or jail terms for small quantities of marijuana. A very solid case can be made that any Democratic Party chair needs to operate with precision and care here.

Wasserman Schultz is a DNC chair who, when she was appointed, was in political terms young, pragmatic, fundraising-adept and nimble. She had the profile Democrats wanted for this moment in political time. She was, in short, the right woman with the right skills and attributes for the job.

But the resignation drumbeats for Wasserman Schultz have been sounding now for some time. And over the last few years, they have spread from mostly party insiders talking to reporters to actual voter groups that are or may be important to the party's coalition. That's something increasingly difficult to ignore.

This post has been updated with comment from the DNC.