Of all the reasons Hillary Clinton thinks she lost the 2016 election to President Trump, the least among them was the state of the Democratic National Committee. That it was a mess long before she became a candidate was well known. That she did nothing about it sooner was her own mistake. But had she done so, it probably would have made no difference in the outcome.
Clinton appeared in public Wednesday at a conference sponsored by Recode, where she was interviewed at length by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. Her bottom line about 2016 was summed up with this comment: “I take responsibility for every decision I made, but that’s not why I lost.”
Her main takeaway was that she lost in large part because of Russian interference, hacking and meddling, because of possible collusion by Trump campaign associates (she walked right to the edge of the line in directly accusing Trump of having been an active colluder) and because of conditions beyond her control (for example, that letter from James B. Comey that brought her email issue back to center stage in the final week of the campaign).
Based on the discussion with Swisher and Mossberg, she has spent many hours deep in the weeds of the 2016 campaign, analyzing data from a variety of sources and replaying events so that now, nearly seven months later, it is as if all this happened yesterday. She is fluent in the vernacular of how the Russians interfered, tossing out comments about “bots that are just out of control” and the proliferation of fake news through social media as she long has done with details of health care or Third World microlending practices.
Her complaints about the Russians are understandable, and the multiple investigations swirling around the president, his campaign and his White House are testament to the importance of a full unearthing of what happened and whether the Trump team or people close to the campaign were active or passive players in the drama. Whether they will ultimately prove the primary cause of Clinton’s defeat is a different question.
Clinton has made up her mind about one basic question. She believes the Russians had help. The Russians could not have known how to weaponize information to have maximum impact on the election unless they were “guided by Americans and guided by people who had polling and data information.” That conclusion, she said, was “based on the intel and counterintel people I’ve talked to.”
One example she cited was the timing of leaks of campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails by WikiLeaks just hours after the infamous “Access Hollywood” video was made public in early October. She called the contents of those emails “anodyne” and typical of the internal communication in a hard-fought campaign. Nonetheless, the emails generated a stream of stories that campaign aides at the time described as a troubling “drip, drip, drip” of distractions.
It was, however, Clinton’s decision to cite the DNC as a sore spot that caught many Democrats by surprise and that, in the hours since her appearance, has generated lots of private comment and commentary by erstwhile Clinton allies, who cannot understand why she decided to make a public fight out of this.
One problem for Clinton as she was beginning her 2016 candidacy was a time warp about the way things were or should have been. Her perspective about the role of the DNC and the Democratic Party apparatus was shaped by experiences from Bill Clinton’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996 and his (and her) approach to the party.
In those days, the DNC was a more robust and battle-ready institution, and Bill Clinton as candidate and president paid attention to it. President Barack Obama did not. Under Obama, the DNC was neglected and left to atrophy.
“The DNC has not played any dynamic role except just on a rare occasion since Obama was president,” said a former party official.
Obama’s two campaigns were built largely separate from the DNC. Data produced by Obama for America and its various other names was proprietary and not readily shared with the party. Compounding the problem was the selection of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) as DNC chair. She was an ever-present spokeswoman for the Democrats but, as a part-time chair, not a party builder in the tradition of several past DNC leaders.
All this was well known to Clinton’s 2016 campaign team, if not to her personally. The DNC was a problem that no one wanted to address. Obama was not interested in taking responsibility for the situation heading into the 2016 campaign, and Obama’s advisers did not have the desire to try to push aside Wasserman Schultz early in the 2016 cycle, believing that it wasn’t worth the pain.
Wasserman Schultz was forced out only after hacked emails from inside the DNC were leaked on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. At that point, the Clinton team was insistent that she go. Before that, they let the situation fester.
In the early stages of the Democratic nomination contest, the DNC appeared to be far more an ally to Clinton than a hindrance. Certainly Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his team (and the others who ran against Clinton) saw the DNC as doing whatever it could to help the former secretary of state.
Why else, they argued, would the DNC limit the number of debates in 2015 and then schedule several of them on Saturday nights? (One answer: Broadcast networks preferred Saturdays to avoid messing with their weeknight prime-time programming, while cable networks loved weeknights.)
Before and throughout the nomination process, the DNC was an island of neglect. But it was Clinton’s blunt words that surprised and disturbed people Wednesday. What happened when she became the nominee? “I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party,” Clinton told Swisher and Mossberg. “I mean, it was bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong. I had to inject money into it, the DNC, to keep it going.”
Partially true. The DNC was short of funds and her campaign did have to put a significant amount of money into the operation. But all that was foreseeable long before she became the nominee.
“There’s no doubt the DNC was a shell of what it could have been and should have been,” said a Democrat who worked there in the past. But this person added, “If I could think of all the problems at the DNC, the data was not at the top of the list.”
Clinton drew a comparison to what Trump inherited from the Republican National Committee and what was available to her campaign from the DNC. “He is basically handed this tried and true, effective foundation,” she asserted.
She was correct that what the Republicans had built for 2016 was far better than what existed four years earlier. Under then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, the Republicans had spent millions to improve what had been an inferior data operation. Trump was lucky to have it.
But Clinton’s criticism was misplaced, according to knowledgeable Democrats. Clinton’s advisers had decided two things: first, to take full control of data operations — all the modeling and analytics — for the 2016 campaign and not to count on the DNC to take the lead. And second, they nonetheless chose to rely on the data foundation that existed at the time at the DNC, which some Obama campaign veterans believed was shaky from the start.
In the end, the Clinton campaign models proved to be faulty, as her team learned on election night as they watched first Florida and then North Carolina and then the Upper Midwest fall to Trump.
That was not the fault of the DNC, and Clinton’s lament, in the eyes of many Democrats, was a needless and potentially harmful attempt to deflect criticism and point fingers at things that were not fundamental to her defeat.