© Josh Sager – February 2016
Large organizations live or die based upon the quality of their leadership—this is true whether you are talking about governments, corporations, political parties, or even religious groups. If incompetent leaders manage to take over even a high quality organization, they can end up running it into the rocks (i.e. the Titanic was an amazing ship…the captain was less so).
I will not be getting into the partisan side of the Democratic infighting between the Hillary and Bernie wings of the party. That said, the surprisingly heated primary fight for the 2016 presidential nomination has exposed glaring problems in the leadership of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that threaten the long-term integrity of the Democratic Party. If this is not addressed, there is a very real danger that voters will either be discouraged with politics in general, or be more susceptible to the faux populism of the right.
My goal in bringing up these issues is not to attack or pile onto the DNC, but to save it from its own worst impulses. The DNC needs an intervention and for outsiders to drag it back to sanity before it causes irreparable damage to its own membership.
The DNC Embraces Lobbyists
In 2008, Obama championed a party rule for the DNC that banned all federally registered lobbyists and super-PACs from donating directly to the DNC. This rule was designed to remove the appearance of corruption from the party itself and insulate it from being attacked as infiltrated by big money. Of course, there were plenty of loopholes in this (e.g. not all lobbyists are registered), but the optics of this rule were good.
Recently, DNC leadership decided to repeal this rule and open fundraising channels to big-money and lobbying interests. They are not just passively accepting this money either—they have actually created a new executive position for a financial director whose entire job is to solicit donations from these interests.
Put simply, this decision is the functional equivalent to putting up a “Bribes Welcome” sign outside of your office and expecting people to be okay with it. Americans are absolutely sick of money corrupting our political system (84% think that there is too much money influencing politicians) and, even if they aren’t actively engaged in politics, can see just how bad this looks.
While the DNC leadership has refused to provide a clear explanation of why it made this decision, some have argued that it could have something to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton has set up a joint fundraising committee with the DNC. This joint committee allows Hillary to access money from a large number of small donors affiliated with the DNC, while the DNC gets access to the large pool of big money interests and lobbyists which are affiliated with the Hillary camp. This arrangement is mutually beneficial for both Hillary and the NDC from a financial sense, but it looks unseemly and gives the appearance (if not the demonstrable reality) that the DNC is in the tank for Hillary and that both the DNC and Hillary are sitting in the pockets of big money.
The DNC Let the GOP Control the Early 2016 Narrative
At the start of the 2016 primary election season, the DNC leadership decided to limit the number of debates and minimize the viewership by scheduling them for weekend/holiday evenings. This was decided by Debbie Wasserman Schultz—the current Chairwoman of the DNC and ex-campaign chair for the Hillary Clinton 2008 campaign—and many argue that it was part of an effort to insulate Hillary from challengers. By marginalizing the debates, the candidate with the highest name recognition gains an advantage and it is very hard for less-known challengers to compete.
Because she possesses no sense of irony, Debbie Wasserman Schultz actually had the gall to criticize the GOP for scheduling one of its debates on Superbowl weekend by tweeting “Hmmm, wondering why @GOP trying to hide their #GOPdebate on the Saturday of #SuperBowl weekend no less?!” on February 6th, 2016. This tweet proves that she was not just incompetent, but knew exactly what she was doing when she hid the DNC’s debates on weekends and on time spots conflicting with popular college football games.
To put this into perspective, there were 26 debates in 2008
It is important to note that this problem is not a product of the entire DNC leadership, but mostly on Shultz. There were several chairs who argued that limiting the debate schedule was a bad idea which stifled democracy, but they were shut down and threatened with losing their positions.
Fortunately for democracy, this attempt to insulate Hillary from challengers failed, but, unfortunately, it resulted in the GOP being able to dominate the early election coverage. In 2015, there were 5 massively popular GOP debates (the 1st GOP debate had 24 million viewers, which is absolutely unheard of) and 3 awkwardly-scheduled Democratic debates. This disparity in the debates scheduling created a huge disparity in the coverage of the race and gave the GOP a chance to echo-chamber its talking points to the American people.
Put simply, the GOP’s debates allowed them to propagate an insanely conservative message to the American people while the Democrats were unable to fight back on equal footing because the DNC refused to cooperate. While this changed when Hillary started calling for more debates in the run-up to Iowa, and the DNC leadership decided to allow even more debates to be scheduled, the damage was done—Americans were exposed to the GOP’s narrative for months with no Democratic debates to create the counter-narrative.
The DNC Openly Muses About Overriding Inner-Party Democracy
The Democratic Party loves to see itself as the party of the average person and not the big corporate interests. This narrative is important for sustaining strong voter mobilization and ensuring that the Democratic coalition is able to compete against the GOP. Unfortunately the leaders of the DNC have managed to shake many Americans’ faith in the Democratic Party’s values and it doesn’t appear as though any redress is coming.
Last week, Debbie Wasserman Schultz made a shocking admission on national television—while talking about ‘Super-Delegates” with Jake Tapper, she calmly explained that these establishment delegates exist to make sure that the Democratic elite can override the preferences of the Democratic voters if they so choose. Her exact words were:
“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists,”
Putting aside the obvious anti-democratic nature of Schultz’s argument, the idea that a party leader would get up and publically explain that the poor plebes can vote, but it will only count if they reach the predetermined conclusions of the elite, is AMAZINGLY bad politics. The average voter who hears this can’t help but be angered and see voting as pretty much pointless—after all, the conclusion is set by the elites and nothing short of Herculean effort on the part of populists will change it. This anger almost certainly would translate to a general election, as Democratic voters who feel as thought the primary was stolen from them are much less likely to vote and may even defect to the GOP.
From the perspective of a person who cares for democracy, this type of language is absolutely toxic. The purpose of a primary is, ostensibly, to determine who the PEOPLE want the party’s candidate to be. The idea that a candidate can win the nomination by making back room deals and promising favors to super-delegates (many of whom are registered lobbyists or ex-politicians who currently work for private interests) while losing the peoples’ vote, is a betrayal of everything that the Democratic Party should stand for.
The DNC leadership has created a really bad series of optical mistakes in recent months. If this is not remedied immediately, I fear that it will allow the GOP to gain an advantage in 2016 that they do not deserve. This threatens to give the presidency over to a lunatic from the right wing fringe, if not damage the party’s stability in the long term.
By repealing Obama’s 2008 rule banning registered lobbyist and corporate interests from donating to the DNC and publically declaring that party elites are willing to override the votes of the party base, DNC leaders send the message that the party is edging ever farther towards oligarchy—a party controlled by moneyed interests and given legitimacy through only a thin veneer of democracy. At best, this creates the appearance of corruption and complicates Democratic elections down the ticket; at worst, it represents the early stages of the corporatist cancer that destroyed the GOP and led it to become little better than the political arm of big-money.