Democratic National Committee chairwoman and former co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign Debbie Wasserman Shultz, when asked by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah if there was any merit to the accusation that the DNC was working to impede the Bernie Sanders campaign, replied, “As powerful as that makes me feel, I’m not doing a very good job of rigging the outcome or blocking anyone from being able to get their message out.”
She then explained her position required her to have “thick skin,” to deflect false accusations. “If I have to take a few punches in order for them to be able to make sure they get their message out, so be it.”
In this way, Wasserman Shultz deftly rearranged the cast of characters. All of a sudden, she was the one trying to “make sure” candidates could “get their message out” — not the liberals criticizing her for failing to do exactly that, liberals who in her view are the ones at fault (for throwing “punches,” false accusations, which somehow would silence candidate voices). Noah did not address this obvious evasion, nor the specific criticisms of Wasserman Shultz and the DNC.
The truth is that the DNC has, during Wasserman Shultz’s tenure, taken steps to make it harder for Bernie Sanders and other underdog Democratic candidates to get their messages out. And before her tenure, the DNC created a system that would indeed rig the outcome in favor of the politically well-connected and powerful.
While the DNC scheduling only six debates drew much criticism, it’s actually the same number they scheduled in 2004 and 2008. The difference in this election is a punishment was concocted to ensure the candidates couldn’t participate in unsanctioned debates, that is, debates not sponsored by the DNC. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ended up having over two dozen total debates because they were allowed to meet in unsanctioned debates.
But Wasserman Shultz said in September 2015: “The candidates will be uninvited from subsequent debates if they accept an invitation to anything outside of the six sanctioned debates.” Her reasoning? “If you don’t have the national party put a reasonable number of debates on the schedule and insist that the number is adhered to, it starts to spiral out of control and the entire contest becomes built around the debate schedule.” She said too many debates would eat up candidates’ resources and time, forcing them off the campaign trail.
In other words, candidates for the Democratic nomination can’t be trusted to decide for themselves how to spend their time and resources — more nationally-televised debates, exposing the views of candidates to millions, is a strategy so silly, ineffective, and wasteful it must be closely curtailed.
Whether or not the DNC meant to aid Clinton with this decision (this writer suspects the former), it did precisely that. Any candidate with as high name recognition as Clinton would be aided by limiting the national exposure of little-known rivals like Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. The Clinton campaign pushed for fewer than eight debates.
In 2008, the candidates at least had the freedom to join unsanctioned debates if they so chose; they were able to respond to Americans calling for more debates and media outlets offering to host them, without a DNC stamp of approval. By punishing candidates who step out of line (banning them from DNC debates), the DNC tightly controlled the candidates — when the candidates should be influenced by the people and address their wishes. The DNC made a strike against freedom and republican democracy, and gave Clinton an edge, all at once. Later, the DNC yielded to pressure for more debates.
Perhaps this was all completely innocent. But there was another issue.
To some, the consistency of the debates falling on nights with massive television audiences distracted by other programs seems too remarkable to be coincidence. In November, the Iowa debate happened to fall on a night the University of Iowa was playing Minnesota in the highly popular Floyd of Rosedale trophy game — analysts predicted this would tank Iowa viewership. A debate in December took place while NFL teams from two of the five largest media markets in the U.S. met for a playoff game; it also happened to be six days away from Christmas, when many Americans travel, and the opening weekend of a highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel. A debate in January fell on a three-day weekend and the night of another big NFL playoff game.
Later, as the campaigns negotiated a debate in New York, the Clinton campaign pushed for a debate on April 4, the night of an NCAA tournament game that featured Syracuse, a New York university. A Sanders spokesman called the suggestion “ludicrous.”
Again, whether or not this was intentional, the effect is the same. It protects the well-known front-runner at the expense of the underdog. Had the DNC and Clinton been interested in getting as wide an audience as possible, they would have gladly rescheduled the debates around popular sporting events and holidays. Also, weekdays are well-understood to get more viewers than weekends.
Further, Bernie Sanders supporters will not soon forget the DNC voter data breach just before the Iowa contest. The DNC voter database temporarily allowed Sanders’ national data director to look at Clinton’s voter data. The DNC quickly barred Sanders from his own voter data. The Sanders campaign fired the data director (who only viewed the information, doing nothing nefarious with it), but the DNC maintained the restriction, causing an uproar. Liberal website U.S. Uncut wrote:
The move was unprecedented as a punishment for any campaign. Even Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, started a petition calling for Sanders’ file to be reinstated. David Axelrod, former adviser to President Obama, equated the DNC’s punishment to “putting the finger on the scale” for Clinton.
Massive pressure, including a federal lawsuit filed by Bernie Sanders himself against the DNC, forced Wasserman Shultz and her colleagues to back down and restore Sanders’ access.
Later, the Sanders campaign accused the Clinton campaign of using funds meant for the DNC.
[Update, 11/2/2017: According to Donna Brazile, who later replaced Wasserman Shultz, Clinton loaned a broke DNC millions in exchange for “control” over it almost a year before her nomination (the DNC is supposed to be neutral until after the nomination). According to Brazile, Clinton had control over DNC strategy, money, staff, communications, mailing, and so forth. This would have allowed Clinton to avoid donation limits to campaigns (instead fundraising through the party and then laundering it to her campaign, just as the Sanders campaign said) and influence the DNC’s work in each state in a way that favored her and hurt Sanders. Brazile is actually the one who leaked debate questions to Clinton during the campaign.
The next day, NBC News published the agreement Brazile referred to, supporting her claim while adding some clarifications. “The arrangement pertained to only the general election, not the primary season, and it left open the possibility that it would sign similar agreements with other candidates. Still, it clearly allowed the Clinton campaign to influence DNC decisions made during an active primary, even if intended for preparations later [for the general election].” During the primary season, the Clinton campaign appeared to have “oversight over how its money was spent” (“joint authority,” to quote the agreement), and the DNC agreed to find a communications director “acceptable to HFA [Hillary For America]” by September 2015, long before Clinton was nominated.]
And of course, the controversial superdelegates (or “unpledged delegates”) might still hand the nomination to Clinton against the will of the voters. Superdelegates (delegates from each state that do not have to vote for candidates according to state election results, but can vote as they wish) have never given a nomination to a candidate that did not also win the majority of everyday voters. However, it is still possible disaster is on the horizon. This is an undemocratic system that without question must be abolished. The very possibility of such an outcome, the very fact that Democratic voters must worry whether their voice — and their voice alone, not 712 current and former Democratic politicians — will select their nominee for president is an embarrassment. Not even the GOP has such a system!
Debbie Wasserman Schultz said of the superdelegates, “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.” This statement is brutally honest, considering both the history of superdelegates and the potential for Bernie Sanders, the voters, and democracy itself to be simply dismissed in the near future.
There are other issues to consider: Wasserman Shultz’s fundraising failures, her leaving a DNC finance chair caught illegally raising money for Clinton unpunished, the DNC offering office space to the Clinton campaign but not to her rivals’, Wasserman Shultz filling convention committees with Clinton supporters, so on. All these things have caused deep divisions in the Democratic Party. Nearly 75,000 people signed a petition demanding Wasserman Shultz resign, 207,000 signed a petition to demand the superdelegates follow state election results. Serious reforms are needed.
Intelligent people cannot deny tactics like these mock the notion of fairness and the ideals of democracy (the fact that Clinton herself is hopelessly corrupt only makes this situation darker). Rewarding those actions would, in the view of this writer, be a grave mistake. It would be a wonderful way of preserving the status quo, encouraging a corrupt DNC to continue on this path. If the people do not tighten the leash, there is no reason why DNC methods of manipulation could not grow more extreme later on.
Because, dear reader, while you may plan to vote for Hillary Clinton this year, there is nothing to say four, eight, twelve, or sixteen years from now there will not come along a “grassroots activist,” an underdog, that you prefer to the establishment candidate the superdelegate system, and other systems, are designed to protect.
When that happens, you will look back at 2016 and realize where you could have taken a stand against said systems, you worked to preserve them.