Democrats are fighting again. The trigger this time is former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Donna Brazile’s new book, released today, which says that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was given significant control over the DNC long before she became the party’s nominee.
It’s easy to be cynical about the tone Brazile adopts as she tells her story. She’s shocked, shocked, to learn that money and insider connections wield undue influence inside her party’s establishment. And she’s quick to pronounce the DNC innocent of actions, including her own, that are already widely known.
Still, Brazile is right on the particulars. And it’s hard not to admire her courage, book promotion or not, given the intensity of the attacks she knew she would face.
But the big question is, why are Democrats still fighting the Battle of 2016? Aren’t there better things to argue about? As it turns out, there are.
Claims and Counter-Claims
The weekend was filled with claims and counter-claims, revelations and counter-revelations. Here’s what’s known as of this writing: The Clinton campaign organization, Hillary For America (HFA), signed a Joint Fundraising Agreement and at least one other agreement giving it significant influence over the DNC’s hiring, budget and strategy.
Claims that the Clinton team’s authority was limited to the general election appear to be false. While the document carried a legal disclaimer to that effect, attorney Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center commented that this clause is “contradicted by the rest of the agreement.” Fischer also pointed to a provision in the agreement that, in his words, meant “Clinton controlled every communication mentioning a primary candidate.”
Clinton’s defenders argued that the Sanders team was also offered a joint fundraising deal, but it was quickly revealed that the Clinton campaign executed a separate side agreement with DNC granting it oversight powers. As NPR points out, that agreement was executed while Joe Biden was still considering a run.
Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver denies it was offered the same veto power over staff. An email from an attorney representing the DNC, Graham Wilson of Perkins Coie, states only that “DNC staff would be happy to chat with the Sanders team and come to an understanding about the best way to use … funds to prepare for the general election at the DNC.”
The September 2015 email says that “the DNC has had similar conversations with the Clinton campaign and is, of course, willing to do so with all.” In fact, the Clinton deal had already been signed.
Perkins Coie represented both the Clinton campaign and the DNC when that email was written.
Some people will be outraged at this interpretation of events. In the progressive world, as in society at large, we seem incapable of sharing a common interpretation of facts and reality. The arguments will continue.
If I had the power, I’d press a “pause” button on the social media universe and ask everyone in this fight: What are we trying to accomplish here?
Democrats keep saying, “Don’t re-litigate the past.” This time around, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s litigate the future instead.
Litigate the Future
Despite what some people claim, Democrats — and independent leftists who might vote Democratic — have real differences in ideology and values.
The Clinton-Obama wing of the party has historically leaned toward reducing government deficits, public-private partnerships, means testing for government services and a global, interventionist military presence. Politically, it has sought to align itself (and raise money from) corporate interests, Wall Street and the national security establishment.
Expediency, self-interest and cynicism play a role in this thinking, but I believe it’s often based on sincerely held beliefs about how the world works — economically, politically and in foreign policy. I think it’s wrong, but I think it’s sincere.
For their part, many Democrats in the Clinton wing judge the left harshly. They’ve stoked false “Bernie Bro” memes, dismissed progressive proposals as unachievable “ponies” and liberally thrown “Putin’s Puppet” accusations at those with whom they disagree. They’re dismissive of policies such as Medicare for all, a new Glass-Steagall, the breakup of big banks, an end to job-killing corporate trade deals and the downsizing of our military and national-security complexes.
Democratize the Democratic Party
Many Clinton supporters back these progressive proposals, with more coming around every day, for example. But there are some big disagreements that need “litigating,” and that can’t happen in a party dominated by big donors and secret deals.
That means litigating the party’s organizational future, too. A reformed Democratic Party should…
Select Democratic nominees in a democratic way
The party’s candidates must be chosen democratically. Superdelegates should be eliminated. Primary winners should be selected by voters, not insiders.
Clinton’s near-universal support among superdelegates was used to manipulate press coverage of the primary and give her an unearned air of inevitability early in the campaign. That left lingering bitterness, casting doubt on the fairness of the primary process.
Clinton supporters who reveled in her advantage here were short-sighted. Their favored candidate may be the one who’s shortchanged by this broken process next time around.
Make primaries more open
The party should revisit its attitude toward progressive voters who aren’t registered Democrats. Open primaries — or, at a minimum, same-day registration as Democrats — could encourage millions of voters to participate in the party’s nomination process. Instead of seeing primaries as an “insider only” process, Democrats should see them as a recruitment tool — for activists, as well as voters.
The DNC has the power to penalize state parties who handle their primaries in an undemocratic way. That includes New York State, where voters who want to switch their registration for the June 2018 primary vote had to register as Democrats by last October 23.
Sanders supporters turned out for Hillary Clinton at far higher percentages than Clinton supporters did for Obama in 2008. But for those Democrats who are still angry at those who didn’t, perhaps this will help: If more Bernie voters believed that their candidate had lost a fair and democratic contest, more of them would probably have voted for Hillary. It’s hard to get progressive voters to turn out for, much less volunteer for, candidates who appear to have been handpicked by money-driven insiders.
Build a more progressive fundraising process
Joint Fundraising Agreements, even when well-crafted, are a way to evade campaign donation limits. They’re corrupt, morally if not legally, and they’re antithetical to the kind of campaign reform most Democratic voters support. In Clinton’s case, they were used raised a lot of money for her and very little for state parties. (That was reported in 2016.)
The DNC’s record in local and state down ballot races is downright dismal. Two-thirds of state houses and governorships are in Republican hands.
Another downside: These agreements tilt candidate and party fundraising toward high-dollar contributors. For a party that claims to represent ordinary working people, that’s proven fatal. It’s hard for party leaders to propose bold new economic policies when they’re hitting wealthy people up for contributions every day, as we’ve seen from recent experience.
How will the party raise money? Sanders raised nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in small donations. That’s the small-“d” democratic future, not a bloated party machinery dependent on big-money donors.
Focus on all races, not just the presidency
While the latest arguments concern presidential primaries, the DNC is also tasked with supporting local and state candidates. The party’s record there is downright dismal. Two-thirds of state houses and governorships are in Republican hands. That hasn’t just harmed these states. It has also allowed the GOP to engage in gerrymandering and engage in voter suppression that has changed the outcome of congressional (and very possibly presidential) races. The party’s entire apparatus, from fundraising to communications to campaign support, needs to focus more on these crucial down-ballot races.
Although Clinton’s fundraising arrangement nominally helped state committees, only about 1 percent of the funds raised actually went to the states. That may not be illegal, but with state Democrats in such bad shape, it’s criminal.
End secret deals and promote transparency
Democrats should never enter into secret agreements about the party’s governance or management. The party needs transparency if it is going to survive.
The arguments taking place today would not have happened if the party’s operations were better understood. As Brazile has pointed out, even party officials like her didn’t know about them. Dems don’t have to disclose each and every decision, agreement or plan. But much greater transparency is needed, both internally, as the Brazile story affirms, and externally.
Build bench strength
If the Democratic Party seems overly Clinton-oriented, that’s not just a function of money or influence. The Clintons spent decades training and grooming operatives in every corner of the political process. No wonder it’s a Clinton-friendly party.
Granted, nurturing new talent is easier when you can raise large sums of money in a single evening. But the Democratic Party will need new generations of capable staffers to sustain it. Who will build that deep bench? The party should be exploring ways to recruit and build its professional ranks going forward.
My suggestion? Look to movement activists. They’re smart, they’re committed, and they get things done. But that means giving them a party they believe in.
Debate the issues, not the personalities
The last one’s more for voters. There’s no reason to keep arguing the merits of Bernie vs. Hillary. That race is over.
There’s a historical shift underway. Its outcome is s unclear, but there is no turning back. We shouldn’t just ask our leaders, “Who are you?” or “What’s your story?” We should ask them, “What larger forces do you reflect and represent?”
The Clintons spent decades training and grooming operatives in every corner of the political process. No wonder it’s a Clinton-friendly party.
THAT question should also be asked of everyone that’s fighting to influence the Democratic Party’s direction — a group that includes Sanders, Clinton, and Obama, as well as DNC chair Tom Perez, his former opponent turned vice chair Keith Ellison, as well as other DNC officials and party leaders.
Come to think of it, we should ask ourselves that question too.
Time to Move
In the wake of the Brazile flap, current DNC chair Tom Perez — himself the product of a controversial power struggle between the party’s wings — issued a statement promising major reforms in all these areas. That’s progress. But skeptical voters will need action, as Perez’s statement acknowledges.
Perez says he supports the party’s Unity Reform Commission, created in the wake of last year’s contentious primary and that the DNC “will work with the Unity Reform Commission to implement their collective recommendations for meaningful change in our party.”
If Perez follows through, that will be a good start. But the party needs restructuring at all levels: organizational, political and cultural. That will take a movement that acts in all 57 state organizations, where much of the power resides, as well as externally.
This movement must demand real reform. Calls for change should be directed to all party leaders, including the hundreds of officials who will vote on the Unity Commission’s reforms in 2018. When reform is promised, the movement must demand a timeline for action. Accountability is key.
We’ve spent trillions on needless wars. The planet is being irreversibly damaged. Wealth concentration is now as high as it was in 1905 — so high that, as the author of a UBS report on inequality points out, “even billionaires are concerned.”
Democrats have no time to lose. The world is teetering on the edge of disaster and so is their party. Want to “litigate” something? Litigate that.
Photo: Donna Brazile. Credit: Joe Brusky.