On Thursday, Politico published an explosive excerpt from Hacks, a first-hand account of the 2016 election written by Democratic Party stalwart Donna Brazile.
Brazile became the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee when Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down in July 2016, after thousands of hacked DNC emails were released that revealed favoritism for the Hillary Clinton campaign among top party officials.
Claims about improper coordination between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party loomed over much of the 2016 primary. As early as September 2015, the DNC was accused of setting up the primary debate schedule in Clinton’s favor by limiting the number of debates and scheduling them outside of prime time. Brazile herself came under fire when it was revealed that she had tipped Clinton off to some of the debate questions ahead of time, something she would later call “a mistake I will forever regret.”
But Brazile’s excerpt published today show an even greater level of coordination. According to Brazile, the Clinton campaign and the DNC had signed a victory fund agreement, which allowed Clinton to exert greater control of the party, in August 2015, merely four months after she announced her candidacy and almost a year before she won the nomination. (It was so early that even Martin O’Malley, the mailman in a town where everyone is a bear, was six months away from dropping out of the race).
The agreement—signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias—specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.
This is how Brazile described the ethics of the fundraising agreement:
The funding arrangement with HFA and the victory fund agreement was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical. If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead. This was not a criminal act, but as I saw it, it compromised the party’s integrity.
She added that she then told Bernie Sanders that the arrangement was a “cancer” infecting the Democratic Party, and that she was deeply worried about whether Clinton could beat Trump in a general election.
Perhaps even more galling is that one of the reasons why the DNC struck this deal with Clinton was because of how badly Schultz had mismanaged the party’s funds. When Brazile stepped in as interim director, the DNC was $2 million in debt. Much of this was Obama-era neglect—according to Brazile, “Obama left the party $24 million in debt—$15 million in bank debt and more than $8 million owed to vendors after the 2012 campaign and had been paying that off very slowly.” Clinton’s campaign was keeping the party afloat, while using the DNC’s higher contribution limits to their advantage. As Brazile writes, “The campaign had the DNC on life support, giving it money every month to meet its basic expenses, while the campaign was using the party as a fund-raising clearing house.”
While re-litigating the 2016 primary can often devolve into feckless and unproductive infighting, Brazile’s revelations matter. Examining exactly what went wrong within the DNC is important as we move into 2018 and 2020. Schultz stepped down in 2016, but Brazile’s disclosures show that she had been free to run the party into the ground long before that. Obama himself neglected to build a strong party infrastructure and the results are starkly apparent in state legislatures around the country.
Brazile notes that consultants sucking the party dry were also a problem. And then, of course, there was the material coordination, during an open primary, between Clinton and the DNC. Some journalists have called the specifics about fundraising in Brazile’s piece old news, but her pinpointing of the arrangement as a “cancer” in the party is an alarming new detail.
Since the election, it is not clear that the DNC has dealt with these problems yet. Tom Perez was installed as DNC chair over Keith Ellison, a move that was largely seen as giving Democratic elites more control over the party. The DNC is still struggling to raise money, despite the fact that other branches of the party are flourishing as they ride the anti-Trump wave. The DNC is not doomed to repeat the problems of the past, but from Brazile’s account, it’s clear that the organization requires a major reckoning.