During the final week of the most important election of the calendar year, the Democratic Party finds itself in a familiar place: subsumed by internal divisions and sniping.
The latest fracas is owed, in part, to Donna Brazile, the former interim chairwoman of the party, who released an excerpt of an upcoming book this week detailing an agreement between the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that gave the campaign early control over the party’s finances and some staffing decisions.
This agreement, which was later revealed by NBC News, pertained to preparations for the general election and was in addition to a joint fundraising pledge, which was previously widely known during the first months of the presidential campaign. But Brazile’s piece provided an incisive reminder of what critics see as a fundamental rot within the party: a disposition to the establishment, a dependency on mega donors, and a top-down operational structure. That the piece landed as the DNC is still attempting to right the ship under new leadership made it downright pyrotechnic.
Some DNC members argued that it behooved the party to come to grips with its past—even in full public view—before moving forward; that it took particular courage for Brazile, who infamously passed Clinton a debate question, to help validate Democrats’ complaints with the DNC.
“Democrats all across the country are angry that our party was being controlled by a few at the top,” Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a member of the DNC’s Unity Commission, told The Daily Beast. “This goes against everything we stand for as Democrats. Some in our party will want us to continue the status quo. But most of us are rolling up our sleeves pushing for reforms inside the party and electing Democrats so we are not facing a tax plan that leaves middle class families holding the bag.”
Others outside the DNC were furious with Brazile, calling the essay a selfish attempt to sell books at a time when the party’s fundraising is flagging and its attention should be on the upcoming, critical races. “She’s playing into Trump's hands,” one Clinton campaign vet said. Brazile declined to comment until her book was formally released.
Whether it was necessary medicine or opportunistic marketing, Brazile’s piece reverberated throughout the party, up through DNC’s leadership. “We knew that there was stuff going on that we didn’t know about,” James Zogby, a current member of the Unity Reform Commission told The Daily Beast.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who serves as deputy chair of the DNC, meanwhile, issued a lengthy statement on Friday saying that the “account cannot simply be dismissed.”
“I'm committed to working with Chairman [Tom] Perez to make the DNC more transparent and accountable to the American people, whether that's by ensuring that debates are scheduled far ahead of time or by guaranteeing that the terms of joint fundraising agreements give no candidate undue control or influence over the party,” Ellison said. “Additionally, when the DNC Unity Commission presents its recommendations on reforming our party, we must listen and act. If we do, Democrats can move forward and retake power at every level of government across the nation."
Moving forward constructively has proven a tall task for Ellison, Perez and others at the DNC, which has been beset by poor fundraising and internal strife. Hours after the Brazile story was published, the organization dismissed its top money-raiser. Emily Mellencamp Smith, a veteran of Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-NH) Senate campaign, had been brought in over the summer to help the committee close its cash gap with the RNC. She lasted five months on the job.
Michael Tyler, the DNC’s press secretary, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that the DNC was “grateful” for her work and that Smith was “staying on in a consulting role for the DNC.” But others in the party were uncharacteristically livid.
“I've seen a lot of bosses scapegoat staff to cover their own failures but Tom Pérez takes the cake for this one,” Paul Tencher, chief of staff for Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) tweeted. “Really really despicable.”
Neither Tyler nor Tencher responded to requests to expand on their statements.
Both the reaction to Brazile’s piece and the nasty backlash towards Smith’s firing reflect a party still searching for an identity and functionality in the Trump era. Democrats seem clear that they want to turn the page from the 2016 Clinton campaign. But they’re unclear how best to do so.
In this climate, even an employee shakeup becomes a point of contention. A congressional Democratic source described Smith as “an extremely talented and qualified person,” and said that the a big chunk of the DNC’s fundraising woes this year occurred prior to her arrival.
Indeed, while Brazile’s piece centered its criticism on the Clinton campaign, it did not spare Barack Obama either. It was the former president, Brazile wrote, who left the committee in financial disrepair and who felt comfortable putting in a chair—Debbie Wasserman Schultz— who was plainly not up for the task.
When asked about her reaction to the piece, Wasserman Schultz said in a statement: "It was a tremendous honor to be asked by President Obama to serve as chair of the DNC. I am proud of the work our team did to support Democrats up and down the ballot in the 2016 election and to re-elect the President in 2012." A spokesperson for the Congresswoman did not respond to a follow up question asking her to address specific claims made in Brazile’s book excerpt.
Clinton allies, meanwhile, insist that they did more to help the DNC than to harm it. The joint fundraising agreements were made available to her and Sanders (which DNC Chairman Tom Perez noted in a letter to DNC members on Friday.). And though Clinton was afforded a large degree of operational control over the committee (which former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told The Washington Post they did not have), she also helped it get out of debt, even as she reportedly pillaged a huge amount of the money that had been ostensibly donated to help state parties.
On Friday, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign director, tried to take temperature down a bit. “Eye on the ball, Democrats!” he tweeted, saying the focus should be on the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial election. Others joined in.
“There is a race, a very important one, for governor in Virginia that if we are not careful could slip through our fingers,” said Clinton’s former spokesman, Brian Fallon, in an interview. “If [Ed] Gillespie were to pull of an upset there, it would basically ensure that Republicans would spend the next year running Trump-style campaigns that give in to race baiting because they will be convinced it is a successful strategy in the Trump era.”
“So, while it’s important for Democrats to take stock of our failings in 2016, there comes a point where it is just time to rally together and take a stand against the authoritarian regime that has taken over the U.S. Government. I hope people won’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” he concluded.
And yet, befitting the times, Democrats are encountering intraparty hiccups on that front too. On Friday, Democracy for America, a political action committee formed by former Governor Howard Dean, announced that it would not provide aid directly to Virginia Democratic candidate Ralph Northam due to a slight change in his position on sanctuary cities—which Virginia doesn’t have.
Dean, who is no longer affiliated with the organization, blasted the decision as “incredibly stupid.”