There’s Nothing Scandalous in the DNC Emails — But the Timing Is Awful

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Congresswoman and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at the third Democratic presidential debate.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz's predictable demise as DNC chairman is wreaking a lot more havoc than it should.Photo: Luke William Pasley/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a veteran of the boiler room at six Democratic conventions, I have a certain perspective on the mechanics of these events. The palpable disorganization in Cleveland struck me as eminently avoidable, and probably the product of inexperienced and overmatched Trump operatives who could not effectively manage the army of RNC staff and volunteers who looked to them for direction. Like a lot of people, I figured the Democratic convention would be the tightly scripted and smoothly unfolding affair that national conventions for both parties usually are. But then the nightmare that haunts all heavily planned political events struck: a brouhaha affecting the party that blew up on the very eve of the event.

Viewed in isolation, that brouhaha doesn’t have a lot of substance. So DNC staff talked smack about Bernie Sanders in emails. If that shocks you, it may be because you are under the misapprehension that the DNC is composed of highly professional operatives sworn to neutrality in contested nomination contests. Truth is, the DNC doesn’t have a lot to do with the nomination contest (hence the endless complaints about one thing it did control, the debate schedule), and isn’t any more neutral than any other assemblage of political junkies with pasts and futures that are intimately connected to the fates of politicians like Hillary Clinton. As for the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as DNC chair, the surprising thing isn’t that she took the fall for the embarrassing emails, but that she has survived until now. The 2014 midterm debacle, not that she had much to do with the results, would have been enough to croak most DNC chairmanships. The animosity she earned from Bernie Sanders supporters probably made her resignation a natural by-product of any post-convention unity drive; it’s also not unusual for nominees to assign someone especially close to them to the party chairmanship at the beginning of the general-election campaign.

So is the email scandal actually harmful to the Democratic Party and its candidate for president, or can we expect it to fade away soon? It’s all about the timing — not just in terms of raining on the parade in Philadelphia, but because it could disrupt the carefully planned closure of the Democratic Party rift between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton that was supposed to be consummated tonight with Bernie’s convention speech.

Thanks to the email issue, it’s difficult to determine whether the angry Bernie people who have adopted the Republican chant of “lock her up” are just die-hard “Bernie or Bust” activists who don’t really represent a lot of voters, or a broader slice of the Sanders community that is truly and thoroughly honked off by the news that some schmo at the DNC was toying with attacks on Bernie’s religion. If it’s the latter, that could be trouble. And the real problem would be if the imbroglio affects Sanders himself, whose unity pitch has just gotten more complicated.

Team Clinton should be grateful that Sanders has already endorsed HRC and promised to do everything possible to help her beat Donald Trump. If that had not already happened, there would be a chance in Philadelphia that Bernie could pull a Ted Cruz and step on the entire convention. As it is, what might have been a blip on the screen if it had occurred a month ago is just a poorly timed insta-crisis. How Team Clinton — and Bernie Sanders — handle the first night of the convention could tell us a lot about Democrats’ ability to navigate the rest of this strange election cycle.