Almost everything about the drama Democrats found themselves in on the first day of their convention — the leaked DNC emails roiling the Democratic party, the chorus of boos raining down on every speaker who mentions Hillary Clinton — was unexpected. But the least surprising development is the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The now-outgoing chair, one of the longest serving in her party’s history, has been one of the primary targets of Democratic infighting for years — so much so that stories venting frustration about the Florida congresswoman have become a biennial hallmark of political journalism. The only thing surprising about her departure as party leader is that it took this long to happen.
The griping over Wasserman Schultz’s conduct as party leader began in 2011, almost as soon as she took over from outgoing chair Tim Kaine, now Clinton’s running mate. In Politico, anonymous Democrats fretted over Wasserman Schultz’s rough rollout. The complaints centered around a series of “gaffes” the Florida congresswoman made in her first few weeks on the job. These so-called gaffes — that Republicans were waging a “war on women” by restricting abortion and attempting to legislate women’s health, and that Republican-backed voter-ID measures meant that the GOP “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and … block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates,” seem remarkably tame in retrospect. Both points became key arguments made by party leaders in subsequent election cycles; few would likely contest that kind of language today. But they were a good indication that fellow Democrats didn’t like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and as time went on, those frustrations only mounted.
By 2014, the critics, still mostly anonymous, had formed a more substantial critique: More than three dozen Democrats, almost all of them still anonymous, told Politico that Wasserman Schultz was more concerned with her political ambitions than she was with the good of the party. The story was loaded with the kind of devastating anecdotes reminiscent of Republican staffers’ griping over Sarah Palin following John McCain’s loss in 2008. Former DNC officials claimed that on more than one occasion — for both the 2012 Democratic convention and Obama’s second-term inauguration in 2013 — Wasserman Schultz tried to get the party to pay for her clothes, requiring intervention from Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. And Obama loyalists complained she was using meetings with DNC donors to try to pressure them into donating to her leadership super-pac. Her working relationship with the president seemed icy at best: When Wasserman Schultz joined a photo-op line at a Democratic fundraiser in an attempt to get face time with the president, he reportedly turned to her and said, “You need another picture, Debbie?”
Wasserman Schultz and her allies fiercely denied the clothing story and insisted her relationship with the White House was positive. She managed to hang on through the first half of 2016, in part because the White House was reluctant to generate the bad press that would come with replacing her. And she was genuinely good at fundraising, one of the most important parts of her job. What was almost never said by her detractors in the stories slamming her is that serving as party chair is almost always a thankless job: part partisan warrior, and part rule-maker for your own party. It’s difficult to tell how much of those early criticisms of her tenure were valid expressions of concern about her leadership style and how many of them were unfair, gendered complaints. But in retrospect, she was particularly ill-suited to helm the party through a heated battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Wasserman Schultz was never particularly well-liked among the progressive wing of her party. As a Florida Democrat, her views conform more closely to the more conservative Democrats who make up her home district. She’s long been opposed to medical marijuana, calling it “a gateway drug.” She angered feminists last year when she said young women born after Roe v. Wade were “complacent,” in an attempt to answer a question about whether there was a generational divide in women’s support for Hillary Clinton. And she earned the ire of the left when she and other Florida politicians co-sponsored a bill to slow reforms intended to curb predatory payday-lending practices.
It was pretty obvious — and frustrating — to anyone who was watching, that the DNC favored Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. The fact that Democrats had only six debates, half as many as their Republican counterparts, and that they were always scheduled at such odd hours that it appeared the party didn’t want anyone to watch, strongly suggested that they were hoping the Democratic primary process would be an easy path for the early front-runner. Of course, it wasn’t, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz underestimated the extent of progressive anger, not only at Hillary Clinton, but at party officials like her. The difference is that Clinton still has millions of vocal supporters on her side. Wasserman Schultz isn’t so lucky.