In March 2016, Donna Brazile twice gave the Clinton campaign a heads-up about questions she was likely to face at upcoming (informal) Democratic primary debates. Brazile had such information and could share it because she was a CNN contributor. But she really shouldn’t have, because she was also a permanent member of the Democratic National Committee. And when WikiLeaks published John Podesta’s stolen emails last fall, Brazile’s leaks provided Hillary Clinton’s detractors with smoking-gun evidence that the Democratic primary had been fought on an uneven playing field.
In November 2017, Brazile has published a tell-all essay on last year’s campaign — in which she discovers, to her shock and dismay, that Clinton rigged the primaries against Bernie Sanders.
The piece, published in Politico Thursday, is remarkable — both for the substance of its allegations and the melodramatic tenor of its prose. Brazile’s lead paragraphs offer a taste of both:
Before I called Bernie Sanders, I lit a candle in my living room and put on some gospel music. I wanted to center myself for what I knew would be an emotional phone call.
I had promised Bernie when I took the helm of the Democratic National Committee after the convention that I would get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process, as a cache of emails stolen by Russian hackers and posted online had suggested. I’d had my suspicions from the moment I walked in the door of the DNC a month or so earlier, based on the leaked emails. But who knew if some of them might have been forged? I needed to have solid proof, and so did Bernie.
So I followed the money. My predecessor, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had not been the most active chair in fundraising at a time when President Barack Obama’s neglect had left the party in significant debt. As Hillary’s campaign gained momentum, she resolved the party’s debt and put it on a starvation diet. It had become dependent on her campaign for survival, for which she expected to wield control of its operations.
Brazile’s ensuing tale is by turns informative, stale, and (literally) unbelievable. On the first point: The longtime Democratic operative reveals that Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign had left the DNC deeply in debt — and that Wasserman Schultz’s generosity toward the party’s consultant class had further exacerbated the committee’s fiscal woes.
In order to compete in 2016, the DNC needed a reliable source of cash. Hillary Clinton — and her donor network — were uniquely well positioned to provide such funds. And so, the Clinton campaign established a quid pro quo with the party apparatus in August 2015: Clinton would use her connections and star power to replenish the party’s coffers, in exchange for control over the DNC’s “finances, strategy, and all the money raised.” This was four months into her campaign, and nearly a year before her nomination.
Brazile relates one upshot of this arrangement:
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. Under FEC law, an individual can contribute a maximum of $2,700 directly to a presidential campaign. But the limits are much higher for contributions to state parties and a party’s national committee.
Individuals who had maxed out their $2,700 contribution limit to the campaign could write an additional check for $353,400 to the Hillary Victory Fund—that figure represented $10,000 to each of the thirty-two states’ parties who were part of the Victory Fund agreement—$320,000—and $33,400 to the DNC. The money would be deposited in the states first, and transferred to the DNC shortly after that. Money in the battleground states usually stayed in that state, but all the other states funneled that money directly to the DNC, which quickly transferred the money to Brooklyn.
This is the stale part of Brazile’s narrative: Clinton’s use of the Victory Fund as a means of evading contribution caps to her campaign was exhaustively reported last year.
As for unbelievable: The overriding conceit of the Democratic operative’s story is that she invested a lot of time (and emotional energy) into hunting down the truth about the Clinton-Sanders primary — in the late summer of 2016, when she was ostensibly overseeing one of the highest-stakes general-election campaigns in modern memory. By the end of the piece, she has painted herself as presciently aware that Clinton would underperform her polls, and intensely loyal to Bernie Sanders.
But even with the melodrama and old news, Brazile’s yarn offers a number of significant takeaways:
The DNC was, in fact, in the Clinton campaign’s pocket. This was always fairly obvious — and not nearly as significant as some Sanders supporters would like to believe. The notion that Sanders would have won the primary had the DNC not favored Clinton’s campaign remains unsupportable. It’s almost a confusion of cause and effect. Clinton was able to secure control of the DNC because she had effectively been running for the party’s nomination for eight years, and cementing relationships with the party’s Establishment and major donor networks for decades. Sanders launched his presidential bid late, and started campaigning as a contender (rather than a protest candidate) even later.
With the time and resources that he had, the Vermont senator had little chance to build the relationships with local Democratic parties and community leaders (especially in African-American communities in the South) necessary to overcome Clinton. He also lacked the name recognition and trust that Clinton had established with the party’s most reliable primary voters over a period of decades. At the end of the day, the 2016 Democratic primary was a surprisingly close race — but still, not very close.
All this said: The Democratic Establishment’s decision to preempt a wide primary field, by lining up behind Clinton from the get-go, was a hugely consequential mistake. The party knew that Clinton was a weak retail campaigner — and, by late 2015, that she was the subject of an FBI investigation — and still pinned the nation’s fate to hers.
The Democratic Party’s infrastructure is in sore need of a renovation. For all the Democratic Party’s internal arguments over the political merits of different messages and policies, there’s a strong case that Team Blue’s biggest mistakes (from a purely electoral perspective) have been ones of resource allocation. The GOP and its donors have invested in long-term strategies for building power up through the states. North Carolina tycoon Art Pope bought the Tar Heel State for the GOP. The DeVos family has made huge investments in turning Michigan red, while the Kochs did the same in Wisconsin. But, as Brazile’s story shows, the Democratic Party and its megadonors have been myopically focused on the presidential level, strategizing on a cycle-to-cycle time horizon: Obama loads the DNC up with debt in service of his 2012 campaign; Clinton uses that indebtedness to skew the DNC’s resources toward her 2016 bid. Both candidates’ donors evince little interest in bankrolling state parties.
In hindsight, spending a bit less on pro-Hillary ads in oversaturated swing-state media markets in 2016 — and a bit more on building up state parties in hostile territory — probably would have been in the party’s long-term interest.
Donna Brazile (ostensibly) thinks the future belongs to Berniecrats. Maybe Brazile just wants to maximize sales of her upcoming book, and recognized that an inside story of DNC treachery was the juiciest angle she had. But this certainly reads like the kind of piece a Democratic operative would write if she were interested in having as warm a relationship with the Sanders 2020 campaign as she did with the Clinton 2016 one.