The Long Fall of Debbie Wasserman Schultz

The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.

The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.

Few Democrats will miss Wasserman Schultz, who was widely seen as an ineffective leader. She was a poor communicator whose gaffes often caused the party headaches; a mediocre fundraiser; and a terrible diplomat more apt to alienate party factions than bring them together. “Only Donald Trump has unified the party more,” Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant who supported Sanders in the primary, told me wryly.

“The emails just confirmed what we already knew,” Lis Smith, a former aide to primary contender Martin O’Malley, told me. “She was not an honest broker in this process. She should have been gone long ago—she did the party a huge disservice.”

The litany of Wasserman Schultz’s offenses during the primary was familiar to supporters of Sanders and other Clinton rivals: scheduling debates at odd times, shutting Sanders out of the party’s data file, stacking convention committees with Clinton supporters. But her tenure was rocky long before that—in fact, within a month of her being named in 2011 to finish the term of Tim Kaine, who had left to run for Senate, Democrats were starting to grumble about her. When her term ended after Obama’s reelection, there was more sniping about her leadership, and Obama’s advisors urged him to bring in someone new, but Wasserman Schultz made it clear she wouldn’t go without a fight, according to reports at the time and my sources inside the DNC. And so the White House chose the path of least resistance and kept her in.

“Good fucking riddance,” one former top DNC staffer during her tenure told me of Wasserman Schultz’s ouster. “But she was convicted for the wrong crime.” Critics charged that Wasserman Schultz treated the committee as a personal promotion vehicle, constantly seeking television appearances and even urging donors to give to her personal fundraising committee. A different former staffer went so far as to compare her personality to Donald Trump’s, describing a “narcissism” that filtered everything through her personal interests.

The larger issue, many Democrats told me, was the White House’s lack of concern with the health of the party, which allowed the DNC to atrophy. “There’s a lot of soul-searching and reckoning to be done going forward about the role of the party,” Smith said. Obama won the nomination by running against the party establishment, and once he got into office converted his campaign into a new organization, Organizing for America. It was technically a part of the DNC, but in reality served as a rival to it that redirected the party’s organizing functions, effectively gutting its field operation. The weakened DNC bears some of the responsibility for the epic down-ballot losses—in Congress, state offices, and legislatures—that have occurred during Obama’s presidency.

“The president doesn’t give a shit about the DNC, and he’s the only one with the leverage to do something about it,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant and commentator who has advised the DNC. “Barack Obama made it abundantly clear that he didn’t care about the DNC, so why have that fight?”

When Wasserman Schultz finally surrendered the gavel Monday, the prevailing mood among Democratic insiders was relief that the long-running saga was finally over. “It’s great that she stepped down, because she sensed that she would become a distraction,” Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, told me. (Granholm was considered for DNC chair when Wasserman Schultz got the job and has been mentioned as a possible replacement, but she told me she’s not seeking the position now.) “She saw that the convention would be disrupted if she stayed on.”

The irony to many of Wasserman Schultz’s critics was that if she was, in fact, trying to “rig” the primary for Clinton, she didn’t do it very well, and by antagonizing Sanders supporters she might have even helped power Clinton’s opposition. “She had lost trust from every corner of the party,” said Mo Elleithee, a former communications director for the DNC under Wasserman Schultz. “Congressional Democrats had lost trust in her, the White House had lost trust in her, the Clinton campaign was rapidly losing trust in her. So once she started to lose the grassroots, which was her only strength, she had nothing left.”

Wasserman Schultz wasn’t totally without fans. “I love Debbie, and it took a lot of courage to do what she did,” a Florida delegate named Jack Shifrel told me. “She could have blamed others, but she fell on her sword.” I asked Shifrel, a Clinton supporter, if he thought the Sanders people were right that Wasserman Schultz was secretly rooting for Clinton. “Oh, sure!” he said. “I don’t think she needs to apologize for that. Everybody’s for somebody, and she’s been friends with the Clintons for a long time.”