Donna Brazile's Curious Account of the 2016 Election

The former DNC chair seems eager to jump on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon, but her claims of ignorance about party favoritism toward Hillary Clinton don’t add up.

Richard Brian / Reuters

For defeated politicians, the period after an election is for score-settling. For defeated political operatives, it’s about positioning for the next race. And if a juicy excerpt from Donna Brazile’s new book Hacks is an indication, the longtime Democratic operative and former interim chair of the Democratic National Party seems to think the future is Bernie Sanders.

Brazile’s piece, in Politico Magazine, is a fascinating document, though maybe not always for the reasons intended. It answers some questions about the 2016 race, including why Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t move to depose DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sooner, but also raises other questions about the management of the DNC, including Brazile’s own moves. And it shows Brazile tossing soil on the Clinton era’s coffin.

The piece recounts Brazile’s apparent discovery of the degree to which the Clinton campaign was controlling the DNC, and had been doing for nearly a year by the time Brazile was named interim chair in July 2016. As Brazile, who had been the vice chair of the DNC until her elevation, tells it, she was shocked to learn from Clinton campaign finance chair Gary Gensler that the DNC was out of cash and needed a $2 million loan. As she tried to unravel what happened, she was surprised to learn that the Clinton team was propping the DNC up, and had been doing so for months, even though Clinton had only formally locked up the nomination in July. One element of that was a Victory Fund, a joint DNC-Clinton committee that was legally allowed to accept larger contributions than a candidate’s campaign.

“Wait,” Brazile recalls saying. “That victory fund was supposed to be for whoever was the nominee, and the state party races. You’re telling me that Hillary has been controlling it since before she got the nomination?”

Brazile later found the written agreement giving Clinton control, which “specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.”

Armed with this knowledge, Brazile steeled herself for a phone call with Sanders to square with him. The Vermont senator comes across well in her telling: “Bernie took this stoically. He did not yell or express outrage.” Indeed, Sanders could hardly have been shocked; he’d been accusing the DNC of much the same thing for months. But he did ask Brazile for her analysis of the race, and she boldly told the truth: “I had to be frank with him. I did not trust the polls, I said. I told him I had visited states around the country and I found a lack of enthusiasm for her everywhere. I was concerned about the Obama coalition and about millennials.” (As Nate Silver notes, there appears to be some retrospective revisionism at play in this quote.)

This is interesting as far as it goes, especially for the details of the contract between the Clinton campaign and the DNC. But Brazile’s account raises quite a few questions of its own.

For anyone who watched the 2016 campaign, it’s surreal to see Brazile’s overtures to Sanders and to see her complaining that the DNC had been in the tank for Hillary Clinton. Brazile is not a product of the Clinton machine—she worked for a series of national Democratic campaigns, then rose to prominence as an aide to Al Gore, whose relationship with the Clintons was complicated, during his presidential campaign in 2000. She remained neutral in the 2008 race, too. But by the 2016 race, she was ready to join the Clinton bandwagon. As hacked DNC emails would later show, she even passed Democratic primary-debate questions—obtained through her position as a CNN political analyst—to Clinton. When this was revealed, it earned Brazile the heated enmity of many Sanders backers. Given that she was a vice chair of the DNC, it also fed the already-strong impression that it heavily favored Clinton.

The fact that the Democratic Party apparatus would lean toward Clinton—a former senator and first lady, the wife of a former Democratic president, and part of a family whose patronage had largely shaped the current party—over Sanders, who didn’t even serve as a Democrat in the Senate, was not a shock. Even so, Sanders’s campaign had been blowing the whistle on the Victory Fund for months. Brazile cites a May 2016 Politico story, but in April, Sanders’s campaign wrote an open letter to the DNC complaining about the fundraising arrangement and suggesting it might violate campaign-finance laws. That letter, in turn, cited a Washington Post piece. Brazile writes of her discovery of the contract, and then her phone call to Sanders in September, as though she had been unaware of the Sanders letter, which was widely publicized at the time.

Brazile also complains that Wasserman Schultz had kept details of the deal with the Clinton campaign from her:

“What?” I screamed. “I am an officer of the party and they’ve been telling us everything is fine and they were raising money with no problems.” …

If I didn’t know about this, I assumed that none of the other officers knew about it, either. That was just Debbie’s way. In my experience she didn’t come to the officers of the DNC for advice and counsel. She seemed to make decisions on her own and let us know at the last minute what she had decided, as she had done when she told us about the hacking only minutes before The Washington Post broke the news.

While it’s hard to argue with Brazile’s position that “Debbie was not a good manager,” or to disagree that Wasserman Schultz should have kept officers better in the loop, this hardly exculpates Brazile. As a DNC officer, she should have been asking more questions of both the chair and other top officials, and she apparently didn’t.

Brazile’s piece does help to explain one mystery of the 2016 cycle: Why didn’t Clinton move to depose Wasserman Schultz sooner? Democrats had been complaining about her stewardship of the committee nearly since she was installed, and even President Obama, who had engineered the appointment, had turned cool on her. In September 2014, Politico reported, “Many expect a nascent Clinton campaign will engineer her ouster. Hurt feelings go back to spring 2008, when while serving as a co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Wasserman Schultz secretly reached out to the Obama campaign to pledge her support once the primary was over, sources say.”

As it turns out, the Clinton team probably didn’t feel the need to depose Wasserman Schultz formally (at least until the July leak of hacked DNC emails) because in practice they had already done so. As the Washington Free Beacon reported in October, one of the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks had outlined a Clinton campaign plan to keep Wasserman Schultz in place until after the convention. Brazile’s story fills in some of the details on how the Clinton team muscled the chair out.

“The funding arrangement with HFA and the victory fund agreement was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical,” Brazile writes. “If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead.”

This is a reasonable conclusion, but it will not come as news to Sanders fans, nor to most watchers of the Democratic primary. The only surprise here is that it came as a surprise to Donna Brazile.

The fact that an operator like Brazile is willing to burn bridges with the Clintons, though, is important. Although one might have assumed Hillary Clinton’s time as a Democratic mover and shaker was passed, her frequent appearances to promote her book suggest she remains interested in staying in the arena, and earlier this week Jeet Heer argued that she should be the Democrat’s standard-bearer against Trump. (Never mind that we’ve seen how that turned out once before.) But Brazile’s bound toward the Bernie bandwagon is another indication of how Sanders is, at least for the moment, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party.