POLITICS
09/29/2015 11:19 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2015

The Hardest-Working Scapegoat In Washington

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gets the blame for many of the party's problems. Does she deserve it?
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- This summer, Hillary Clinton endured withering criticism over her use of a private email account, President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal faced a multimillion-dollar attack ad campaign and Democratic presidential candidates maligned the party's debate schedule as unfair.

Through it all, the party operated with one of its most critical positions vacant: From early June until mid-September, the Democratic National Committee went without a communications director. By the time the DNC filled the position, both the Iran nuclear deal and Clinton’s campaign had sustained significant reputational damage. Democrats, even old DNC hands, were left wondering whether things might have been different had a chief ally been more involved.

"It's hard to guide what they do without having a real communications strategy," said a former DNC official who requested anonymity to speak openly. "And to have that, you need somebody driving it."

Asked why it took so long to hire someone for the job, DNC Press Secretary Holly Shulman, who essentially held three jobs over the summer, replied, "This was a long and thoughtful process." She was silent for six seconds before adding, "Period."

One reason for the delay: The committee’s chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), refused to hire someone she did not know of personally or hadn't met in person and rejected several candidates suggested by Clinton and Obama allies.

Taken alone, Wasserman Schultz's failure to fill a key role in the party infrastructure greatly frustrated Democratic officials. But it was only the latest in what party insiders describe as a series of strategic missteps, including the furor over the debate schedule, Wasserman Schultz's public waffling over the president's top foreign policy priority and, increasingly, her unwavering commitment to neutrality in the presidential primary amid a growing  crisis for the Clinton campaign.

“I suspect that Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz is holding back because she doesn't want to seem like the DNC is picking among the candidates,” said Ed Rendell, a former DNC chair and Pennsylvania governor. “But I think she should take the posture that, 'Hey, I’m defending Hillary Clinton from charges but if anyone attacks [Martin] O’Malley or [Bernie] Sanders, I’ll be right there to defend them against the charges.'

"Debbie is usually a forceful advocate for the Democratic Party," he added.

Now, heading deeper into the 2016 campaign, party insiders are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of the DNC and Wasserman Schultz's leadership of the committee.

Leading A DNC That The White House Didn't Value

In 2011, Obama tapped the then 44-year-old Wasserman Schultz to take over the DNC because of her savviness as a communicator, her acumen as a fundraiser and her aggressive political instincts. But early on, Obama administration officials made clear that the president, not the new DNC chief, would steer the party's future.

Shortly into her tenure, Wasserman Schultz maneuvered to create a women’s committee at the DNC without the Obama re-election campaign's signoff. When campaign manager Jim Messina heard about the idea, he applied the brakes, arguing that it would confuse donors and messaging, since the campaign already had a women’s committee of its own. Wasserman Schultz was not pleased -- either with Messina or her own communications director, Brad Woodhouse, who had alerted the campaign.

Wasserman Schultz exchanged acrimonious phone calls and emails with Messina and Woodhouse, after which she and Messina did not speak for weeks.

During the same cycle, the campaign tested how she and other surrogates were received by audiences. As Politico's Glenn Thrush first reported, Wasserman Schultz came in at the bottom -- a report she denied, though three separate sources confirmed the existence of that study and her place at or near the lowest point. The chairwoman, who is known for enjoying the media aspects of the job (which hardly makes her unique among politicians), was once again at odds with the campaign.

But the tensions were larger than press hits and new committees.

The Obama campaign saw the DNC as a tool to aid the president’s re-election. Campaign officials had little interest in building the party infrastructure -- let alone continuing the 50-state strategy started under former chair Howard Dean -- because they were focused on creating their own: Organizing for Action, a nonprofit tasked with pushing the president's agenda after his re-election.

"If I were writing yet another piece on the DNC madness I would focus the question on the centrality of party politics to Obama," said one Obama insider, "or the lack thereof."

Indeed, some party activists now wonder whether Democrats would have been better off adopting a longer-term vision. A women's issues committee, after all, serves an important role for the Obama campaign. But it's a temporary role as well, ending when the campaign concludes. Housed at the committee, it could be permanent.

"I think there are a lot of donors … and a lot of groups across the country, including the DNC, that now realize winning state elections -- winning up and down the ticket -- is very important," said Patrick Guarasci, a Democratic consultant. "These elections can really shape national politics quite a bit. But I think the Obama campaign and the DNC did the best job they could. All of these elections must be put in their historic context." Guarasci, a DNC finance vice chair, stressed that his comments were his own and not representing the committee.

After the president's victory in 2012, Wasserman Schultz was re-elected to her DNC post. By then, tensions with the White House had mellowed, but largely because the relationship was increasingly non-existent. One former Obama official bluntly summed up why the administration didn't push to find new leadership at the DNC: "Literally, no one cares enough to get her out of there."

Still, given more room to operate, Wasserman Schultz made strides. The committee's debt, which had ballooned to $21.5 million after the 2012 election, was brought down to less than $2 million by the summer of 2014. This happened even as the committee made $5 million transfers to the campaign arms for Senate and House Democrats.

But as it became clear that Democrats would get clobbered in the midterm elections, Obama-allied officials moved swiftly to put the blame on her, twisting the knife by dishing to Politico about her clothing purchases and love of pictures with the president. 

Wasserman Schultz and her friends were incensed. But in addition to being asked to raise millions of dollars, organize a nomination process and serve as a high-profile voice for the party, being a whipping post comes with the job.

"They kicked the shit out of Howard Dean. They kicked the shit out of Terry McAuliffe. It's part of being the DNC chair," said Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic Party consultant and confidant of Wasserman Schultz. "It is the only Democratic official it is safe to beat up."

A Summer Of Discontent

As her tenure at the DNC progressed, two images of Wasserman Schultz emerged. Those who worked for and with her bristled at what they see as her tendency to be over-involved in decision-making without providing clear direction. But she has a work ethic that even her critics can't help but respect.

"She has a set of brass balls," said another former DNC official. "There are few people I've ever worked with who are willing to work harder. The problem is sometimes I think she is too focused on things involving her own ego."

This year, Wasserman Schultz has tirelessly steered the committee's financing efforts, persuading Obama to headline 19 events in 2015 alone.

"Just look at the huge number of fundraisers that he is doing for us," said Shulman, the DNC's press secretary.  

But she also commandeered the party's debate schedule in a manner that left her own deputies and several campaigns seething.

This spring, the DNC began telling campaigns there would be six official Democratic presidential debates -- three fewer than the Republicans were holding. Officials who worked on the process called it a deft threading of the needle. The Clinton campaign wanted fewer and the O'Malley campaign demanded more, but neither threatened not to participate.

Then, the DNC inserted an exclusivity clause in the debate rules, which stated that any candidate who participated in a non-sanctioned debate would be disinvited from the sanctioned ones. It was a policy ripped off from the RNC and, realistically, the only one the committee felt sufficiently ensured the party didn't risk overexposure. But the O'Malley campaign was incensed, saying they were told of, but not consulted on, that provision and that it unfairly favored Clinton. 

She has a set of brass balls.

In response, Shulman stressed that the DNC engaged "all the campaigns in this process." And even former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a DNC vice chair who has been critical of the debate structure, dismissed as a "conspiracy theory" the idea that Wasserman Schultz favored Clinton. Indeed, the prevailing sentiment within Democratic circles now appears to be that the chair has tried too hard to avoid being seen as a lackey for the Clinton campaign, sticking firmly to her position of neutrality in the primary, even in the face of relentless Republican attacks.

Later in the spring, the DNC announced that four of the six debates would occur before the Iowa caucus and that the final two would probably come after the next three primary elections. It was a decision borne of numerous considerations: the demands of the networks, the legislative schedule of lawmakers and the baseball playoffs in October. But again, party officials argued that the schedule stacked the deck for Clinton.

Rybak and another DNC vice chair, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), went public with their grievances, saying they were not consulted on the process and did not support having only six debates.

"When we look at the work of the Democratic National Committee and our efforts to increase involvement, increase voter turnout, increase people's engagement in the process, our awareness of these issues -- it only makes sense that we have several more debates," Gabbard said.

"I do think we need dramatically more opportunities to showcase what I think is a lot better field of candidates than the public is giving us credit for right now, because I think we're hiding our light under the barrel," Rybak added.

The issue has continued to fester. In mid-September, Deb Kozikowski, a vice chairwoman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, accused Wasserman Schultz of "establishing a full-fledged dictatorship at the DNC." At a recent speech before party activists in New Hampshire, hecklers overwhelmed Wasserman Schultz's address with chants of "We want debates!"

And when Wasserman Schultz told MSNBC that she wasn't concerned that voters were hearing from the Republican presidential candidates instead of Democrats, because the country was getting to see their infighting and "extremism," the O'Malley campaign reacted viscerally.

"That is unacceptable and disgraceful for the chair of our party to say that publicly," Lis Smith, a senior adviser to O'Malley, told The Huffington Post.  

At Odds With Obama On His Foreign Policy Legacy

 Wasserman Schultz might have been in a better political position to handle the debates controversy if she wasn't fending off attacks on a different front. To varying degrees, the DNC chair spent the summer at odds with the president on his two main foreign policy initiatives.

Opening diplomatic relations with Cuba actually presented little debate inside the DNC walls, according to sources there. Wasserman Schultz was firm that she would not support the policy -- and made that explicitly clear to the Obama administration prior to getting the job in 2011, a close source told The Huffington Post -- but she pledged not to keep the DNC from supporting it. Indeed, minutes after she released her own (very diplomatic) statement of regret, the DNC attacked Republicans for their (far more bombastic) statements of opposition.

The nuclear deal struck with Iran was a more complicated proposition. A Jewish lawmaker from South Florida, Wasserman Schultz was balancing numerous political considerations and took weeks to settle on a position. This made her not so different from other lawmakers -- and, certainly, better from the White House's perspective than several other Democrats who outrightly opposed it. When she organized a conference call with Vice President Joseph Biden to pitch the merits of the deal to DNC members, it appeared she had hit a delicate balance, much like with Cuba.

But then, at a DNC meeting in Minneapolis in late August, Wasserman Schultz reportedly stopped consideration of a resolution that would have put the committee on record backing the deal. Instead, members drafted a more underwhelming letter of support for the president.

"For me, at least, that is probably the final straw and she should consider stepping aside. After all, this was an important issue for the president and for this country and if she in fact did this as part of her own political calculation that is too much," said Jim Manley, a former top spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Several sources confirmed to The Huffington Post that Wasserman Schultz did indeed oppose the resolution, which irritated officials inside the administration. But others argued that her opposition was a procedural matter: The Iran resolution had been presented to the DNC without the traditional 30 days notice.

"I think she was fair, she knew what we wanted, we wanted to make a statement," said Christine Pelosi, a DNC resolutions committee member. "We got dialogue happening between DNC members and the people they helped elect back home... The point was not to have a resolution on a piece of paper. It was to have that dialogue."

A week after the Minneapolis meeting, Wasserman Schultz announced she backed the Iran accord. The Obama administration, which had been irritated by her process getting there, ended up relieved and even pleased.

"To her credit, [Chairwoman] Wasserman Schultz made her decision on the merits,” said spokesman Eric Schultz. “She prioritized U.S. national security, factored in her strong support for Israel's security, and actually took the time to understand how the agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuke.”

Her support, however, ended up being largely unnecessary. Four days earlier, the deal had secured enough votes in the Senate to ensure the defeat of a congressional resolution of disapproval. Asked whether she tried to get the DNC chair to put her name on the letter, Pelosi replied: "I never asked her to sign it. I wasn't going to put her on the spot."

Shifting Back To Building The Party

Wasserman Schultz's future as DNC chair is unclear. She was elected to a four-year term in 2013 and party officials note that there isn't a mechanism to dislodge her from that post, should a nominee want to do so. Moreover, it's not always the case that an incoming nominee chooses a new DNC head. Obama, for example, kept Dean on after he won the nomination in 2008, choosing instead to install his own people at top levels of the committee and influencing it from within.

"She is an elected official for the party and has stated many times that her intention is to serve her term," Shulman said.

For Democrats, the pendulum seems to be swinging back a toward a mindset that values long-term party-building, which will likely pick up even more should Clinton become the nominee. The DNC was a more integral part of the Clinton operation in the '90s than it has been under Obama. And when the Clinton campaign launched its grassroots organizing effort in April, officials stressed that it would be putting organizers on the ground in every state, hearkening back to Dean's 50-state strategy. During her speech at the DNC meeting in Minneapolis last month, Clinton received sustained cheers when she explicitly stated her desire to build up the party at all levels and create something "that will last long after next November."

Wasserman Schultz, too, seems keen on making strides in this direction as the campaign progresses. The DNC reached a deal with Organizing for Action that gave it ownership of the Obama campaign's formidable email list. The committee also reached agreements with state Democratic parties to create a state-of-the-art voter file.

The chairwoman, meanwhile, has already visited 15 states for party fundraisers this election cycle. She is seen as a well-positioned attack dog should Republicans settle on either Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio -- Floridians, like her -- as their general election candidate. And, of course, she is finally staffing up.

"The chairwoman is working very hard to put the DNC and the Democratic Party writ large on the footing to give whoever our nominee is the best possible support going forward," said Luis Miranda, who was in his second day on the job as communications director and still trying to figure out his phone number. "This isn't about her."

Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.

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