In the fall of 2015, a year before the presidential election, the Democratic National Committee, we now know, was bought for the equivalent of a pawn shop by the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
The party organization was still deeply in debt from the 2012 campaign, owing millions to banks and vendors, burning through what little cash it had at a stunning rate of some $3 million to $4 million per month. By August 2015, the DNC was becoming unable to make payroll and approaching the equivalent of bankruptcy, according to a former senior party official, who requested anonymity, arguing that being quoted publicly criticizing the DNC in a news outlet connected to Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, who is a critic of the DNC, would be damaging professionally.
And so the DNC, to save itself, sold everything to the only bidder. The Clinton campaign bailed out the DNC and, in exchange, effectively took it over, according to Donna Brazile, who served as the organization’s acting chairperson from July 2016 to February 2017.
“The agreement — signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias — 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,” Brazile wrote in an explosive excerpt of her book published Thursday in Politico. “The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.”
Brazile’s belated acknowledgement that the DNC was, in fact, under the direct control of the Clinton campaign, rather than a neutral arbiter of the race, has enflamed a long-burning fight between Clinton’s backers and those of 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, lending official credence to the argument that the DNC was tilted in Clinton’s favor.
There will be plenty of Facebook and Twitter threads to hash that out between now and the apocalypse. There will also be a chance to ponder the thinking behind Brazile’s timing — after it could have made a difference in the DNC chair race and a week before the Virginia gubernatorial election — as well as the motive, both personal and political. Indeed, during the campaign, Mook subjected Brazile to regular indignities, according to people who observed the relationship.
All that is fodder for a good flamewar, but walking away rather unscathed is the man who set the blaze in the first place: former President Barack Obama. “Nobody wanted to out the fact that Obama had let it get so bad,” said the DNC official.
Brazile’s reference to Marc Elias in her exposé was an extra twist of the knife. Elias was the Clinton campaign’s attorney and also the attorney for the DNC. A partner at Perkins Coie, Elias replaced Bob Bauer — another Perkins Coie attorney — when Obama brought him into the White House.
It didn’t have to be this way. Obama’s campaign operation, Obama for America, took small-dollar giving to never-before-seen heights and opened up the possibility of a transformation of politics. But he quickly decided to marginalize his group after the 2008 election. He renamed it Organizing for America, but ordered it to do very little organizing, worried that if grassroots activists attacked Blue Dog Democrats, they would bolt from the president and lose in 2010. Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously told activists such a strategy was “fucking retarded.” (Most lost anyway in 2010, as the tea party wave swept them out.)
OFA became Obama’s primary campaign apparatus, supplanting the DNC, which became an afterthought handed to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who later became Clinton’s running mate. After the 2010 wave, Obama put Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz on top of the moribund institution, a clear signal that he was uninterested in it as a central component of the party. Obama’s poor relationship with Wasserman Schultz was widely known and written about, but he left her in the job for six years regardless.
Raising money for a bland outfit like the DNC isn’t easy in the best of times, but with Obama offering little to no help, and clinging to his invaluable email list, Wasserman Schultz was set up to fail, even if she would have done so on her own.
Obama instead reasoned that he could become the party, his dynamic and charismatic personality carrying it at the national level.
Obama was re-elected, but the party itself went on a historic losing spree, ultimately shedding nearly 1,000 seats across the country. Even after Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, and the DNC continued spending money on consultants at an eye-popping rate, Obama decided not to make a leadership change. Instead, he left it saddled with debt — debt the Clinton campaign would later agree to pay off in exchange for control.
Obama finally became interested in the party after the 2016 loss. His final gift to the party apparatus was Tom Perez, his labor secretary, who he recruited to stop Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., from winning the race for DNC chair. Obama and Perez won. DNC funding has been anemic, and it recently had to add to its roughly $3 million in debt.