For better or worse, the Democratic National Committee used to nominate its presidential candidates by a combination of party bosses behind closed doors -- the infamous smoke-filled rooms where the most viable candidate was hand-picked based on any number of criteria -- and by party conventions where delegates weighed in on the party’s roster of candidates. Primary elections, state-by-state were mostly held as elaborate preference polls rather than a literal means of selecting nominees. Clearly, since 1968-ish, the party has relied much more heavily on state primaries and the institution of super-delegates to determine who’d run in the general election. But the smoke-filled room idea continues to linger.
In the case of 2016’s nauseatingly turbulent process, former DNC chairperson Donna Brazile’s new book claims that the smoke-filled room idea hasn’t yet been retired. According to excerpts published by Politico on Thursday, we learned that a deal was struck between the DNC and the Hillary for America campaign, along with the Hillary Victory Fund. Apparently, the DNC was $24 million in debt (wow!) at the start of the campaign season, and, per this deal, Hillary’s campaign gave the DNC $10 million to cover 80 percent of its debt, while also, according to Brazile, “Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.”
Additionally, loopholes in campaign finance laws allowed the Hillary campaign to raise additional cash through the Victory Fund. Part of that money went to the state parties, while the rest went to the DNC which, in turn, circulated non-battleground state party cash back to the Hillary campaign. Brazile writes that unless a deal was reached with Hillary along these lines, the DNC would’ve collapsed for lack of funding.
All told, the terms of this pact were apparently outlined in what’s called a “joint fundraising agreement” (JFA). The signing of this particular JFA was reported by Politico on August 27, 2015. At the time, it was described by Politico like so: “The document will enable the DNC and the campaign to conduct events and other fundraising activities together that will generate money for both entities.” More than two years later, the general existence of the deal shouldn’t be received as fresh news. The terms, on the other hand, are newsworthy, though it’s difficult to tell how unethical or illegal the terms were. On the surface, it’s neither illegal nor unethical, given how using domestic cash to attain a political advantage has been part of the process for decades or more.
It’s not surprising that supporters of Bernie Sanders concluded that the JFA is evidence of the DNC unfairly tipping the scales for Hillary. Their reaction is worsened by Brazile's writing, which failed to provide historical context for her conclusions -- she failed to highlight whether similar JFAs have been commonplace or whether this was a one-off conspiracy between former-DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Clintons.
However, Politico reported almost exactly two years ago, on November 5, 2015, that Bernie Sanders also signed a joint fundraising agreement with the DNC. The particulars of the deal are unknown for now, but we do know that Bernie didn’t exercise the terms of the agreement, given his pledge to finance his campaign simply through individuals and small donors. (To her credit, Brazile made mention of Bernie not using his agreement to its fullest extent, though it was buried deep in the text of the excerpt.) But it’s worth emphasizing for no other reason beyond context that, yes, the DNC offered and Bernie accepted a joint fundraising agreement, mitigating the seemingly one-sided nature of the Hillary deal.
While more details will surely emerge (and they have -- read on!), the Democrats continue to shoot themselves in the foot on all sides of this insufferably perpetual Bernie versus Hillary fiasco. Even though both campaigns signed fundraising pacts with the DNC, Brazile's account seems to suggest that the terms of Hillary’s deal gave her lopsided control over the party before she became the nominee. Turns out, it really didn't.
NBC News discovered on Friday that Brazile left out some key details about the agreement. Mainly, the JFA only took effect as of the general election after Hillary won the nomination, and absolutely did not apply during the primaries. The agreement also reiterated the DNC's pledge for impartiality, for whatever that's worth. (There's no reason why the DNC couldn't choose to violate its own rule here.) At the end of the day, it appears as if Brazile's revelation was a huge blunder, given how it's unnecessarily re-opened the wounds of the 2016 primary season while giving Trump an excuse to suggest that the Democrats rigged the entire election. Indeed, Trump spent all morning tweeting about how the Justice Department should investigate the Democrats. Well done, Donna.
Sure, it’s never easy to be the candidate left on the sidelines, so I get how Bernie supporters were initially enraged to learn this news (the NBC News report ought to calm them down, but it probably won't). Nevertheless, the “rigged” colloquialism in this sense illustrates a lack of understanding of how candidates at all levels seek legal political advantage, which is what Hillary appears to have done. Nothing more. Usually, candidates who have spent years schmoozing party officials, even if we’re talking about lower-level county supervisor and mayoral hopefuls, are usually the ones who end up being supported more heartily by the party establishment. It seems obvious to spell it out like this, but here we are.
On the other hand, if you’ve never been a Democrat, and then you decide to choose that affiliation just before launching your national campaign, you and your supporters should expect to be at a sizable disadvantage versus someone who’s raised money and worked within the party for decades. Even still, Bernie and Wasserman Schultz cut their own fundraising deal, and if Bernie had exercised his rights under the terms, he could have reduced Hillary’s advantage.
So, the “rigged” term only makes the entire Democratic side look like crooks. If that’s your goal, fine. And if it actually applied here, fine, too. But it’s still unclear how Hillary’s JFA was unusual enough to be considered unseemly or unethical given the history of typical backroom political dealmaking as well as Bernie’s similar agreement. Meanwhile, the use of this “rigged” term, whether by Brazile, Bernie or Elizabeth Warren, too often gets picked up by Republican trolls like Donald Trump who, by the way, stole Bernie’s “rigged” talking point last year after Bernie conceded, eventually leading to the possibility that Trump was going to challenge the results of the election had he lost.
Good job, Democrats.
One last thing: after all the dust settles, this debacle is a perfect argument in support of real campaign finance reform, perhaps a constitutional amendment removing private money from presidential campaigns. Until then, the Democrats should probably focus a little more time on winning rather than self-immolating and labeling its primary process as “rigged.” For now, it almost feels like the Dems want to lose.