Last Thursday saw a news cycle in which the president’s Twitter account temporarily vanished, the GOP unveiled their newest tax cut bill for the wealthy, and billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer half-heartedly attempted to distance himself from the white nationalists he’s been bankrolling — including former Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos. But one of the day’s most shocking stories was also, ultimately, one of the least surprising: Former interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Donna Brazile charges that the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign were essentially one and the same, and that Clinton was the pre-ordained Democratic candidate from the very start of the race.
In a piece for Politico excerpted from her upcoming book, Brazile describes how she stumbled upon a fundraising agreement between the DNC, Hillary for America (a.k.a. the Clinton campaign), and the Hillary Victory Fund (its fundraising arm), which revealed that the Clinton campaign offered a share of its considerable reserves of cash in return for the ability to essentially control the DNC.
The allegations of yet another thumb on the scale in favor of Clinton’s campaign match up with information gleaned last year from leaked emails. The batch includes memos from early 2015 that refer to Clinton as the nominee and outline ways to set up debates to be most advantageous to her. Emails also show the DNC chair nixing an additional debate and suggestions from various party insiders for how to attack Clinton’s then-opponent, Bernie Sanders.
Other excerpts from the book reveal that, last September, Brazile briefly considered replacing Clinton with Joe Biden as the party’s nominee, sensing that the Clinton campaign had become “anemic” and taken on “the odor of failure.”
Brazile’s choice to go public with this information, which she’s known for more than a year, may appear calculated and self-serving. She not only has an upcoming book to hawk, but a reputation to rehabilitate after she was caught using her position at CNN to surreptitiously feed the Clinton campaign debate questions in advance.
But that doesn’t really matter. More important than whether or not she’s acting cynically is the way she has chosen to re-varnish her standing: engaging in the Great American Pastime of dunking on the DNC and 2016 Clinton campaign while reinforcing charges of collusion made by many Bernie Sanders supporters.
Just take a look at how Brazile’s rhetoric has changed. Back in July 2016, she was conciliatory toward embattled former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, defending her as “the firewall between activists in the party and elected leaders. And when you’re the firewall, you’re a target.” Now, Brazile says that Wasserman Schultz “was not a good manager” and “had not been the most active chair in fundraising at a time when President Barack Obama’s neglect had left the party in significant debt.”
This is quite the departure from business-as-usual. Brazile is a party loyalist who, over the past three decades, has patiently climbed the rungs of the Democratic Party ladder. She’s been a staple of the party infrastructure since at least as far back as 1988, when she worked on the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. Since then, she’s served as a top aide to Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, the co-founder of the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, worked as Al Gore’s campaign manager and, in 2011, became the interim DNC chair. Brazile was also the Washington, D.C. campaign director for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign.
If we know anything about rising up through the ranks of a political party, it’s that you typically don’t do it by vociferously criticizing the party and its leadership. The fact that Brazile now appears to have chosen to side with the grassroots activists who loathe the very party establishment she has spent her career within, suggests a significant shift.
It’s one thing to win over nominally sympathetic but overly cautious politicians to your cause. It’s quite another to try to convince the reflexively centrist party apparatchiks and office-holders who prize their careers over political principle. That Brazile appears to have thrown in her lot with the disgruntled “Bernie Sanders wing” of the party shows that, despite centrist Democrats’ best efforts to maintain institutional control, cracks are beginning to show in the party’s establishment consensus.
There have been signs of these cracks ever since the plush patronage jobs many Democratic operatives had been eyeing failed to materialize after Clinton’s defeat. Sanders’ primary campaign was centered on a bold progressive agenda featuring policy positions that had previously been far outside the Democratic Party mainstream. After 2016, a number of these positions have now been taken up by the wider party.
The $15 minimum wage has transformed from a fringe demand to a policy supported by a majority of Senate Democrats. And single-payer healthcare — once written off by Clinton as a policy that would “never, ever happen” — is now supported by a third of Senate Democrats, many of whom are up for re-election next year.
One of these new single-payer converts is New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Booker, a darling of the pharmaceutical and finance industries, has been criticized for appearing to do the bidding of the moneyed interests that fill his campaign coffers. In 2012, he defended GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s predatory private equity firm Bain Capital, likely owing to the fact that a quarter of his campaign funding for his 2002 Newark mayoral run came from financial firms in Manhattan. More recently, he voted against an amendment that would have allowed the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada after receiving more money from pharmaceutical manufacturers than almost every other Democratic senator.
Booker’s pedigree is hardly a profile in progressive courage. Yet even he has moved left on the issue of healthcare, co-sponsoring Sanders’ recently released Medicare for All bill. The fact that a cautious careerist awash in Big Pharma cash like Booker thinks it’s in his best interest to be seen as a progressive champion, and now publicly supports a form of socialized health insurance, is no small thing.
This Democratic leftward lurch can also be seen in the party’s cautious treatment of Sanders. Democrats may anonymously grumble to Capitol Hill reporters about Sanders, but publicly they make a (somewhat uneasy) show of kinship with him.
Sanders, while still officially an Independent, regularly appears in television debates ostensibly representing the Democrats. The DNC’s “unity tour” this spring featured not only defeated DNC chair candidate Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, the man who beat him, but Sanders as well. When Hillary Clinton recently attacked Sanders for doing “lasting damage” to her campaign, few Democrats joined her, and most seemed annoyed she had done so. As former Democratic aide Brent Budowsky put it, “virtually all of the most respected Democrats in America would rather have root canal work done by a sadistic dentist than watch Hillary Clinton attack Bernie Sanders.”
Democrats do this not because they necessarily like Sanders, or even agree with his policy positions, but because Sanders’ standing with grassroots Democrats means they’re forced to go along with it. Like it or not, Sanders is currently the most popular politician in the United States. As Politico put it: “Sanders holds the whip hand. He pushes the party. Then the party, terrified of losing his voters, gets pushed.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s consolidation of power over the U.K. Labour party is perhaps the purest distillation of this phenomenon. It’s no hyperbole to say the Labour establishment hated Corbyn: They thought he was a joke, ceaselessly leaked unflattering and damaging information about his leadership to undermine him, obstructed his policy program, publicly criticized and mocked him, occasionally yelled at him in Parliament, and openly plotted to remove him, which they failed to do multiple times.
Yet when Corbyn, running on an ambitiously leftist platform, achieved the biggest electoral turnaround for Labour in 70 years, the Labour MPs who had been sizing him up were forced to publicly eat their words. Past Corbyn critics were suddenly eager to serve under him. This was not just because they were genuinely impressed with his election performance (some doubtless were), but because they now had an irrefutable electoral incentive to do so. Perhaps more importantly, they had very real fears about what Corbyn’s newfound power means for their political futures.
Ambitious Democratic insiders are not typically prone to taking positions critical of the party. So when someone like Donna Brazile starts sounding like a Berniecrat, you know something’s changed. First you win over the careerists — then you win the war.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.