What Donna Brazile Got Right—and What She Got Wrong

The furor over the release of an excerpt from Donna Brazile’s book has died down a bit. So I thought it would be a good time to review her claims and document what she got right and what she got wrong. No one I’ve seen comment on this story has suggested that the DNC doesn’t need to make some changes. But to be able to identify those, we need to extricate all of this from the accusations flying back and forth about it from those who simply want to re-litigate the 2016 primary.

Last week I identified two questions that Brazile needed to answer based on the excerpt from her book at Politico. The first was to produce the Hillary Victory Fund agreement that she claimed was a “cancer” on the party. On Friday night, NBC News released the document. Brazile was right, it was negotiated in August 2015 and included what the DNC agreed to in terms of control by the Clinton campaign.

In exchange for Hillary for America’s (HFA) helping the cash-strapped DNC raise money, the party committee agreed “that HFA personnel will be consulted and have joint authority over strategic decisions over the staffing, budget, expenditures, and general election related communications, data, technology, analytics, and research.”…

However, the memo also made clear that the arrangement pertained to only the general election, not the primary season, and it left open the possibility that it would sign similar agreements with other candidates.

Still, it clearly allowed the Clinton campaign to influence DNC decisions made during an active primary, even if intended for preparations later.

What is perhaps even more interesting, however, is that over the weekend some intrepid fact-finders pointed to an article in Politico from July 2015 when this agreement was being negotiated. It basically had the story way back then, but didn’t create the kind of reaction that Brazile stirred up. Perhaps that is because it all came prior to the time that the battle lines were drawn between Clinton and Sanders supporters.

Hillary Clinton’s staff and the Democratic National Committee leadership have been struggling for months to finalize a joint fundraising agreement over a basic problem: The Brooklyn-based campaign doesn’t trust the national party structure with the money…

What’s interesting is that the Clinton campaign’s assessment of the DNC pretty much replicates Brazile’s.

My predecessor, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 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…

Debbie was not a good manager. She hadn’t been very interested in controlling the party…

As a result, the Clinton campaign negotiated an agreement based on that lack of confidence in the management of the DNC.

The campaign has insisted that any money raised through joint fundraising activities be put in what’s essentially a lockbox until the general election campaign. The DNC wanted access to all the funds immediately. Baker, who’s been negotiating with DNC CEO Amy Dacey, said no.

Instead, Baker laid out in a series of memos what the campaign will allow spending on, according to people familiar with them: building out the opposition research on Republican candidates as well as improving the DNC’s technological resources and other infrastructure. The memos specifically rule out access for the Clinton campaign to any information the DNC is gathering or tracking on any of the other Democratic candidates.

Obviously, they didn’t view their demands as unusual.

The Clinton campaign points as a model to Al Gore’s 2000 campaign: well ahead as a front-runner himself long before he was the nominee, Gore also demanded restrictions on DNC spending out of his joint fundraising agreement until his campaign took full control.

Remind me again who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. Oh yeah, it was Donna Brazile. Imagine that! Upon the release of the agreement by NBC, a former Chair of the DNC tweeted this:

The Politico article also pointed out the attempts the DNC was making to reach similar agreements with other candidates, but none of them were demonstrating much interest.

I would suggest that Brazile’s account was accurate, but her characterization of this agreement as a “cancer” on the DNC is way overblown, given that it seems to have been standard operating procedure. It might be that in the future these kinds of agreements need to be avoided. But given the DNC weaknesses in both fundraising and leadership that the Clinton campaign witnessed in 2015, I suspect that their concern was justified.

The other question I posed had to do with Brazile’s reference to yet another Politico article from May 2016 in which it was claimed that the money being raised for state parties was being “grabbed” by the Clinton campaign. As I demonstrated from Open Secrets, 38 state parties each received approximately $2.5 to $3.5 million from the Hillary Victory Fund. The issue back in May of 2016 was that the funding couldn’t be dispersed until operations had shifted from the primary to the general election. As far as I’ve seen, Brazile hasn’t addressed this item, but Sanders supporters are still repeating her characterization as true.

On Saturday, Philip Rucker wrote about some additional items in Brazile’s book. Most of the reaction focused on this:

Former Democratic National Committee head Donna Brazile writes in a new book that she seriously contemplated setting in motion a process to replace Hillary Clinton as the party’s 2016 presidential nominee with then-Vice President Biden in the aftermath of Clinton’s fainting spell, in part because Clinton’s campaign was “anemic” and had taken on “the odor of failure.”

In an explosive new memoir, Brazile details widespread dysfunction and dissension throughout the Democratic Party, including secret deliberations over using her powers as interim DNC chair to initiate the process of removing Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) from the ticket after Clinton’s Sept. 11, 2016, collapse in New York City.

Brazile writes that she considered a dozen combinations to replace the nominees and settled on Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), the duo she felt most certain would win over enough working-class voters to defeat Republican Donald Trump. But then, she writes, “I thought of Hillary, and all the women in the country who were so proud of and excited about her. I could not do this to them.”

That one sent a lot of people (including Josh Marshall) to the DNC charter and bylaws in order to determine what would trigger the replacement of a nominee, as well as the chair’s role in doing so. Here’s what he found:

My quick review of the charter suggests that nothing can happen unless there’s a ‘vacancy’ and the decision is in the hands of the full committee. I think by definition that means only resignation or death can lead to replacement.

According to Rucker, Brazile was contemplating initiating this process (1) because of Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 memorial and (2)  because the Clinton’s campaign was “anemic” and had taken on “the odor of failure.” Given the DNC charter, both are preposterous. But this is even more ridiculous:

Whenever Brazile got frustrated with Clinton’s aides, she writes, she would remind them that the DNC charter empowered her to initiate the replacement of the nominee.

Overall, we can determine that Brazile’s description of the HVF agreement was fairly accurate and that it’s origins were based on the fact that almost no one had confidence in the leadership of Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Other than that, the reports on her book so far seem to indicate more heat than light about the Clinton campaign and are probably based on personal grievance rather than anything that could be helpful in reforming the DNC.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .