Hillary, Bernie, and the DNC: Dirty tricks?
In my previous post, I looked at the Trump/Putin connection and the DNC hack.
But that brings us to the elephant in the room. (Or should that be the donkey in the room?) Do the DNC emails mean that the primaries were "rigged" and Hillary Clinton "stole" her win over Bernie Sanders?
There are certainly people who think so. I follow some of them on Twitter. Some are angry Bernie fans who think that Bernie was robbed (and that it paves the way for a Trump victory). Some are Trump supporters who see this as evidence that Hillary is evil and corrupt.
I will preface this by saying that I've never been a great Hillary fan. I have criticized her in the past for playing the "woman card" and for embracing the "believe the victims" narrative on sexual assault (putting her in quite a spot when it comes to Bill Clinton's past). I could write a long post on all the issues I have with both her politics and her ethics. I have also written fairly positively about Bernie, defending him from charges of being a communist or near-communist, and have challenged the "Bernie Bros" narrative.
That said: What, exactly, do the DNC emails show?
Here's a rundown of "the most damaging things" from those 20,000 emails. (If there's worse, I haven't seen it anywhere else.)
These emails show that a lot of high-level people at the DNC, including then-chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, did not particularly like Bernie and his campaign. Wasserman-Schultz said that he wasn't a real Democrat (which is ... well ... basically true -- he was an independent democratic socialist who registered as a Democrat in order to run). Toward the end of the campaign, when it was clear Hillary was going to win, DNC officials expressed frustration over Bernie's insistence on staying in the race. They also had a cozy relationship with the Clinton camp.
None of that is particularly surprising. Is there anyone who didn't know that Clinton was the establishment candidate and Sanders was the rebel trying to take the party by storm? Yes, it was the DNC's obligation to treat him and his supporters fairly. I don't see how or why it was the DNC's obligation to like him or them. I'm pretty sure that if we got a look at the Republican National Committee's emails, we'd find some very juicy stuff about the current GOP nominee. (And let's not forget that in 2012, the RNC actually tweaked its rules to squelch libertarian upstart Ron Paul -- a tweak that, ironically, came back to the bite the Republicans by making it harder to challenge Trump at the convention.)
I also don't think there's anything surprising, or even wrong, about the fact that DNC officials weren't thrilled by Sanders's threat to force a contested convention when it was already clear that he could not win the primaries. (Wasserman-Schultz responded with a single snarky line: "So much for a traditional presumptive nominee.")
I do think that on at least one occasion, some DNC officials crossed the line into the grossly unethical. I am referring to the emails that discussed raising the issue of Sanders's faith in the primaries in Kentucky and West Virginia in order to damage him in the eyes of the "Jesus" voters. DNC chief financial officer Brad Marshall wrote to CEO Amy Lacey and two communication staffers:
It might may [sic] no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.
To say that this is morally shady is an understatement. I'd go with "reprehensible." And while Marshall has apologized, calling his statements "emotional" and "insensitive," I'm not sure why he hasn't had to resign along with Wasserman-Schultz.
(1) I'm not persuaded that, as some have argued, this comment qualifies as anti-Semitic. Yes, it brings up Sanders's Jewish heritage, but specifically in the context of saying that he is not a Jew in the religious sense and that being a Jew is fine but being an atheist is bad. (Myron Magnet's column in the right-of-center City Journal outright misstates the content of the email when he writes that DNC staffers "were even prepared to use [Sanders's] religion against him, though whether his Jewish birth or his purportedly atheist beliefs were disqualifying, the leaked documents don't make clear.")
(2) Yes, the fact that this suggestion was even discussed is bad. But it was never implemented. No one has produced a single shred of evidence that Bernie Sanders's religion or lack thereof was used to undermine him in the West Virginia and Kentucky races or anywhere else. (Also, this suggestion came late in the campaign when Hillary's nomination was already a virtual certainty, so the intent was not to change the outcome of the primary battle so much as to speed it up. But that's still not an excuse.)
Nearly all the other "most damaging" emails are not DNC-initiated anti-Sanders attacks so much as aggressively defensive responses to accusations -- from Sanders, his campaign and his supporters -- of anti-Sanders bias by the DNC.
Take the May 21 email in which DNC press secretary Mark Pautenbach suggests "a good Bernie narrative for a story, which is that Bernie never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess," and then goes on to enumerate all the ways in which the Sanders campaign was (allegedly) in disarray. He concludes with, "It's not a DNC conspiracy, it's because they never had their act together."
In other words, this is not the DNC setting out to help Hillary and tank Bernie by putting out the story that Bernie's campaign is a mess; it's the DNC considering putting out the story that Bernie's campaign is a mess to counter Bernie's claims that the DNC was conspiring against him.
(For what it's worth, DNC communications director Luis Miranda replied: "True, but the Chair has been advised to not engage. So we'll have to leave it alone." So this suggestion was not pursued either -- and the wording, "not to engage," again indicates it was a matter of responding to attacks, not attacking first.)
The same is true of this May 17 exchange in which Wasserman-Schultz calls Sanders aide Jeff Weaver a "damn liar" (in response to his claim that the Democratic Party in Nevada had been unfair to Sanders supporters).
Now, you could say that the DNC's response to these accusations proves they were well-grounded. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I would argue that it was a two-way street: Bernie didn't like the DNC and the DNC didn't like Bernie.
But that does not amount to a rigged vote.
In The New Republic, former congressional chief of staff Dana Houle offers this argument for why the primaries were not rigged or stolen:
The main problem with the notion that the DNC rigged the results for Clinton is that it requires one to assume the improbable. The DNC had no role or authority in primary contests, which are run by state governments. Clinton dominated the primaries. The DNC, through state parties, had a bit more influence over caucuses … where Sanders dominated Clinton.
Now, Houle is not exactly an unbiased commentator. His previous TNR piece, published May 10, was titled "The Sooner Bernie Sanders Ends His Campaign, the Better." But this is still a strong argument. Obviously, the absence of "rigging" does not mean that the DNC could not have used various underhanded tactics to undermine Sanders and sway the voting results. But once again, the emails do not support such a charge. At most, they show one instance in which such a tactic was discussed but not actually used.
Is there other damaging evidence out there? Well, the WikiLeaks release of DNC voice mails was a dud. In one of them, a woman who says she donated to the Clinton campaign actually complains that Sanders is "getting way too much influence" over the party platform:
I'm on a fixed income, I spent over $300, donated to Hillary, what I see is the DNC bending over backwards for Bernie and Bernie is the worst person in the world to even be running in the Democratic Party, because he's not a Democrat.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but this actually shows that some rank-and-file Hillary supporters thought the DNC was being more than fair to Bernie.
To recap: Is a lot of this unsavory? Yes. Politics as usual is unsavory. (Check out the gory details of the George W. Bush vs. John McCain primary wars sometime, and I say that as someone who deplores W's demonization.) It is still, to paraphrase my new favorite P.J. O'Rourke quote, bad within normal parameters. I'd love to say that we need a revolution to clean up the system, but idealistic revolutions tend to cause a lot more harm than out-and-out cynicism.
And lastly: If you think, as some Sanders supporters insist, that Bernie would have had a better shot at beating Trump than Hillary does in the general election, think again. Yes, I know there were polls showing that in a hypothetical matchup against Trump, Sanders was doing better than Clinton. But that was when Clinton was widely presumed to be the near-certain Democratic nominee, and Bernie was the not-Hillary, not-Donald option. Also, he had not been the target of much if any negative campaigning. Would his better numbers have survived a concerted effort to paint him as a loony leftist and a Karl Marx-worshipping atheist? Would they have survived, for instance, the disclosure that Sanders was one of only 21 Senators who did not co-sponsor a resolution expressing support for Israel against Hamas? I seriously doubt it.
So no, the primary was not stolen or rigged. And if, God help us, Trump wins, it certainly won't be because the nomination was handed to Clinton.
(Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.)