“My conscience—as an activist, a strategist—is very clear,” Donna Brazile said in September 2016, not long after admitting that she had leaked primary debate questions to Hillary Clinton. But perhaps her conscience was not as pristine as she claimed. An excerpt from her upcoming book Hacks, published in Politico on Thursday morning, indicts both the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign for what, in Brazile’s eyes, amounts to political corruption. Most public reaction has centered on her revelations about the Joint Fundraising Agreement that the DNC struck with the Clinton campaign in 2015. That agreement sucked state parties dry and transferred control of the party to the campaign—all while Clinton faced a primary challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders.
Brazile’s account raises a set of questions. Was the primary race, in fact, “rigged” in favor of Clinton? Was Brazile, a high-ranking member of the DNC before becoming its interim chair, really so innocent of all these shenanigans? But her tell-all confirms widespread suspicions that Brazile herself once denied: The DNC was, indeed, in the tank for Clinton. Beyond that, it raises more troubling implications that are also undeniable: The DNC is in rotten shape, a problem that predated the primary and has yet to be resolved. The organization charged with electing Democratic candidates across the country has floundered at the state level, all while sustaining a leech-like consultant class that sucks up too much of its money.
Brazile claims that when she replaced Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the head of the DNC, she discovered a party deeply in debt, losing $3.5 million to $4 million every month, which necessitated an intervention from the Clinton campaign to keep it afloat:
I gasped. I had a pretty good sense of the DNC’s operations after having served as interim chair five years earlier. Back then the monthly expenses were half that. What had happened? The party chair usually shrinks the staff between presidential election campaigns, but Debbie had chosen not to do that. She had stuck lots of consultants on the DNC payroll, and Obama’s consultants were being financed by the DNC, too.
These details mostly confirm existing facts. We already knew there was too much overlap between the Clinton campaign and the DNC, not least because the Sanders campaign complained about the Joint Fundraising Agreement back in the spring of 2016. And after Clinton had secured the nomination, her campaign took control to an unprecedented degree. “A presidential campaign taking over the party committee post-convention is standard, but what happened in 2016 was more intense than veterans remember,” Politico reported in an election post-mortem. “People at the DNC and in battleground states speak of angry, bitter calls that came in from Brooklyn whenever they caught wind of contact between them, adamant that only the campaign’s top brass could approve spending or tactical decisions.”
We knew, too, that consultants grip the party tight, that they are increasingly at odds with the party’s base, and that they are not very good at winning elections. “The ‘election industrial complex’ is spending millions of dollars, and [Democrats] are not putting our money where our people are,” Jessica Byrd of Three Point Strategies told Fortune in July 2016. But instead of punishing failure, and thus creating some measure of accountability, Democrats continue to funnel money to outfits like Mothership Strategies, whose notoriously hyperbolic email fundraising strategies have little success to recommend them, and Precision Strategies. More recently, the party ostensibly “fired” its top fundraiser, Emily Mellencamp Smith, for poor performance, only to keep her on in a consulting capacity.
Clinton herself helped establish this pattern, with her never-changing inner circle. Nobody flunks out, and the consultant class self-perpetuates. The most glaring consultant sin, however, is the slow gasping death of Obama for America, the grassroots organization that emerged from Obama’s successful presidential bids. It languished and eventually died under consultant control, a sort of negligent homicide that botched a key chance for the party to build a viable political movement.
Meanwhile, the party’s state branches wither. The Joint Fundraising Agreement simply reflected the party’s existing political priorities; it has entrenched itself in states it believes it can win, while writing off more conservative states. It surrendered state legislatures while keeping Barack Obama in office for eight years. As important as the White House is, it’s impossible for the party to govern effectively as long as the far-right controls most state legislature seats.
And its state-level weaknesses will have long-term effects. Not only is the party ill-positioned to fight further redistricting efforts, it’s harmed its candidate recruitment efforts. As asserted by the National Conference of State Legislators, 22 presidents first served in state legislatures—so did 22 sitting senators and 220 current members of the House. Building the party’s future starts with the states, and that means money can’t just flow to the top.
The other certainty we can draw from Brazile’s account is that she believes the future of the party lies with the Sanders wing. In throwing a bunch of establishment figures (Clinton, Wasserman Schultz, Obama) under the bus as she raced to ally herself with Sanders, she transparently indicated that Sanders is the de facto leader of the party. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a likely contender for the 2020 nomination, said as much on Thursday afternoon:
But that future is stillborn unless Democrats divest themselves of their Rasputins. It must democratize its functions and build up a popular movement. It must rebuild its state parties, yes, but it also needs to firm up its identity. Sanders’s small-donor success is an important lesson for the DNC, and perhaps one of the most important lessons to come out of the 2016 primary in general—but that approach doesn’t work without a compelling political message. And nearly every day, there’s new evidence that this identity should be more egalitarian, and further left, than the Clintonite centrism Brazile herself has historically supported.
According to a Washington Post report on new polling from Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, voters aren’t particularly interested in the ongoing drama involving Trump and Vladimir Putin. They’re motivated by simpler measures of self-interest. “Because voters do not hear Democrats expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo on economics or the balance of power when so many are concerned about the direction of this country, only 4-in-10 … voters say Democrats ‘know what it’s like to live a day in my shoes’ and are ‘for the right kind of change,’” Greenberg and Zdunkewicz concluded.
That change should start with the Democratic Party itself. It means listening to what liberal voters—not consultants, not party mandarins, not fundraisers—are saying.