Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ranting On...Debbie Wasserman Schultz

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
I’ve been trying to find a way to discuss what easily has become one of the juiciest stories of the past week in Washington, the Politico article that absolutely eviscerated DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  Edward-Isaac Dovere’s piece cast Wasserman Schultz as inept, loathed by Democratic leaders (including President Obama and increasingly the Clintons), and as a nasty combination of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, but with a liberal twist.  It portrayed her as out of the loop heading into the Midterms, frequently missing meetings at the White House and being mocked by the President for her over-eagerness and her tendency to focus on her future more than the DNC’s.  It even name-checks former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak as someone whom the White House vetted but ultimately decided against replacing Wasserman Schultz with in 2012.

There are a few key questions here, at least from a pragmatic standpoint.  I am not a Washington insider reporter, so I don’t have the knowledge to be able to tell if Wasserman Schultz is in fact politically insignificant or an effective internal leader at the DNC or whether she uses the job as a springboard for her own ambitions.  What I can have an opinion on, however, is if she’s an effective spokesperson for the party, if she’s prioritizing correctly at the DNC, and what this ordeal has done to her career, both in the House and at the DNC.

The reality is that I’ve never been a big fan of Wasserman Schultz’s.  I think that the one true hallmark of her tenure at the DNC has been her strong, unified message on the War on Women front.  This was highly successful in 2012 in keeping women strongly on President Obama’s side in that election, and helping to elect a number of women to higher office (I think that you could argue that the increased female turnout helped elect someone like Heidi Heitkamp and will be key to Kay Hagan if she wins reelection). 

That being said, I don’t think that she’s a strong enough campaigner and in particular fundraiser to maintain her job at the DNC past the Midterms.  The DNC did, as the article points out, erase their debt from the 2012 presidential campaigns, an enormous feat, but they have severely lagged behind the gargantuan hauls that the DCCC, DSCC, Senate Majority PAC, and perhaps most pertinently, RNC have brought in in the last two years.  The fact that Wasserman Schultz’s DNC has fallen behind while the Democrats have thrived in fundraising in almost every other sector does show that her work at the organization has been lackluster.  And while the chairs of both national parties have a long history of bomb-throwing, frequently testing out messages on Sunday morning talk shows trying to get their base riled up (the DNC is not supposed to cater to the independents and moderates-their job is to make sure the base is excited about the election), her decision to insult Scott Walker with an offensive metaphor surrounding domestic abuse was a foolish, foolish thing to do, unforgivable in a race that Democrats are desperately trying to win to keep Walker from running in 2016; from the DNC’s stand-point, there may be no more important race on the 2014 map, and to make a gaffe there is unforgivable.

For me, though, there are reasons to wonder if Wasserman Schultz were to stick around two more years, particularly because of her strong connections in Florida (a pivotal swing state for Hillary Clinton) and with female voters.  While women voters will increasingly matter in all Democratic elections going forward, it’s worth noting that 2016 will be a fairly historic election for female candidates in general.  Not only is Hillary Clinton very likely to be the first woman to receive a major party’s nomination for president, but many of the most competitive Senate elections will feature female candidates.  By my estimation, Ohio (Rep. Betty Sutton), Illinois (Rep. Tammy Duckworth), New Hampshire (Gov. Maggie Hassan), and Iowa (quite possibly State Sen. Staci Appel) would be the frontrunners for major races in 2016, and Democrats like Sens. Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp are exploring bids for governor in their home states.  2016 will be a year dominated by female candidates if Hillary Clinton is at the top of the ticket, with many female candidates likely to benefit from an increased interest in women striving to break the ultimate glass ceiling of American politics.

Emily's List President Stephanie Schriock
Wasserman Schultz isn’t the only contender for the DNC, though, who has a history of winning races for women and running tight races.  One of the most-mentioned contenders for the job would be Stephanie Schriock, who has quite a few items on her resume that even Wasserman Schultz cannot boast.  For starters, she is currently head of EMILY’s List, an organization that raises millions of dollars each year for Democratic women running for office, and boasts a political network of 3 million people-this would help dramatically in raising money for the DNC.  Secondly, she’s been a campaign manager on two tight but successful Senate campaigns: Jon Tester in 2006 and Al Franken in 2008.  Both of these races are interesting because they are in agricultural states and they were against Republican incumbents.  In 2016, for the Senate (which the Democrats will certainly be trying to win back if they’ve lost it, and will be striving to pick up more seats if they have a 50/50 majority) the map runs through Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, and Nevada to hold that majority, meaning that we’ll need someone who can run in marginally blue states that have a demographic (white males) that are increasingly turning Republican.

It’s for this reason that I think that Wasserman Schultz needs to go-looking at the goals of 2016, there are candidates better equipped to fight those battles like Schriock (who is really the dream candidate for the DNC at this point).  There’s another element to this discussion, though: Wasserman Schultz’s personal political future.  Wasserman Schultz will of course maintain her role as a member of the United States House, but is clearly an ambitious politician with her eyes on some higher prizes.  One of those that has been rumored is a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016 against Marco Rubio.  Wasserman Schultz, thanks to her connections at the DNC, would certainly have a head start in fundraising, but would probably be too liberal to be elected statewide in such a marginal state against a fairly amiable incumbent.

Her second option, and far more likely, is to become a member of the Democratic House leadership, with the hopes of eventually becoming Speaker.  The unspoken reality of the current Congress is that most of the Democratic House leadership is considerably older than both their caucus and the Republican leadership team.  Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn, the three highest-ranking members of the House team, are 74, 75, and 74 respectively, meaning none of them are going to be in the House for a considerable amount of time, and if Pelosi in particular leaves, the Democratic Party may want to back a new generation of leaders rather than give Hoyer or Clyburn “their turn.”  Wasserman Schultz would be on that shortlist, which is why this piece is such a blow to her chances to ascend the House leadership ladder.  Other names such as DCCC Chair Steve Israel (NY), House Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra (CA), former DCCC Chair Chris van Hollen (MD), Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley (NY), and rising star Rep. Donna Edwards (MD) are all watching this story play out closely, as they are all potential contenders to succeed the current leadership team, and a fall from grace by Wasserman Schultz would eliminate a fierce competitor.

So this is a reminder to keep in mind as Wasserman Schultz’s DNC chairmanship is in jeopardy that there is a lot more riding on her position than her continued tenure as chair.  A future Democratic Speaker could be losing her chance at the job thanks to a blistering article on a website, and when that happens, dominoes begin to fall for others eager to pick up the spoils.

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