The Democrats cannot ignore their Harvey Weinstein problem

Democrats have a long history with the alleged sexual predator. They cannot erase it.

Hillary Clinton and Harvey Weinstein attend the Time 100 Gala in 2012.
(Image credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for TIME)

For more than 25 years, Harvey Weinstein was a prolific fundraiser for the Democratic Party leadership. When the time came for that leadership to respond to a flurry of allegations of sexual assault and harassment by Weinstein, it became apparent that either Weinstein had invested poorly — or all too well.

The New York Times ran its first exposé on the disgraced Hollywood mogul at the end of a $2.2 million run of personal and bundled political donations, which made Weinstein a very familiar and popular figure among Democrats. Weinstein backed Democrats with significant national profiles, who rushed to embrace his wealth and star power. He put his mark on the DNC with over $300,000 in donations over a quarter-century, hoping to shape the party's leadership. Weinstein put a special emphasis on the Senate, providing over $193,000 in funds to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) benefited most, with over $36,000 in overall donations, but Weinstein also gave more than $25,000 each to the two current senators from New York: Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Weinstein paid even more special attention to the very top. He donated to both Bill and Hillary Clinton repeatedly during the Clinton presidency, helping to launch the first lady's political career in her first run for office. He maxed out to Hillary's 2006 Senate re-election campaign and put $5,000 into her HILLPAC, and then maxed out again during her run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. By the end of the 2016 cycle, Weinstein had donated more than $26,000 to Hillary Clinton, and put another $15,000 total into HILLPAC over 17 years of her political career.

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Weinstein also strongly backed Barack Obama's re-election campaign, helping to rally Hollywood again to Obama's side in 2012. Obama eventually gained over $45,000 from Weinstein.

These facts are inescapable. Weinstein was a very real part of the political life of the two families most identified with Democratic Party leadership. The Clintons held social events and fundraisers with the Hollywood executive for years; one bash in June 2016 raised more than $1.8 million for her presidential run. The Obamas sent their daughter Malia to intern for Weinstein's company last year.

Weinstein had indisputably ingratiated himself into the highest levels of Democratic power.

Perhaps that's why, when it all came crashing down, the two most prominent leaders of the Democratic Party over the last decade froze like deer in the headlights.

Obama has mostly retired from day-to-day politics, but still keeps active on issues close to his heart. He has occasionally broken the protocol followed by most former presidents of refraining from criticism of a successor by publicly rebuking President Trump. Obama defended his Affordable Care Act when Trump pushed for its repeal, and he specifically scolded Trump for his plan to phase out the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program that Obama started under executive order.

And yet, when the news broke about Weinstein, Obama suddenly couldn't be found. For five days, the former president offered no response to the scandal. By Tuesday, media outlets such as CNN began making his silence a story in itself, with Dana Bash asking on the air, "Where are the Obamas?" Obama subsequently issued a statement that "Michelle and I have been disgusted by the recent reports about Harvey Weinstein," without ever noting his own relationship to his bundler and Hollywood liaison.

Clinton's response was even worse. While Obama has mainly retired from public appearances, the 2016 runner-up has been hitting the speaking and media circuit for her campaign memoir, What Happened. She has been far more vocal and involved in politics than Obama, routinely attacking Trump on policy and performance.

And yet, for five days, Hillary went AWOL on a scandal that clearly relates to her claim in What Happened that endemic misogyny and sexism cost her the election. On Monday, despite four days to prepare to speak about the Weinstein scandal and 90 minutes of time on stage, Clinton talked to UC Davis students about Trump, global warming, and the NFL protests — without ever mentioning Weinstein. Finally, on Tuesday, she managed to beat Obama to the punch by issuing her own statement through a spokesperson expressing her status as "shocked and appalled."

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And … that's it. No mention of donations, previous relationships, or any explanation as to how they missed Weinstein's behavior over a number of years. It took the two most dominant Democrats of the past 17 years five days to cook up responses that could have been written in 10 minutes after the first New York Times bombshell appeared.

It's a demonstration of stunning political incompetence. More than that, it's a failure of leadership from the two top leaders in which the Democratic Party invested itself over the last generation. It appears that both Obama and Clinton hoped to skate past a moment of outrage without alienating a formerly powerful Hollywood ally, which demonstrates just how beholden the entire party has become to the entertainment industry for their cash and star power.

That is a big problem for the Democratic Party. If this scandal expands past Weinstein — and there are already suggestions it might — then the next generation of leadership may have to figure out how to compete without the baggage Hollywood carries. Given the party's competitive collapse over the last eight years, it's a crisis that requires more alacrity and skill than either Clinton or Obama showed over the last week.

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