The Democratic Party has been once again fighting over the 2016 primary. In a new book, former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile claimed that the party had essentially rigged the primary against Bernie Sanders. After coming under ferocious criticism from loyal Clintonistas in the media and elsewhere, Brazile walked her comments back.
Both Brazile's initial presentation as bold truth teller and the contrary argument from liberals that she made the whole thing up are unconvincing. Brazile literally helped Hillary Clinton cheat in a primary debate — but on the other hand, the memo between the party and the Clinton campaign, which guaranteed Clinton control over the DNC, are strong evidence that the party really did have its thumb on the scales.
But the controversy over "rigging" has obscured a deeper and more fundamental issue with the party: its problems with money. From top to bottom, the party is being eaten alive by graft, and the political consequences are profound.
Bribery is when you take direct quid pro quo payments in return for political favors. I give my congressman a sack full of cash, he agrees to vote against a plan to make me stop pouring carcinogens into the local river. However, this has the disadvantages of being illegal, relatively easy to discover, and not actually that profitable for the politician. Even a pretty big sack, after all, can only hold a few tens of thousands of dollars.
So bribery doesn't pay nearly so well as, say, a consulting contract. Suppose I have a nice lunch with my congressman, and casually let it slip that when he's done honorably serving the public, and he's looking for another step in life, of course my firm (Coal Ash Solutions) would be very interested in hiring someone with his considerable expertise. I don't even hint at the fact that 100 percent of the people working for my company are in favor of pouring carcinogens into the river, because I don't have to.
That's the way graft is conducted in the modern age. No explicit favor trading, nothing illegal, just above-board influence peddling — in which many, many times the value of that sack full of cash changes hands.
Brazile describes a Democratic Party that is absolutely saturated with graft and patronage — a clubby group of insiders who are concerned above all with maintaining control of the party machinery so they can dole out goodies to themselves and their friends, and only secondarily with winning elections.
When she took power as DNC chair, Brazile says, she discovered the party was heavily in debt, with overhead twice what it had been five years ago. The reason? President Obama had dawdled on paying off the party's debt, while he and the previous DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, had larded up the staff with make-work patronage "consulting" jobs for their friends.
This debt turned out to be handy for the Clinton campaign, which roped the party into a sort of debt peonage arrangement starting in August 2015. With her extensive contacts with deep-pocketed plutocrats, she bailed the party out, and in return she used state parties to essentially launder campaign contributions and gain decisive influence over "data, technology, analytics, research, and communications operations." With the "Hillary Victory Fund," big donors could write a $353,400 check, theoretically split between 32 state parties, each receiving $10,000, and the DNC, which would supposedly only get $33,400. In reality, though, almost all the money would be quickly transferred to the DNC, where Clinton would have at least a large say in how it was used — certainly at least to hire her own batch of consultants, in addition to Obama's.
Of course, any campaign is going to have some degree of this stuff. Polling, research, and so on is expensive and politicians reasonably want to give that money to people they trust and can provide political favors in return.
The problem is when this process erodes the party's ability to win elections. There are many reasons the Democratic Party has all but collapsed at the state level. But Clinton cannibalizing the state parties to keep as much money for her own campaign — in part so that she could dole out lucrative contracts to political allies and pals — has to be towards the top of the list.
The other side of this process, of course, is how this fundraising model necessitates a party and a message that is acceptable to the donor class. Very few people are in a position to write a $353,400 check, and those people are not generally on board with an all-out attack on economic inequality. When people are heavily dissatisfied with the economic status quo, this tends to foreclose the possibility of running a populist campaign, which Clinton did not. She and her allies spent $1.4 billion on the campaign — about half again as much as Trump — and still lost.
Finally, there is the revolving door. So far I've covered intra-party dynamics. But under Obama, Google was practically its own government department. And the number of people quitting top-level Democratic politics to cash out lobbying for Uber or McDonald's, or going back to private corporate law, or doing buckraking speeches to Wall Street banks, as Obama himself has been doing, ought to be completely outrageous to rank-and-file Democrats.
I can't say for sure whether Obama allowed systematic lawbreaking by big banks to go unpunished because he planned to collect from those institutions after his presidency. But I can say his party is deeply harmed by the probably-accurate perception that if he had enforced the law, the speeches would not be offered.
Right now, there is a trade-off between political success and setting up a patronage machine that caters to the top 1 percent. It's time for the party to take stances that will make it loathed by the country's economic elite.