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Democrats And The Fine Art Of Getting Out Of Your Own Way

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is stepping down as chair of the Democratic National Committee amid a furor over an email leak that revealed a bias against Bernie Sanders inside the DNC.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Debbie Wasserman Schultz is stepping down as chair of the Democratic National Committee amid a furor over an email leak that revealed a bias against Bernie Sanders inside the DNC.

There is a well-worn piece of advice among political campaign professionals: When your opponent is committing suicide, don't get in the way.

In this age of Twitter and Facebook, we should add a quick corollary: Do not make news that interrupts the reporting of your opponent's problems — even momentarily.

This would be a time when these wisdoms, old and new, might be retweeted to the leaders of the Democratic Party.

Over the weekend, as their convention delegates converged on Philadelphia, the Democrats found themselves in a crossfire about their national committee and its chairperson — Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from Florida.

Democrats had been banking on the weekend campaign news being dominated by newly named running mate Tim Kaine — buttressed by the endorsement of Hillary Clinton by her primary rival Bernie Sanders and by potential third-party challenger Mike Bloomberg.

Finally, many party operatives felt, the big wheels of Hillary Clinton's juggernaut would mesh and roll forward together. But it was not to be so. Yet another story about emails, this time within the Democratic National Committee staff, emerged to steal the storyline.

It had been easy for Democratic true believers to exult in the story of last week's Republican nominating event in Cleveland. The Republicans' pitch had been diminished at times by their scenes of disunity and by intraparty statements critical of their nominee.

Reinforcing this impression was the stunning set of subsequent outbursts — both extraordinary and petty — from Donald Trump, the GOP's freshly minted nominee.

Rarely if ever has a candidate taken to the instantaneous media so eagerly — with the unintended effect of undercutting the positive messaging from his own nomination convention. After his high-impact acceptance speech provided a strong finish to the convention's final night, Trump hit the media relentlessly, pushing the boundaries of political decorum.

Before 24 hours had passed, Trump had renewed his highly personal denunciations of his last two GOP primary rivals (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich) and passed the word that he might spend tens of millions of dollars to destroy them in their home states.

These pronouncements came on the heels of an interview, released in the midst of the convention, in which Trump vowed to cut NATO allies loose in a confrontation with Russia if they had not paid up their NATO bills fully and on time.

Such a bold statement might have sunk a presidential candidate in either party in any of the past few decades. And while its lasting damage has yet to be assessed, it has dismayed not a few Republican stalwarts both in and out of elected positions.

Yet Trump was clearly proud of himself for doubling down on his concept of an "America First" foreign policy.

In the minds of Clinton's campaign team, Trump's convention and subsequent media behavior represented a gift — a political opening for the Democrats to appeal to centrist independents and even to Republicans.

Responding to this opportunity, the Clinton campaign at first pivoted in exemplary fashion. After maintaining a steady barrage of responses to Trump's attacks and assertions during the convention in Cleveland, the Clinton forces rolled out Kaine, a relatively noncontroversial running mate, in relatively noncontroversial fashion.

Kaine, a Virginia senator and a former governor and mayor, took the stage in Miami on Saturday speaking Spanish, but also speaking of moderation and traditional working-class values. He was a breath of fresh air who, at the same time, hearkened back to bipartisan values and cooperation. The 2016 cycle finally seemed to have a centering influence.

But even as Clinton and Kaine executed their tandem turn on Saturday, a storm was brewing. WikiLeaks, the self-styled international sentinel of anti-secrecy, released 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee. Most represented the "entre nous" conversations of middle-level staffers, but they served to confirm long-festering charges that the DNC was in the tank for Clinton all along.

Sanders himself told TV interviewers he was anything but shocked. He said he had perceived the prejudice against him all along and that he had called repeatedly for the resignation of Wasserman Schultz — who actually did resign as national party chair Sunday, effective when the convention ends.

And indeed, anyone with more than passing interest in the primaries would have divined signs of bias at the DNC at any juncture in the past year. Wasserman Schultz, an ambitious member of Congress from south Florida, often and openly called Clinton a friend.

Moreover, the chair had often been at odds with the Sanders campaign. To be sure, Sanders was a registered Independent, an interloper in the party's presidential primary with little claim on the party's institutional resources. But his backers did not find that notion persuasive in the least. And a midwinter dust-up over access to the party's shared database of voter information was only the tip of a deeply frozen iceberg of mutual resentment.

But now all of that is ice water over the dam. Sanders did far better than expected in the voting but still fell far short of a majority of the pledged delegates. Clinton won that majority, on the basis of votes, and padded it out with superdelegates (the party officials and elected officeholders who can vote as they see fit). Sanders wound up with a great case to make for his popularity, but a less than compelling case for a claim on the nomination.

Despite all this history, many Sanders enthusiasts and Clinton detractors are seizing upon the WikiLeaks story as a kind of vindication — a confirmation that they were right all along. The system was rigged.

Sanders on Monday night can be expected to massage the hurt feelings of his supporters, who will include roughly two delegates in five on the floor. He will talk of how much they have achieved, the message they have sent and the policy changes they have forced into the party platform. He will exhort them to carry the revolution on.

But Sanders is also expected to reiterate a full-throated endorsement of Clinton, casting the November choice in the starkest terms possible. It is not clear whether he will address the WikiLeaks revelations, but his remarks on Sunday indicated he was neither surprised nor disturbed by what the leaked emails revealed.

Wasserman Schultz, for her part, has already been defenestrated. She says she will gavel the convention to order and into adjournment, adding remarks about the stakes in this election. Will she? It is not yet clear she will or won't, but the end of her tenure as DNC chair is nigh. Donna Brazile, highly respected longtime ally of the Clintons, will serve out the election year in the job (and forgo her CNN and other contracts to do so).

How big a blow is it to a party entering its convention to replace its committee chair? On the eve of the 1984 Democratic gathering in San Francisco, the campaign of nominee Walter Mondale told DNC Chair Charles Manatt it wanted to replace him. The new guy was a hero of the old Jimmy Carter administration named Bert Lance. Manatt resisted, the story leaked out, and soon the Mondale folks had to back off.

Mondale went on to lose 49 states that year, but no one blamed the fracas over the DNC chair. There were too many other elements of that election that mattered more.

And so it will likely be for 2016.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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