The DNC “Cancer” Is Donna Brazile

Craven insiders—not joint fundraising agreements—are what’s destroying the party.

Donna Brazile speaks during a panel at the SiriusXM studio on March 28 in Washington.

Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Want to listen to this article out loud? Hear it on Slate Voice.

“Before I called Bernie Sanders, I lit a candle in my living room and put on some gospel music.” So begins, absurdly and promisingly, the most intriguing part of former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile’s already controversial and appropriately titled new book Hacks, which features a parade of Democratic consultants, DNC officials, and party insiders who Brazile blames for Hillary Clinton’s loss last November.

At the center of the book are three individuals Brazile calls the party’s “three titanic egos – Barack, Hillary, and Debbie,” who, according to her, “stripped the party to a shell for their own purposes.” Brazile’s allegations have roiled Democratic circles since Thursday, when Politico published an excerpt of the book detailing Brazile’s discovery of a joint fundraising agreement between the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign that she says granted Clinton effective control of the party a year before she actually won the nomination. “The agreement […] specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised,” Brazile writes. “Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff.”

Brazile calls that agreement a “cancer” and claims that her conversation about it with Bernie Sanders, whose supporters have long accused the DNC of tilting the primary in Clinton’s favor, left her in tears. “When I hung up the call to Bernie, I started to cry, not out of guilt, but out of anger. We would go forward. We had to.”

Brazile’s melodramatics cast a purposeful haze over a few important details. She writes that she learned about the post-2012 debts that motivated the DNC’s agreement with the Clinton campaign after becoming interim chair in 2016. In fact, the DNC’s financial woes were widely reported in the years after the 2012 election. The murky specifics she describes of the joint committee’s fundraising arrangements—99 percent of gathered funds, which should have been split between the Clinton campaign, the DNC, and state parties, were only shared between the campaign and the DNC—would not have been news to the Sanders campaign. Their lawyer, Brad Deutsch, sent a pointed open letter accusing the joint committee of violating campaign finance law in April 2016. That, too, was reported on.

But an August 2015 memo detailing the terms of the joint agreement, published Friday by NBC News, seems to corroborate Brazile’s most novel allegation. The agreement did indeed stipulate that the party would choose a communications director from two candidates “previously identified as acceptable” to the Clinton campaign no later than Sept. 11, 2015. It additionally stipulated that new hires among “DNC senior staff in the communications, technology, and research departments” would also have to be endorsed by the campaign and that the Clinton campaign would have “advance opportunity to review” most party “online or mass email communications” about primary candidates. Clinton supporters have nevertheless argued, poorly, that the agreement actually only applied to the general election, and that the DNC hired its own preferred candidates anyway.

But it is both obvious and unstated in Brazile’s excerpt that Hillary Clinton—long the party’s presumptive front-runner, either the first or second-most important figure in the party’s establishment for at least a decade—would have exerted an incalculable degree of influence on the DNC, even if an agreement formalizing her power had never been signed. Brazile’s own actions during the campaign are evidence of this. She claims in her book that her sleuthing failed to uncover “any other evidence of internal corruption that would show that the DNC was rigging the system to throw the primary to Hillary.” A cynic might suggest that emails, revealed in the WikiLeaks dump, showing that Brazile gave CNN debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the primaries might have been relevant to that search. But, alas, Brazile reports in the book that she can’t find those either.

In place of a full reckoning with her role in the Democratic machine, Hacks appears to offer other mystifying and farcical disclosures, a few of which were shared in the Washington Post’s preview of the book on Saturday. Brazile writes that Clinton’s health concerned her enough that she recommended the expert counsel of “an acupuncturist.” She reports that Clinton’s infamous collapse following last year’s 9/11 memorial at ground zero encouraged her to consider dumping Clinton and Tim Kaine for a Joe Biden–Cory Booker ticket—and that the Biden and Sanders camps, along with Martin O’Malley himself, contacted her almost immediately.

She claims that the murder of DNC employee Seth Rich terrified her and that she shuttered her office blinds and installed surveillance cameras to evade snipers and other potential assassins. A who’s who of America’s most prominent conspiracy peddlers have tied Rich’s killing to the Clintons and Democratic leaders. Brazile had other theories. “With all I knew now about the Russians’ hacking, I could not help but wonder if they had played some part in his unsolved murder,” she writes. “Besides that, racial tensions were high that summer and I worried that he was murdered for being white on the wrong side of town.”

More convincingly, she describes the Clinton’s campaign operation as moribund and bereft of enthusiasm. The Post’s Philip Rucker:

Brazile describes the 10th floor of Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, where senior staff worked: “Calm and antiseptic, like a hospital. It had that techno-hush, as if someone had died. I felt like I should whisper. Everybody’s fingers were on their keyboards, and no one was looking at anyone else. You half-expected to see someone in a lab coat walk by.”

During one visit, she writes, she thought of a question former Democratic congressman Tony Coelho used to ask her about campaigns: “Are the kids having sex? Are they having fun? If not, let’s create something to get that going, or otherwise we’re not going to win.”

“I didn’t sense much fun or [having sex] in Brooklyn,” she deadpans.

The goal of anecdotes like this and Brazile’s account of her weepy confession to Sanders is straightforward: The book is supposed to be a burning of bridges with the party establishment, an attempt to secure a future for herself in a Democratic Party run by progressives with axes to grind not only about the DNC’s handling of the 2016 primary but the direction of the Democratic Party, broadly speaking. Rucker reports that Brazile homes in at one point on the Clinton campaign’s focus on granular voter analytics, which she argues came at the expense of compelling messaging. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary,” she wrote, “but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”

This is part of the analysis of Clinton’s loss that the party’s left wing has been advancing for a year—but only a part. Voices on the left haven’t just excoriated Democrats for weak messaging—they’ve offered a clear and specific idea of what the party’s messaging could have been like in 2016: a forceful rhetoric of economic empowerment aimed at advancing progressive goals like single-payer health care, fighting rising inequality, and curbing corporate power. Over the summer, party leaders nodded in that direction with the introduction of their “Better Deal” package of proposals, including a $15 minimum wage and a reinvigoration of antitrust policy. Nothing that’s emerged from Hacks indicates that Brazile herself believes the party’s most significant problems are ideological—a call to Sanders announcing Clinton’s replacement with Joe Biden would presumably have been just as unwelcome to Sanders and his supporters. This suggests a faith that rancor over the Clinton campaign’s machinations during the primary and her belated denunciations of them alone will carry her into the party’s future.

It’s unlikely they will, and that future remains a good while away. Brazile’s now on the outs with a party establishment that is still firmly entrenched, and seems to be having second thoughts about her claims. In a Tuesday interview on CBS This Morning, Brazile called the primary a “fair fight,” praised Clinton for helping restore the party’s finances, and dismissed pointed questions about her change in tone. “Like most campaigns, you have family squabbles,” she said with a smile. “I fought with my family.”

This kind of slipperiness, which has served Brazile well over the course of her long career, will now doom her. For both the enemies she’s making in the establishment and the activists she’s gesturing to on the left, she will survive mainly and perhaps only as an example of the very self-interested corruption that she decries: a craven, calculating striver, incapable of being trusted, and loyal not to ideas or a particular vision for the country but a career now in need of resuscitation. A political “operative”—that greasy word—through and through and to the last, who nevertheless pretends an implausible ignorance of basic facts regarding a party she was chosen to run. Brazile’s future is precisely as dim as it ought to be. The cancer within the Democratic Party last year wasn’t some fundraising agreement. It was figures like her.