Before things went awry, Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii had been planning to be in Las Vegas for her party’s first presidential debate. Gabbard is one of five vice chairs of the Democratic National Committee; of course she would be there. But instead of talking up her party’s prospects on the Strip earlier this week, Gabbard was in Honolulu. Her presence in Sin City was strictly virtual, and anything but boosterish: She spent debate day giving cable-news interviews via satellite, claiming that, as retribution for loudly calling for more Democratic debates than the DNC currently envisions, she was deemed unwelcome in Vegas by the committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz—who Gabbard suggested is an enemy of free speech, as well as a liar.
For most debate viewers and Democratic voters, the Gabbard flap, if it registered at all, was little more than a sideshow. But among Democratic officials and strategists, the dust-up was an embarrassing public spectacle—a boiling-over of long-simmering frustrations and resentments within the party hierarchy at a highly inopportune moment.
Of two dozen Democratic insiders with whom I spoke this week, including several DNC vice chairs, not one defended Wasserman Schultz’s treatment of Gabbard. Most called it ridiculous, outrageous, or worse. Many argued, further, that the debate plan enacted by the chairwoman is badly flawed—an assessment shared by many party activists, left-bent supporters of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, and those candidates themselves, all of whom see it as a naked effort to aid and comfort Hillary Clinton. And they maintained that the plan was a clear reflection of Wasserman Schultz’s management style, which many of them see as endangering Democratic prospects in 2016 and beyond.
One top Democrat who feels precisely this way is DNC Vice Chair R.T. Rybak, a former mayor of Minneapolis who, along with Gabbard, has publicly called for more debates. But Rybak’s indictment of Wasserman Schultz is more sweeping—and pointed—than that. “In the days before and after the debate I kept my mouth shut,” Rybak told me by phone on Thursday. “But I’ve begun to deeply question whether she has the leadership skills to get us through the election. This is not just about how many debates we have. This is one of a series of long-running events in which the chair has not shown the political judgment that is needed.”
I asked Rybak if he was calling for Wasserman Schultz to resign.
“I'm coming really close,” he replied. “I'm not quite doing that yet, but unless I see some significant shift in the way she's going to operate and see that she has some ability to reach out and include people who disagree with her, then I seriously question whether she's the right person to lead us.”
Rybak and other Democratic critics of Wasserman Schultz have been holding their tongues about what they see as her deficiencies for years. But the dispute over debates has proven sufficiently contentious that it is suddenly causing those tongues to loosen.
The road to this place began in May, when the DNC announced that there would be just six sanctioned debates, and that candidates who took part in forums not green-lit by the committee would be excluded from the approved ones. Clinton’s camp, which had lobbied against an early DNC proposal for eight debates, was well pleased. Sanders, O’Malley, and their people were less so. But the wider Democratic world mostly yawned.
Then, in August, the DNC released the debate schedule, with only four debates scheduled to take place before the nomination contest begins in earnest in Iowa on Feb. 1—and with that, all hell broke loose.
Whatever debate plan the DNC pursued was always bound to be controversial. But the manner in which Wasserman Schultz crafted the scheme all but guaranteed an eventual blowup. According to several people with front-row seats for the hatching of the plan, the chairwoman made her decision unilaterally, without consulting or even telling the rest of the committee’s high command, including her vice chairs, in advance.
“She presented this to us as a fait accompli as she was about to go out and announce it to the whole committee,” Rybak told me. “I said to her, ‘Well, at least there's some way you can explain why you came to that decision.’ She didn't even do that. She gaveled people out of order without any explanation.”
“For someone who’s the head of a national party, you would think she’d be better at, you know, politics,” says a senior Democrat with close ties to the DNC. “How do you not line up your own folks? How do you not touch base and say, ‘This is what I need from you guys’? At best, you consult; at least, you notify. But her default is to see her vice chairs as nuisances, not partners—not even close. The word partner would never cross her lips.”
The result was predictable—and, in fact, predicted by some Wasserman Schultz advisers. Many state party officials, who prize debates as organizing opportunities, were furious at both the plan and the chairwoman’s refusal even to consider a change of course. (“We’re going to have six debates—period,” she declared to reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington.) In mid-September, Massachusetts Democratic Party Vice Chair Deb Kozikowski accused her of “establishing a full-fledged dictatorship at the DNC.” A few days later, at a speech before the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention, Wasserman Schultz was greeted with raucous chants of “We want debates!”
At the same time, her motives were called into question, most aggressively by O’Malley, who accused the DNC of “rigging the process and stacking the deck” in Clinton’s favor. Given the desire of the other candidates for more debates, the insistence of the Clinton team on fewer, and Wasserman Schultz’s status as a long-time Clinton ally (she was a co-chair of Hillary’s 2008 campaign), the accusations carried a distinct whiff of plausibility.
Through it all, the DNC’s vice chairs and other officers offered scant defense of Wasserman Schultz’s plan. Several felt (and still feel) strongly that more debates would benefit the party and its candidates, especially with the Republican Party staging more and gaining greater exposure for its sprawling field of hopefuls; that the impression the DNC was effectively running a protection racket on behalf of the front-runner would be damaging to the committee’s image; and that, outcome aside, it was maddening and absurd that Wasserman Schultz had shut them out of the decision-making process.
On Sept. 9, Gabbard and Rybak went public with their dissent, issuing a joint statement calling for additional debates and an end to the exclusivity rule. But it was Gabbard who became the public face of internal opposition to Wasserman Schultz’s plan. After an MSNBC interview last week in which she reiterated her stance, her chief of staff received a call from DWS’s congressional chief of staff, Tracy Pough, who conveyed the message, according to Gabbard, “that if I’m going to continue talking about that that I shouldn’t go to the debate.”
The DNC and Wasserman Schultz insist Gabbard wasn’t disinvited. But they admit that she was asked to “refocus” her message and stop talking about “process,” with the strong suggestion that if she couldn’t do those things, she should reconsider attending the debate. “She chose not to come because I guess she can’t,” Wasserman Schultz said on Tuesday in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.
That interview was part of an escalating back-and-forth on cable, in which the broadsides issued by the combatants grew increasingly blunt and harsh—with Gabbard introducing the issue of how the debate plan was determined. “The chairwoman said publicly that she had communicated and consulted with vice chairs and officers of the DNC prior to making her decision,” Gabbard told Mitchell. “The fact is, there was no communication. There was no consultation with the vice chairs and officers, of which I am one. So it’s unfortunate that she continues to say things that aren’t true.”
Asked later by Wolf Blitzer on CNN about Gabbard’s charge that she dissembling, Wasserman Schultz bobbed and weaved, implying that it was Gabbard who was lying. “She’s unfortunately spending a lot of time on process,” the chairwoman said. “There were many people consulted, including officers, about our process.”
“She says she was never consulted,” Blitzer pressed.
Wasserman Schultz dodged again: “Wolf, this is the problem, that she wants to distract from the focus that needs to be on our candidates.”
Watching this unseemly display unspool hours before the debate, Democratic insiders shook their heads—in no small part because they believed it would lead nowhere useful, and certainly not to more debates. Because few ordinary voters seem concerned over the number of debates, the campaigns are unlikely to bring pressure to bear on Wasserman Schultz. And while Democratic activists and DNC members are concerned, they lack the power to force her hand. In fact, the only two players with the mojo to do so are Clinton and President Barack Obama. But the former has no appetite for more debates and the latter has never evinced much interest in the DNC (except as a vehicle for his own re-election).
It was Wasserman Schultz’s performance on cable that pushed Rybak over the edge. “If this was an isolated incident, then it should be swept under the rug—but it’s not,” he said.
I asked Rybak if he agreed with those who cast Wasserman Schultz as dictatorial. He said that he did. Calling her decisions “arbitrary” and “reckless,” he went on, “As a Democrat, you have to be able to bring people you don't agree with into the tent. You can't gavel them down out of order when they have a different opinion. You can't go on national TV and say things about them that aren't true. And this is something that frankly a lot of people have kept their mouth shut about for a long time. I have too. But I think the time has come for all those people who come up to me and say this is a problem to stop hiding behind their political expediency. … We have the candidates. We have the issues. There's only one single thing that I see standing between us and a great election coming up and that's the fact that the person who is supposed to leading us is not leading us.”
As Rybak suggested, he is far from alone in casting broader doubt on Wasserman Schultz’s stewardship of the DNC. Her critics level an assortment of charges against her: that, in the age of super-PACs, the Koch brothers, and an array of other Republican billionaires prepared to devote vast sums to the causes of recapturing the White House and retaining the GOP’s hold on Congress, she is ill-equipped to steer the party as it navigates the forbidding electoral terrain ahead; that she is insufficiently tech-savvy; that she is neither attuned to the party’s grassroots nor focused on the methodical expansion of the Obama coalition; that she and her staff are not unlike Selina Myer and hers on Veep.
Says the Democrat with close ties to the committee: “The next chair is going to have to burn the place down and rebuild it.”
Wasserman Schultz and her staff, sensing a brewing insurrection at the DNC, are busily circling the wagons. Asked for comment on Rybak's criticisms, they provided statements from her chief of staff, Amy Dacey; vice chair Maria Elena Durazo; finance chair Henry Munoz; treasurer Andy Tobias; and secretary Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. All expressed delight in the Vegas debate. Some commended Wasserman Schultz for her role in making it happen—or for being “hardworking” or a prodigious fundraiser. But just two addressed, and then only obliquely, the Gabbard contretemps or the thrust of Rybak's comments: Durazo (DWS “is committed to manage any disagreements, like the number of debates, in a way that keeps us focused on our priorities”) and Rawlings-Blake (“The Chair regularly consults with DNC officers on a host of topics”).
With the Democrat-on-Democrat conflict ratcheting up, people close to the DNC predict a full-on assault on Rybak by Wasserman Schultz and her allies. If it happens, the internecine battle is likely to widen and get uglier—and quickly. Mo Elleithee, who until a few months ago served as the committee's communications director and was intimately involved in the deliberations over the debate plan, has already cast his lot with Rybak. “You’d be hard pressed to find a DNC member who doesn’t absolutely love RT,” Elleithee told me late Thursday night. “He's a glass-half-full kind of guy who always does everything he can to help the team. That’s what makes this whole brouhaha so remarkable. And it was all so avoidable.”
However the drama over the state of the DNC and Wasserman Schultz's future now unfolds, the inaugural debate on Tuesday night offered critics of her plan to limit such events still more ammunition, as Clinton’s performance made a mockery of any calculation that more debates would work to her disadvantage. And when O’Malley called out Wasserman Schultz from the debate stage—“I see the chair of the DNC here, look how glad we are actually to be talking about the issues that matter the most to people around the kitchen table”—the lusty roar from the crowd made clear that its sympathies were with him and not her.
Early the next morning, I ran into O’Malley as he prepared to appear on Morning Joe. Beaming at the memory, he crowed, “The loudest cheers were from her own committee members!”
Contributing: Steven Yaccino