• Seth Masket

Don't look now, but the DNC got powerful


DNC Chair Tom Perez (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The Democratic National Committee has emerged as one of the great bogeymen of the 2016 election. Supporters of Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign, among others, blamed the DNC for unwarranted, even corrupt interference in that year's Democratic presidential nomination contest, especially after hacked internal e-mails showed DNC employees speaking unprofessionally about Sanders.


Protesters in 2016 declared, "Hell no, DNC, we won't vote for Hillary!" One said he'd "rather watch the DNC burn" than see Clinton nominated. Sanders himself has recently said that "in 2016... the DNC was not quite evenhanded." The DNC was blamed for a primary debate schedule that advantaged Hillary Clinton, for arranging shady financial dealings with the Clinton campaign prior to her nomination, for having its members (as superdelegates) support Clinton even when primary voters in their states opposed her, and more.


And obviously Russia believed the DNC to be central to party decision-making, as did then-candidate Donald Trump, who has claimed that the DNC conspired against Sanders and then worked with the FBI to attack Trump.

The DNC never had the kind of power that its critics accused it of abusing. But by compelling the DNC to fix the party's perceived problems, they've helped to create a powerful organization.

The funny thing, of course, is that the DNC never had this kind of power. It is inherently a weak organization, often underfunded, heavily dependent on state parties and presidential campaigns, and limited by longstanding concerns that any decision it makes seen as helping a candidate will be perceived as unjust and illegitimate. Its bias is to appear to be as open and impartial as possible, as Julia Azari noted here, even to the point of allowing twenty presidential candidates to participate in debates, because to appear otherwise is to look corrupt.


Rather than the head of the Democratic Party, it's generally been best to consider the DNC an important node in the vast party network, consisting of officeholders, labor unions, interest groups, activists, donors, and others. And because it's under pressure to not appear biased in nomination contests, it's generally been less powerful than many of those other actors.


But there's an additional ironic twist to this story over the past few years. As protesters and members have trained their criticisms onto the DNC, they have forced that organization to respond and grow stronger. If the primary debates of 2016 were inadequate, the DNC was expected to come up with more explicit rules about who could participate in those debates in the 2020 cycle and develop methods for winnowing candidates. If certain issues (such as climate change) were receiving insufficient attention in the contest, the DNC was told to somehow more explicitly include it in candidate forums (or to decide to exclude it). If caucus rules were making it too hard for interested Democrats to participate, then the DNC had to impose rules changes on state parties to make participation easier. And if such efforts (including the "virtual caucuses") turned out to be prone to hacking, it became the DNC's job to reverse course and ban those from state-level contests.


The DNC's role in shaping the primary debates has been particularly fascinating. Control of these debates by a national party committee is a relatively new feature of the political system; they have often been assembled by campaigns and news organizations. It's interesting to think of how this year's crowded field would have competed if not for the DNC's system of increasingly high polling and fundraising thresholds for debate access.


Perhaps news organizations would simply have invited what they saw as the mostly competitive candidates -- this would likely have been a much smaller group than we've seen in the first few debates. Perhaps all 20+ candidates would have competed in prime time and undercard debates as the Republican candidates did in 2015. The party might end up with the same nominee regardless of the approach, but the process itself would have looked very different if not for the DNC's strong hand here. A different system might well have left more candidates and their supporters feeling marginalized, increasing concerns about the contest being "rigged."


The DNC's donor thresholds have had the additional effect of requiring candidates to scramble for small donors, finding enough people who normally don't contribute at this point in a presidential cycle to help get them into the next debate. This may well help the party's and the candidates' long term fundraising prospects, and it wouldn't have happened without the DNC's involvement here.


The DNC, that is, never had the kind of power that its critics accused it of abusing. But by compelling the DNC to fix some of the party's perceived problems, they've helped to create a organization with some real power. The current presidential nomination contest is unfolding in a way that the DNC has strongly helped to shape, even while there are candidates in the field.

©2019 by Mischiefs of Faction.