Darryl Paulson: The trials and tribulations of Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz


When the 2016 presidential campaign began, everyone believed that Hillary Clinton would quickly wrap up the Democratic nomination since she faced what many saw as token opposition. It was the Republicans, who had enough candidates to field a football team, who were expected to have a bitter, protracted primary.

As so often has been the case in 2016, conventional wisdom was dead wrong. Donald Trump, who most thought would never enter the primary process, who not only entered the primaries but tore his opponents to shreds. Trump did what Julius Caesar wrote about 2,000 years ago:  He came. He saw and he conquered.

Clinton, who was supposed to dominate the small and weak Democratic field, is still engaged in a long and increasingly bitter campaign with Bernie Sanders. It may well be the Democrats, not the Republicans, who find themselves in the midst of a contested national convention.

Both parties are headed by individuals who have chaired the party for many years. Reince Priebus was perceived to have the most difficult job in expanding the party’s appeal to minorities and women while at the same time having a candidate who spat at vitriol at those groups as fast as he could Twitter.

On the Democratic side, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has chaired the party since 2011. Managing the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign has been far more confrontational than she and fellow Democrats anticipated.

Both Priebus and Schultz have faced a common problem: dealing with a candidate who believes the system is rigged, and the party establishment is doing whatever it can to defeat their campaign.

Trump was considered such a loose cannon and political liability to the party that Priebus developed a loyalty oath procedure to prevent Trump from fleeing the party and mounting an independent or third-party campaign. Splitting the party would guarantee a Democratic victory in the fall.

As difficult as it has been for Priebus to manage the Republicans, it has been even worse for Wasserman Schultz. From the very beginning, Sanders and his supporters have argued that Schultz has done everything possible to undermine his campaign.

Sanders and his campaign manager Jeff Weaver have contended that Wasserman Schultz had “rigged the election” for Clinton. Few debates were scheduled, and when they were held, they were scheduled on weekends when viewership would be minimal.

The Sanders campaign also alleged that the party chair denied them access to their own election data, and they had to sue to retrieve their own data. Finally, they argue that Wasserman Schultz appointed “hostile Hillary partisans” to key committees at the national convention.

It is not just the Sanders campaign that is complaining about the biased conduct of the party chair. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a DNC member, was critical of the number and scheduling of the debates. As a result, the chair revoked her invitation to the first Democratic presidential debate. Gabbard resigned from the DNC in protest.

Van Jones, a CNN contributor and active Democrat, has complained that Wasserman Schultz, instead of being neutral, is “coming in harder for Hillary than she is for herself.” “I wish Reince Priebus was my party chair,” notes Jones. “He did a better job of handling the Trump situation than I’ve seen my party chair handle the situation.”

MSNBC News host Chris Hayes summarized a common view of the bias of Wasserman Schultz for Clinton. “It is clearly the case when given truth serum, Debbie Wasserman Schultz vastly prefers Hillary Clinton to be the party’s nominee. . .”

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, has called on Wasserman Schultz to resign, and Joe Scarborough said that “If the party I was a member of treated me like this … I’d say, ‘Go straight to hell, I’m running as an independent.”

Donald Trump has jumped in to support Sanders by saying that “Bernie Sanders is being treated very badly by the Democrats and the system is rigged against him.” Trump clearly benefits from a divided Democratic Party and has urged Sanders voters to support Trump in the fall.

Wasserman Schultz’s management of the Democratic presidential race has created problems in her own re-election campaign. She is now facing a serious challenge from Tim Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern Law School. Canova has raised more than a million dollars to challenge Wasserman Schultz, an impressive amount for someone running against the chair of the Democratic Party.

Wasserman Schultz has raised $1.8 million and has the support of both President Obama and Vice President Biden. But, for those who think Wasserman Schultz will easily win re-election, they might want to talk to former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who ended up losing to little-known professor Dave Brat.

On the primary election night, Wasserman Schultz might recall the words of songwriter Leslie Gore:  “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”


Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at USF St. Petersburg.


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