She has never been my favorite spokesperson for the DNC…
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is in a behind-the-scenes struggle with the White House, congressional Democrats and Washington insiders who have lost confidence in her as both a unifying leader and reliable party spokesperson at a time when they need her most.
The perception of critics is that Wasserman Schultz spends more energy tending to her own political ambitions than helping Democrats win. This includes using meetings with DNC donors to solicit contributions for her own PAC and campaign committee, traveling to uncompetitive districts to court House colleagues for her potential leadership bid and having DNC-paid staff focus on her personal political agenda.
She’s become a liability to the DNC, and even to her own prospects, critics say.
“I guess the best way to describe it is, it’s not that she’s losing a duel anywhere, it’s that she seems to keep shooting herself in the foot before she even gets the gun out of the holster,” said John Morgan, a major donor in Wasserman Schultz’s home state of Florida.
The stakes are high. Wasserman Schultz is a high-profile national figure who helped raise millions of dollars and served as a Democratic messenger to female voters during a presidential election in which Obama needed to exploit the gender gap to win, but November’s already difficult midterms are looming.
One example that sources point to as particularly troubling: Wasserman Schultz repeatedly trying to get the DNC to cover the costs of her wardrobe.
In 2012, Wasserman Schultz attempted to get the DNC to pay for her clothing at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, multiple sources say, but was blocked by staff in the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters and at President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign headquarters in Chicago.
She asked again around Obama’s inauguration in 2013, pushing so hard that Obama senior adviser — and one-time Wasserman Schultz booster — Valerie Jarrett had to call her directly to get her to stop. (Jarrett said she does not recall that conversation.) One more time, according to independent sources with direct knowledge of the conversations, she tried again, asking for the DNC to buy clothing for the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Wasserman Schultz denies that she ever tried to get the DNC to pick up her clothing tab. “I think that would be a totally inappropriate use of DNC funds,” she said in a statement. “I never asked someone to do that for me, I would hope that no one would seek that on my behalf, and I’m not aware that anyone did.”
Tracie Pough, Wasserman Schultz’s chief of staff at the DNC and her congressional office, was also involved in making inquiries about buying the clothing, according to sources. Pough denies making, directing or being aware of any inquiries.
But sources with knowledge of the discussions say Wasserman Schultz’s efforts couldn’t have been clearer. “She felt firmly that it should happen,” said a then-DNC staffer of the clothing request. “Even after it was explained that it couldn’t, she remained indignant.”
This story is based on interviews with three dozen current and former DNC staffers, committee officers, elected officials, state party leaders and top Democratic operatives in Washington and across the country.
Many expect a nascent Clinton campaign will engineer her ouster. Hurt feelings go back to spring 2008, when while serving as a co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Wasserman Schultz secretly reached out to the Obama campaign to pledge her support once the primary was over, sources say.
Meanwhile, the Obama team was so serious about replacing her after 2012 that they found a replacement candidate to back before deciding against it, according to people familiar with those discussions.
Obama and Wasserman Schultz have rarely even talked since 2011. They don’t meet about strategy or messaging. They don’t talk much on the phone.
Instead, the DNC chairwoman stakes out the president of the United States at the end of photo lines at events and fundraisers.
“You need another picture, Debbie?” Obama tends to say, according to people who’ve been there for the encounters.
Chairing the DNC should be a political steppingstone — Ed Rendell, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine all went on to bigger things, and even Howard Dean used the post to rehabilitate himself from the man who yelped his way out of a presidential campaign.
And without a doubt, the Florida congresswoman has had plenty of successes. She has overseen the integration of key elements of the Obama campaigns, including its voter file and data programs. After being left with $25 million in bills from the Obama campaign, the DNC enters the fall with the debt cleared and over $7 million on hand. She’s started new efforts to build relationships with labor and small business leaders and prioritized the DNC’s outreach to female voters.
“My tenure here is not about me,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with POLITICO at DNC headquarters. “I like to help build this party. That’s what I love and that’s what I focused on.”
She rejects the idea she is over-extended.
“I have always taken on a lot. It’s what I love to do. I don’t do anything halfway,” she said, dismissing any worries that she’s overextended. “In some cases, it’s sniping; in other cases people are worried about me. I have a lot of Jewish mothers out there that I think very kindly say, ‘My god, she’s doing so much.’ It’s OK.”
SPLIT WITH OBAMA
The White House is staring at two years of life under a GOP-controlled House and Senate. The DNC chair, however, isn’t involved in the strategy talks with the president.
They don’t want her there.
For even the occasional Obama briefing by the heads of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, she is not invited. That includes a key session on July 31, the last day the House was in town before the August recess, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), DCCC Chair Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC executive director Kelly Ward sat on the couches in the Oval Office running through the political landscape for the president.
Wasserman Schultz described her relationship with the president as speaking to him on an “as-needed basis, whenever I have a need to talk to them or give them a sense of what’s going on, but also, as it happens, as we connect on the trail.” She declined to provide details of how often, where or when.
When Kaine was DNC chairman during the president’s first year in office, he had a monthly lunch with Obama on the calendar (although not all of the lunches actually occurred as planned). Wasserman Schultz demurred when asked if it would be fair to characterize her as speaking “regularly” with the president.
“The best way to describe it is: as often as we need,” she said.
According to multiple people familiar with the president, Obama’s opinion of Wasserman Schultz was sealed back in 2011. Shortly after becoming chairwoman, she pushed hard for a meeting with the president that she kicked off by complaining that she had been blocked from hiring the daughter of a donor — who’d been on staff in her congressional office — as a junior staffer to be the DNC’s Jewish community liaison.
Obama summed up his reaction to staff afterward: “Really?”
Asked about the relationship between the president and Wasserman Schultz, the White House issued a statement praising the chairwoman and DNC staff.
“The president’s foremost political goal is helping Democrats do well in the midterms — and Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is doing a great job in that effort,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “The president is grateful for all of the hard work being done by the entire team at the DNC. He fully recognizes the value of their work, and that’s why he has worked so hard to support them.”