Bernie's campaign blows it: This is the kind of mistake that can cripple a candidacy (even if it shouldn't)

While you can argue about the severity of the data breach at the DNC, you can't say it won't hurt Sanders

Published December 18, 2015 9:10PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) (AP)
Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) (AP)

The Washington Post revealed on Friday that staffers inside the Bernie Sanders campaign inappropriately accessed private voter data gathered by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The voter records were stored in a database maintained by the Democratic National Committee and an IT vendor called NGP VAN. The information is subsequently leased to the various Democratic presidential campaigns. Reacting to the data breach, the DNC suspended the Sanders campaign's access to the database until the committee has been assured that Sanders staffers have destroyed all of the Clinton files.

It's a blunder that could seriously damage the Sanders campaign's efforts to gain ground against the Clinton machine.

The national data director for the Sanders campaign was immediately fired by Sanders. There are apparently three other Sanders staffers who accessed the data at the request of Uretsky, who claims that the team was merely determining whether a software glitch in the NGP VAN system would also compromise crucial Sanders voter data. In other words, they claim they were testing to see whether their counterparts in the Clinton camp could exploit the backdoor as well. If Uretsky is to be believed, it sounds like the typical behavior of programmers and IT professionals, malicious or not, who routinely suss out security issues by exploiting them. The other Sanders operatives haven't been fired.

There are several layers to this story.

1) Unforced errors kill campaigns. If the data breach was, in fact, a deliberate attempt by the Sanders team to access Clinton's files, it's the sort of thing can could derail any campaign, especially one that's a grassroots effort with very little margin for error. When going up against the Clinton machine, there's no margin for error. Not only that, but no matter how this turns out, it calls negative attention to the Democratic side of the presidential contest and away from the GOP's flailing.

2) What about the vendor? To a certain extent, the IT vendor should've been sanctioned as well, since it was ultimately responsible for the flaw. As of this writing, there's no information leading us to believe the DNC will take its business elsewhere. Why?

3) The punishment outweighs the crime. Suspending Sanders' access to the database doesn't seem like a disproportionate punishment. Yet, should this suspension continue on indefinitely, well after the breach has been sealed and the offending parties have been fired, then it should be relatively clear that the DNC is being overly punitive. By now, it should be obvious to any and all observers that no further hacking of the Clinton data is underway now that the breach has been exposed. The authorizing staffer, Uretsky, is out. The other staffers will likely be fired. So, it seems like the crisis has been contained and muted. Once the glitch is repaired and an audit is conducted, there shouldn't be any reason why the Sanders campaign shouldn't be allowed to access its own paid-for voter information.

That last part is perhaps the most salient.

There have been more than a few questions circulating about the relationship between the DNC and the Clinton campaign, with some speculating that Wasserman Schultz is working closely with the Clintons to help carry the former Secretary of State to the nomination, while possibly suppressing the Sanders challenge. Now, yes, if I were Hillary Clinton emerging out of the brutal 2008 fracas against Barack Obama, I would never consider running again, especially at age 68, unless I had some assurances that another upstart grassroots candidate wasn't going to turn the whole thing into a sequel of the previous campaign. As such, I'd dedicate the subsequent six years to schmoozing the national committee and gathering the support of as many super-delegates as I could in order to clear the path to the nomination. I'd be utterly shocked if the Clintons didn't do exactly that. It's politics 101, frankly.

So, along those lines, why on earth would the DNC schedule not one but two Democratic debates on Saturday nights -- the second one dropping six days before Christmas when very few people are watching television, much less interrupting their holiday weekends for a political debate that doesn't include Donald Trump? It could be that the DNC is deliberately downplaying the visibility of the three candidates so as to focus attention on the GOP's grabassery. But, as some have hypothesized, it's also a possibility that the committee is maintaining a tight lid on Sanders in order to dampen his momentum in support of Clinton. Again, it's politics either way, though the latter possibility is more than a little hinky. It’s also worth noting that Clinton herself demanded as few as four debates, fueling speculation that the Saturday appearances are all about downplaying the Sanders challenge.

Furthermore, as Esquire's Charlie Pierce noted Friday, why did the DNC leak this information to The Washington Post in the first place? If the goal of the weirdly-timed Saturday debates, for example, is to maintain a low key primary while the Republicans publicly self-immolate, why did the DNC leak this story, which only serves to embarrass the party and especially Sanders himself who still isn't completely out of the question as a potential nominee? That said, Friday is traditionally take-out-the-trash day, so the story sounds like it was leaked on a day when ugliness is very often dribbled out. But in the digital age, take-out-the-trash day is mostly anachronistic. (It used to be that newspapers would mostly shut down for the weekend when few readers would bother paying attention anyway. Not any more.)

Realistically, it would've been smarter to keep the whole thing entirely under wraps to avoid the embarrassment to the party and the second-place contender. Honestly, per something Charlie Pierce wrote, if the roles had been reversed and it had been Clinton's data director who exploited the breach, you can bet the DNC would've pulled out all the stops to making sure it never saw the light of day, given Clinton's ongoing email scandal. Yet it seems like it's okay to go public when the culprit is a non-Clinton.

The next several days should decide whether this is a standard punitive action by the DNC or a flagrant attempt to muffle the Sanders campaign going into the holiday break. Ultimately, however, it seems like a series of mistakes by both the Sanders team and the DNC -- mistakes that can only wound the Democrats in the face of an almost suicidal GOP field.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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Bernie Sanders Dnc Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton The Democratic Primary