The DNC's "data-gate" disaster was completely avoidable—and extremely troubling

The DNC turned what should have been a small-bore scandal into national news — and for what?

Published December 22, 2015 12:59PM (EST)

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2014 file photo, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.  speaks to the news media. (AP)
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2014 file photo, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. speaks to the news media. (AP)

The Obama administration boasts a relatively simple mantra when it comes to foreign policy: "Don't do stupid shit." The Democratic National Committee and chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz would do well to adopt this slogan, especially given the stakes of the 2016 election and how badly it fumbled the data breach fracas.

The DNC, along with the two top-shelf Democratic campaigns, have one basic job in addition to electing Democrats, and that is to avoid drawing negative attention away from the Republicans while they continue to self-immolate within the Trump inferno. The immaturity, in-fighting and intellectual violence of the GOP was on full display during last week's CNN debate, and so Schultz and the DNC reacted how? By unnecessarily and quite loudly yanking the Klieg lights away from the Republican shenanigans and squarely onto the Democrats for an infraction that, while questionable, was quickly buttoned-up and resolved by the Sanders campaign.

By the way, two more Sanders staffers have been fired after it was discovered that they, along with national data director Josh Uretsky, accessed confidential voter files gathered by the Clinton campaign and housed by the DNC through a third-party vendor. Uretsky himself was sacked before the story even went public, and based on what we know now, it was the smart move by Team Sanders. Clearly, the software bug itself is the responsibility of the vendor. Exploiting the bug and thumbing through Clinton's voter files, however, was a sanctionable blunder by Uretsky and the Sanders campaign but, in fairness, it seems as though the vendor bears the greater accountability for the bug in the first place. Yet the vendor apparently hasn’t been sanctioned at all.

During Saturday night's awkwardly scheduled debate, Sanders himself admitted that Uretsky and his team shouldn't have taken the additional step of looking at the Clinton data, and so Uretsky was fired as a consequence. Sanders also apologized directly to Hillary Clinton on national television -- a move that should be commended by supporters of both camps. The DNC's pre-debate reaction, on the other hand, showed an organization that appears to be out of touch with 2015-16 political reality. Instead of scolding Sanders behind closed doors, while punishing the vendor, the DNC punished Sanders by temporarily suspending the campaign's access to the voter database, then it rapidly reinstated the campaign's access within 24 hours or so anyway.

In other words, the DNC suspended Sanders just long enough to turn the whole thing into a public scandal, only to lift the suspension after it was already too late. It's also worth noting that the Sanders campaign threatened to sue the DNC, which only made matters more harrowing rather than less. Oh, and the suit is still active, by the way. The Sanders campaign is still seeking damages based on the dispute.

Sanders spokesman Tad Devine said on Monday, "My understanding is that while the original complaint was seeking injunctive relief, which was not necessary once the parties agreed, there is a contractual dispute." Again, it shouldn't have been filed in the first place, but once the campaign's access to the data was restored, it should've been dropped entirely. The fact that it's still out there only lengthens the duration of the embarrassment to the party. That said, the DNC is patient zero in all of this, and could've kept it bottled up in the first place.

And, so, what happened as the result of the DNC's flailing? Of course the schism between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters has grown wider and more contentious -- unnecessarily. If Schultz's goal was to split Democratic voters along the lines of what happened in 2008 between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters, then mission accomplished. But I doubt that was the case. Schultz obviously wanted to make an example of Sanders, while, by default, painting Hillary Clinton as the defenseless victim of the (cough, cough) Sanders "machine." It goes without saying that Schultz and the DNC overreacted, and hilariously so.

Arguably, more overall damage was done to the Democratic presidential candidates by the DNC's "stupid shit" than was done to the Clinton campaign by the Sanders campaign's data grab in the first place because, and to repeat, any negative attention on the Democrats is good news for the Republicans. In the absence of this mini-scandal, the only thing that was capable of inflicting primary-season damage on Hillary Clinton in any substantive way is the Sanders message, as well as the Sanders' authentic charisma contrasted against Clinton's triangulating, calculating image. There's really no way that Uretsky's shady debugging practices could've ever possibly harmed the Clinton campaign, even though Uretsky's overreach touched off the story in the first place.

Specifically, the DNC's actions precipitated an entirely new line of attack by Sanders supporters against Clinton.

Yes, a smoke-filled-room deal between the DNC and Clinton is nothing more than primer-level politics. But combined with the overreaction to the data breach and the oddly-scheduled debates, the latter effectively burying one of Sanders' only chances to get his message out to the public en masse, any collusion comes off as not just a quid-pro-quo deal to help Clinton, but a quid-pro-deal to help Clinton and to hurt Sanders, with just enough stupidity to distract attention away from the GOP's ridiculousness.

Long story short, the DNC should have kept this internal. And it should have handled the breach with kid gloves rather than with a Hellfire missile. Now, the two Democratic campaigns hate each other even more, splitting the Democrats at a time when unity is absolutely critical to winning in November, but it also showed how the Democrats are just as capable of internal poop-flinging as the Republicans. But while there's still the odor of smoke hovering over the Democrats and before 2016 rolls onto the front pages after the holidays, perhaps now is the time, as Salon's Bill Curry wrote, to replace Schultz with someone more disciplined and, you know, silent. There's no room for error when "President Trump" is a possibility and Schultz's penchant for "stupid shit" seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Bernie Sanders And DNC Come To Agreement About Data

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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Aol_on Democratic National Committee Dnc Elections 2016 The Democratic Party The Democratic Primary