The Democrats and the Wasserman Schultz problem

by Stephen Zunes

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As chair of the Democratic National Committee since 2011, Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the public face of the Democratic Party. Elected by over 300 Democratic leaders from across the country, she represents the party on talk shows and serves as a major fundraiser and influential strategist. Her leadership has engendered controversy, however, as a result of questions about her integrity and her advocacy of positions placing her well to the right of most of her fellow Democrats.

Wasserman Schultz is one of the 46 current House members of the New Democratic Coalition, representing the party's more conservative "pro-business" wing. She is also one of the more hawkish Democrats in Congress at a time when most of the party, particularly younger voters, are becoming increasingly concerned with neoliberal trade policies, foreign military intervention, and support for human rights violators.

She was one of 28 Democratic members of the House to vote for the fast-track bill to advance the controversial Pacific Trade Partnership and one of 66 Democrats to oppose the application of the War Powers Resolution to the escalating U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria.        

She has attacked President Barack Obama for his recent rapprochement with Cuba, offending many by comparing the state of human rights in that country with the Nazi Holocaust. Not only has she opposed a lessening of sanctions (she even objected to lifting President George W. Bush's ban on family visits that prevented Cuban-Americans from seeing dying parents), she helped block the testing and marketing of a promising diabetes treatment developed in Cuba.

Though the DNC chair's primary role is to help elect Democratic candidates across the country, she has refused requests for support from Democrats in neighboring U.S. House districts running against right-wing Cuban-American Republicans.

She has also been a strong advocate of bombing both the Syrian government and Syrian rebels, of supporting India's controversial nuclear program in violation of international non-proliferation agreements, and cutting all U.S. funding for the United Nations in retaliation for documenting Israeli war crimes. In the face of the Obama administration and increasing numbers of congressional Democrats opposing the Republicans' unconditional support for controversial policies by Israel's right-wing government, Wasserman Schultz has repeatedly sided with the GOP, insisting that there should "never be daylight between the two parties" regarding Israel.

Her outspoken opposition to a modest medical marijuana proposition on the Florida ballot also alienated many Democrats. The controversy worsened when a leading Democratic funder of the proposition released emails from her office where she offered to switch sides and support the proposition if he'd stop criticizing her.

Wasserman Schultz has also made a reputation of using her position to push her political views in areas unrelated to her official duties. When the Susan G. Komen Foundation decided to no longer provide grants to Planned Parenthood, Wasserman Schultz made a call to Komen founder Nancy Brinker, who described it as "extremely ugly in its tone," scolding her for hiring Karen Handel, an opponent of abortion, as a vice president of the charity. The foundation's decision to deny Planned Parenthood funding for cancer screening was controversial even among some pro-life advocates and was eventually reversed, but those on both sides of the abortion debate found it disturbing that a sitting member of Congress and DNC chair would call a foundation head in a manner that she found "overbearing, if not threatening" on the assumption she had the right to tell a private organization whom they should hire and who should get its grants.

Wasserman Schultz's obliviousness reached new heights following the ruckus that erupted regarding a proposed amendment to the 2012 Democratic Party platform stating that Jerusalem "is and will remain the capital of Israel" and should be "undivided." Such a position runs directly counter to longstanding U.S. policy that the status of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations between Israel and Palestine, both of whom desire Jerusalem as their capital, and polls showed that Democrats by a nearly 2-to-1 margin believe that Jerusalem should be divided between Israelis and Palestinians rather than controlled exclusively by Israel. In three successive tries on a voice vote to get the requisite two-thirds majority for passage, the amendment failed to get even a simple majority, yet convention chair and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared on the final attempt that it nevertheless had passed. Mayhem erupted as angry delegates tried to shout down the chair for abusing his power; some walked out in protest.

When Wasserman Schultz was interviewed about this clear violation of procedure and the resulting maelstrom in what had until then been a unified convention, she insisted -- despite repeated video clips showing otherwise -- that the vote was "absolutely two-thirds" and that "there wasn't any discord." Afterward, CNN's Anderson Cooper observed that she must live in an "alternate universe" and that "to say flat-out there was no discord is just not true."

Indeed, she is not one to let facts get in the way of her opinions. Despite eyewitness accounts and an autopsy report from a 2010 incident in which Israeli forces had killed five unarmed people, including a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, execution-style at close range in the back of the head, Wasserman Schultz insisted the Israelis "only used force when soldiers' lives were at risk." Similarly, when a series of well-documented reports from reputable Israeli and international human rights groups brought forward evidence of apparent war crimes by Israeli forces in Gaza, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of children, she insisted the Israeli attacks were instead exclusively focused on terrorist targets and that Israel "went to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors."

There have also been concerns raised at her demanding the DNC pay for her wardrobe at the Democratic Convention, the president's inaugural, and White House Correspondent's dinner as well as her using DNC donors to solicit contributions for her own Political Action Committee and using DNC staff to advance her own political agenda. Politico has reported that the White House has "lost confidence in her as both a unifying leader and reliable party spokesperson" and was considering replacing her with DNC vice chair and former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, but other media reports said Wasserman Schultz threatened to paint Obama as anti-woman and anti-Semitic if he attempted to replace her.

All this raises questions as to why the Democratic Party would keep someone like that as the DNC chair.

[Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.]

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