PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic National Convention, which begins in earnest Monday, has already gotten off to a rocky start.
Days after the Republicans finished their tumultuous confab in Cleveland, the Democrats were hoping to show themselves far more united. But after the party’s national chair resigned Sunday over leaked emails that revealed a preference for Hillary Clinton over primary rival Bernie Sanders, that objective may now be harder to achieve.
Major party conventions are largely massive exercises in managing optics and crafting an appealing narrative for voters. Last week, Donald Trump was tasked with presenting himself as a plausible commander in chief and leader who could bring together an intensely fractured GOP. A series of incidents that dominated the media coverage, however, diminished the real estate tycoon’s ability to deliver.
This week, Clinton needs to address concerns over voter perception that she’s not trustworthy, and it doesn’t help that hours before the opening gavel was to hit the strike plate, an email scandal emerged that shows the national party favored her to Sanders — despite repeated assurances of neutrality.
DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from south Florida, became the target of severe criticism after the website WikiLeaks released thousands of hacked emails that disclosed internal deliberations over how to tilt the primary election in the former secretary of state’s favor. The Clinton campaign responded Sunday by saying the leak was orchestrated by the Russian government to assist in the election of Trump.
Regardless of how the leaks and the ensuing fallout came about, such a news cycle prevents Clinton from focusing exclusively on projecting a vision of optimism and inclusion that would run counter to that of her rival last week. Rather, she has to repair the wounds from this episode and still unite a party whose left and center have grown further apart since Sanders’s improbable rise during the primary.
In this vein, there will also be gaps between many of the party’s delegates at this year’s convention, including on the Israel issue, as Sanders attracted a base of support highly critical of longstanding Washington policies toward Israel and the Middle East, and more demanding of greater recognition of Palestinian positions.
This dissension played out when the drafting committee argued over language relating to Israelis and Palestinians in the party platform. Sanders appointee James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, pushed for a provision that would demand “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.”
Such language ultimately failed, and the platform instead calls for “a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.” It also says the future of Jerusalem should be left to final-status negotiations, supports Israel’s right to defend itself and condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The liberal Washington-based group J Street approved of the final version. Its president and founder, Jeremy Ben Ami, has called it more “balanced” and said the decision to include language that “recognizes the legitimate rights and national aspirations of the Palestinian people alongside its recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security marks an important step forward for the party.”
But even with the platform’s language settled, there is still much more to pay close attention to as the convention gets underway.
The DNC email scandal is multilayered. Beyond the fact that a series of exchanges raised ideas of ways to weaken Sanders’s candidacy, there is also the nature of the proposals that were discussed. DNC finance chief Brad Marshall pitched Schultz on portraying Sanders as an atheist who rejected his Judaism in states where candidates’ religiosity holds sway with voters, like in Kentucky and West Virginia.
“Does he believe in a God,” Marshall asked. “He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
Wasserman Schultz, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress, has a record of championing Jewish causes in the House, including the passage of an aid package to Holocaust survivors and the establishment of Jewish American Heritage Month.
The Sanders campaign has for months accused her of favoring Clinton, and this latest revelation provides vindication. After Wasserman Schultz announced her resignation — at the urging of Clinton campaign officials — Sanders issued a statement saying she “made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party.”
In her resignation, Wasserman Schultz said she was committed to helping Clinton win the White House, and felt stepping down was a necessary step toward accomplishing that goal. “I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” she said. “I look forward to serving as a surrogate for her campaign in Florida and across the country to ensure her victory.”
According to campaign officials, she will still keep her leadership role at the convention and deliver her scheduled address. For the rest of the election, she will continue to assist the presumptive Democratic nominee, along with other down-ballot races throughout the country. Longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile will take the helm as interim chair.
While the Clinton camp was quick to respond to the crisis — much quicker than Trump’s was to Melania’s plagiarism scandal — it intensifies friction between factions of the party that they aim to coalesce this week. One of the Democrats’ early tests will be how they respond to the fissure.
While Sanders recently endorsed Clinton and indicated he’ll work with her campaign to ensure “Donald Trump does not become president,” differences between him and the presumptive nominee on Israel remain — and these differences are perhaps more fierce among their backers.
One of his appointments to the platform drafting committee was philosopher Cornel West, who considers President Barack Obama a war criminal and is a full-out proponent of the BDS movement. Some within Sanders’s base of support identify with his brand of thinking about the conflict, and it’s not yet clear how much it will influence their willingness to embrace Clinton.
Clinton is trying to thread a fine needle in bringing Sanders supporters into her coalition while also convincing pro-Israel Democrats turned off by Obama’s approach to the region that she will be closer to Israel and less confrontational. Obama himself is slated to speak at the convention, though it is highly unlikely he will mention the Jewish state. Clinton, too, is likely to avoid the issue and not risk alienating any constituency.
Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, has vast experience navigating the US-Israel alliance, which includes having negotiated a 2012 ceasefire during a violent flareup between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and working to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank to jump-start peace talks.
She also laid the groundwork during that time for brokering a nuclear agreement with Iran, and has just selected as her running mate Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was a strong champion of the accord, calling it “a dramatic improvement over the status quo.”
While much of the more liberal wing of the party has expressed disappointment over Clinton’s choosing a moderate VP pick, the former DNC chair has a left-leaning record on Israel and has long been a darling of J Street for his support of a two-state solution.
Official convention proceedings begin Monday at 4:30 p.m. EST, and the first evening session, which will feature speeches from Sen. Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Michelle Obama, begins at 8 p.m. EST.