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How Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Campaign Sparked Today’s Democrat Civil War

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Virginia Kruta Associate Editor
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s efforts to win the presidency in 2016 may have cost the Democratic Party much more than just four — or eight — years in the White House.

Tension between the two dominant “wings” in the party has dogged Democrats since they regained control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, but the roots of the division go much deeper than just House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vs. the Squad.

In fact, the roots of the party’s divide are in the party’s efforts to ensure that Clinton would emerge victorious at the end of the 2016 Democratic primary. The hasty repairs made by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) both during and after the 2016 election cycle may have only deepened the base’s mistrust of Democratic leadership and caused more and more candidates to appeal to bias or unfairness in the system as the reason for their lack of success.

Wikileaks exposed the DNC’s original sin in an email dump just ahead of the Democratic National Convention in 2016, tainting what was supposed to be a celebration of Clinton’s nomination and the glass ceiling she shattered to earn it.

The Daily Caller reported at the time:

“Wondering if there’s a good Bernie narrative for a story, which is that Bernie never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess,” DNC press secretary Mark Paustenbach wrote in a May 21 email to communications director Luis Miranda. “Specifically, [DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz] had to call Bernie directly in order to get the campaign to do things because they’d either ignored or forgotten to something critical.”

Suddenly there was a foundation for claims of a “rigged” primary made by independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his most devoted supporters. The DNC was forced to scramble to save face before the fast-approaching general election.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned just before the convention in an effort to appease Sanders supporters who may have held her personally responsible for undermining the democratic socialist’s campaign. Vocal Sanders supporter and comedian Sarah Silverman took the stage at the convention, begging the “Bernie or Bust” crowd to put their anger aside and come together for the sake of the general election.

Former CNN commentator Donna Brazile, dogged by accusations that she had passed debate questions to Clinton ahead of time, left the network and took up the reins at the DNC. The party appeared to rally, and even as Election Day dawned, Clinton was expected to win.

But then she didn’t.

From Clinton’s concession speech to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the party grieved. They claimed that Trump’s victory was illegitimate because Clinton had won the popular vote. They demanded recounts. They staged protests. For a brief time, they appeared united — in their hatred for President Trump if nothing else.

But the mistrust sown within the DNC by a Clinton camp that was apparently willing to undermine a fellow Democrat had already done irreparable damage.

February’s heated contest to determine the new head of the DNC brought the divisions right back to the forefront. Former President Obama’s Labor Secretary Tom Perez won the seat, promising to reunite the Democratic Party. He began by offering Sanders-backed Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a seat as his co-chair. But any reunification of the party’s two main factions would be short-lived.

Sanders’ influence, through progressive PACs like Justice Democrats, contributed to a surge in far-left candidates, some of whom primaried long-serving Democrats in 2018. Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among them, taking New York’s 14th Congressional District from ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) poses with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in a photo released by her office after they met in the Speaker's office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 26, 2019. Office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi/via REUTERS

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) poses with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in a photo released by her office after they met in the Speaker’s office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 26, 2019. Office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi/via REUTERS

Democrats regained control of the House after the 2018 midterms, and the party’s divisions were highlighted once again as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to battle for the gavel.

But even as Democrats on the progressive and establishment sides attacked President Donald Trump and Republicans equally, they also began to make increasingly public attacks on each other. Establishment Democrats accused progressives of being “too ambitious” with regard to policies like the Green New Deal; progressives fired back with claims that the establishment types lacked the conviction or fortitude to make bold policy decisions.

A feud festered between “the Squad” (Reps. Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Ilhan Omar (MN) and  Rashida Tlaib (MI)) and Pelosi. (RELATED: 11 Highlights From Democrats’ Insult Fest Between Team Pelosi And Team Ocasio-Cortez)

The battle raged within the large 2020 Democratic primary field as well. Clinton has largely kept herself removed from the day-to-day discussion, but the seeds of doubt and distrust in the system planted in 2016 have begun to sprout among the candidates just the same:

  • Tulsi Gabbard Sues Google, alleging that the tech giant “violated her right to free speech” by blocking her ad content for a few hours.

  • Beto Underwhelms At Debate, and when challenged, suggested that the headline writers at the Washington Post and the Texas Tribune were trying to make him look bad.
  • Gillibrand Posts Dismal Quarter, says that her inability to fundraise was a result of her strong stance on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and not because she was barely polling at 1%.

Things finally began to bubble over on the Democratic primary debate stage. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Bernie Sanders (VT), both vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination, were the clear targets when fellow candidate John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, began his opening statement at Tuesday’s debate with an attack on candidates who made “impossible promises” of “more free stuff.”

Warren and Delaney square off during Democratic primary debate. Screen Shot/CNN

Warren and Delaney square off during Democratic primary debate. Screen Shot/CNN

Warren responded by saying that she was “not afraid” of big ideas, lashing out at Delaney. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be President of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she shot back.

Night two of CNN’s debate in Detroit featured California Sen. Kamala Harris squaring off with Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard — and as moderates cheered Gabbard’s performance, Harris supporters were quick to suggest that was the result of Russian bots and an attempt to stir up racial animosity toward Harris.

Just about every candidate on the stage took a shot or two at former Vice President Joe Biden, many taking issue with policies Biden had supported even as recently as when former President Barack Obama was in office. Biden supporters were quick to throw around Obama’s weight — despite the fact that the former president has made no move to endorse any candidate — in order to protect Biden against attacks.

It’s fairly common to hear strategists explain that Democrats run to the left during a primary and then back toward the center in the general election in order to secure more moderate votes. But progressives who feel that Clinton burned them in 2016 — especially since she then failed to secure the White House — may leave the far left feeling gun-shy if the Democratic nomination goes to a candidate they view as a squish.

Just how deep does the bitterness go? Only 2020 will tell.