December 07, 2018

Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile joins Firing Line to discuss her career in politics, working at the DNC in 2016 and the future for Democrats and Republicans.

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She’s a pioneer, a crusader, a fixer, and a role model.
Democratic powerhouse Donna Brazile joins me this week on ‘Firing Line.’
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If 2018 was a groundbreaking year for African-American women in politics, then Donna Brazile led the way.
She is one of the most experienced political operators in America.
She has worked on the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, and was the first African-American woman to run a major presidential campaign for Al Gore in 2000.
During the 2016 election, she had a controversial tenure as the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and in her latest book, ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics,’ she reflects on that incredible journey and the scars she has picked up along the way.
Donna Brazile.

Thank you.

Welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

It’s a great honor.
Thank you so much.

For the first time in American history, after these past 2018 midterm elections, 100 women have been elected to the House of Representatives, more than 20 African-American women…
Yes.

…have been elected to the House of Representatives and will be sworn into their seats in what is I think a bit of poetic justice exactly 50 years almost to the day after Shirley Chisholm was sworn in.
As you reflect on 2018 and the midterm elections, is there a bit of sweet victory in it for you?

I think had Mrs. Chisholm lived to see this moment, she would’ve been pleasantly surprised that we would finally elect women of color from across the country.
She would be proud of Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected from the state of Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes, the first black woman elected from the state of Connecticut.
Of course, she would be proud of the terrific campaign that Stacey Abrams ran down in Georgia, but most importantly Mrs. Chisholm, who understood the power of women and the power of women voting would’ve been pleased to see the first Native American women elected in Kansas and New Mexico, the first openly gay women elected, and, of course, two Muslim women elected.
She would be proud of the depth and the breadth and, of course, she would celebrate this moment by reminding women that service is the writ that we pay for living on this planet.

Well, those are words that you’ve certainly taken to heart.

Yes.

And no breadth of successes happens in a vacuum.

That’s correct.

But these sort of successes are built on the shoulders of the women who have come before them.

That’s true.

And you have been one of those women.
For 40 years, you have been in the trenches of Democratic Party politics.

I have.

And it seemed to me a wonderful moment to reflect on your journey because your journey personally also reflects the progress that African-Americans, especially within the context of Democratic Party politics, have made over the course of the last 40 years.
Your personal story is an allegory for the journey African-Americans have made in the mainstream political successes.
Your book begins with a story when your grandmother informed you and your eight siblings that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot, and pulled you into her bedroom and asked you to get on your knees and pray for him.

That’s right.

And you tell a story about how your reaction wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t tears, but it was that you were indignant.

I was angry.
I was 8 years old, but I’ll never forget that day.
It was a rainy day.
In Louisiana, it’s always raining.
But it was a rainy day, and it was a kind of drizzle that you couldn’t go out and play.
You had to come inside, and yet my grandmother called us into her bedroom, and she wanted us to get on our knees.
She had learned that Dr. King had been shot.
We didn’t know if he survived the assassination attempt, and so she wanted us to pray.
We were Catholics, and we started praying, and when we finished praying, my grandmother said, ‘Wait.’
And we’re like, ‘What?’
And she’s like, ‘We have to also pray for his family.’
We went back and prayed for his family.
And this was — Margaret, you would probably have felt the same way as an 8-year-old child.
She said, ‘We now have to pray for the murderer or the person who tried to kill Dr. King,’ because she said, ‘Dr. King was about love,’ and we had to pray, and that’s when I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’
Of course, back then, everybody would said, ‘Donna, shut up,’ and, of course, I didn’t.
But I wanted to know why we had to pray for the person who attempted to kill or killed Dr. King, and she reminded us it was in the Bible because God was love and God said we had to love our enemies.
And that was an instructive moment for an 8-year-old kid to try to believe this, and I’ll never forget my grandmother, when she said pray.

Well, what struck me is that that event was your first experience in terms of political mobilization because the first thing you did in politics was go lobby for Martin Luther King Day to become a national federal holiday.

I kept it in my heart that Dr. King called us to serve.
Dr. King called us to build bridges, to find a way to the promised land in politics and find a way to making sure that every child had the dream.
And as a young girl growing up in the segregated South, I too wanted to serve, and I wanted to be involved in a movement.
My mother, Jean, would say, ‘You’re too young, Donna,’ but I didn’t feel young.
I felt like I could do it.
I didn’t feel like I was a little girl.
I felt like I wanted to be that woman, and I’ll never forget when I wrote in my diary, by the time I turned 40, I want to be a campaign manager, and I became a campaign manager at 39, so I made it.

You just beat it.
Your first presidential campaign and presidential effort that you worked on was for the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1984.

Yes.

And I think as we look back on it, it’s easy to miss that an entire generation of African-American political operatives came into the fold and was mainstreamed into the Democratic Party because of that campaign that you worked on.
What was the legacy of the Reverend?

Oh, my God.
He was — I’ll never forget.
And Reverend Jackson is an incredible force in American politics, but back in 1984, he was going against the tide.
Harold Washington had just been elected mayor of Chicago.

First African-American mayor.

He had broken a barrier.
And Reverend Jackson, who for years followed in Dr. King’s footsteps, his campaign had multiple purposes.
One was to encourage more people to register and vote.
The second was to encourage people to run for political office, and the third, Reverend Jackson decided it was our time, and he gave so many of us a seat at the table.
Shirley Chisholm once said, ‘If you don’t find your seat at the political table, bring in folding chairs.’
Well, Reverend Jackson actually gave us folding chairs, comfortable chairs, cushioned chairs, because he wanted us to have a seat as campaign managers, as political strategists, as political advisers, and I am so incredibly humbled that he gave me, a young kid — I was 23 years old — an opportunity to serve.
And I’ve worked on seven presidential campaigns, 56 congressional campaigns, 19 state and local campaigns, 49 states — one more state, Margaret, and I’ll become Miss USA without the bikini.

I want to show you what Jesse Jackson said on this program to William F. Buckley Jr. in 1982.

Wow.

When he was talking about the prospects for black politicians getting white voters and black voters to join behind them.
I’d like to show you and get your reaction to it.

Mm.
Amazing.
I mean, amazing.
I mean, Reverend Jackson believed that.
I still believe that.
I believe that we have to look at people based on their character and their peculiar gifts.
But think about what Reverend Jackson did not only in talking to Mr. Buckley but also what he did in American politics.
He transformed American politics.
He built the Rainbow Coalition.
He encouraged millions of Americans to register and vote.
And if you go from Jackson ’84 to Jackson ’88 and then 2008, the election of our first African-American president — actually Barack Obama is biracial — but Jesse Jackson opened so many doors because he gave people a seat at the table.

And what was the phrase?
The phrase is, ‘You open the door and leave it open.’

That’s right.
When you swing that door open, you leave it open, and that is something that I believe we all now have the challenge of ensuring that that door never closes.
We cannot close it to women, to people of color, to people who are openly gay.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
We are America, and America is an idea, and that idea is about giving every citizen the right to control his or her own life.

One of the other legacies of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign and 1988 campaign, you mentioned changes on the rules committee.

Yes.

And that if changes on the rules committee hadn’t happened, it wouldn’t have gotten rid of winner take all, which would not have led to Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008, so there is even a direct line.

Barack Obama was an outsider.
He was not a Democratic Party insider.
Hillary Clinton had the inside track to the nomination.
But what he was able to do, like Reverend Jackson, was to expand the electorate, to bring new energy into the party, and to encourage young people to vote.
He mobilized people that we had never witnessed in the American political process.
But like Reverend Jackson, he was a game changer, and the rules that we transformed under Jesse Jackson’s leadership enabled not just Barack Obama to succeed but also Hillary Clinton because we made proportional representation.
We have equal division between men and women, and we ensure that every state that hold caucuses or primary that they’re open to new people and that people, like Bernie Sanders, can come in and find their seats at the table.

Moving forward, I think some of the things that are most instructive about your tenure in 2016 in the Democratic National Committee’s leadership structure, for that brief tenure, is what we’ve learned about it and how the Democratic Party and frankly the country is gonna move forward into 2020 with the lessons from 2016, and for you, what became very clear in reading your book ‘Hacks’ and also reading ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics’ is how severely shaken you were when you walked in the door and realized how compromised the party’s systems were to foreign entities and cybersecurity threats.

I was not familiar with the depth of the intrusion.
I knew that we had been hacked.
And being hacked, I thought, ‘Well, they’ve compromised our server, our e-mail server.’
I had no idea that when they first went in, it was to create false impressions, to steal our research data, and they stole all the material on Trump.
As you recall, there were several Republican candidates.
The only candidate they were interested in was Donald Trump.
We felt as though that they were looking into our voter data, our profiles of voters.
We also believed that they were looking into our state systems.
And so we were very concerned, but I had no idea the depth of the intrusion until I was briefed by federal officials, including the FBI, who was investigating this.

Is everything you know now now public information, or do you still have classified intelligence?

There is still stuff that I believe will come out eventually when Special Counsel Mueller has completed his investigation.
I’m pleased that the American people are learning that this was a serious attack on our country.
This impacted us.
This impacted not just the Democratic Party.
It impacted Hillary Clinton, of course, but it impacted the country.
We should have an election that is free of foreign interference and foreign meddling, and, yes, to weaponize e-mails and to corrupt our data system, to try to hijack our election machinery in various states, this should be a crime, and we should not allow it.

Well, and the mechanics of the Democratic Party functioning.
I mean, at the very minimum, it crippled your ability, as you detail, to just do your job on election day and in the weeks leading into the election.

Well, we didn’t know if the data was accurate.
I mean, how do you know?
I mean, Margaret Hoover is the Margaret Hoover — and you’re not a Democrat —
So I wouldn’t be in this system, but they might have done that to you.

No, but you are in our system because we have a database of all registered voters, and yet we communicate with those who have a preference of being a Democrat, but when that data is compromised and we cannot connect with you because you’ve disappeared from the rolls, if you disappeared from our data, and perhaps they take you out of context.
You used to be a 3, which is a Republican, and now you’re a 1 or a 2.
What happened to the 3?
So we didn’t know.
So what we had to do was basically work as if we were blind.
We had no idea.

So, has this been solved?

Yes.
We took steps to not only clean up our database, strengthen it to protect it in the future, but more importantly, we have to take steps as a country.
We have to take steps as Americans to protect the integrity of our election systems, and that can only be done at the state and local level because most of our elections — the decentralized form of government means that we have to do this at the state and local level.
And by the way, during this time, I communicated with my counterpart at the Republican National Committee because if both parties were under attack, then we have no database of our entire electorate.
That is dangerous.
And so I communicated with the Republicans to take steps to protect their infrastructure because if both of us went down, then our country — I’m an American.
And for me, I wanted my country to be protected, not just my party.

Do you have any doubt that there was somebody within the Trump campaign operation, whether it was a campaign or someone who’s in touch with their campaign, that had some sense or knowledge of the DNC hackings?

I believe, at the end of the day, that someone had to have known about the daily drip, drip, drip of e-mails and how they were weaponized.
It’s one thing to steal data and steal information, but to use it in terms of making it a political narrative, it was the story of the day.
It became the tweet of the day.

Well, and the timing was the thing that always was suspicious, right?
As soon as the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape came out for Donald Trump, then there —
October 7, 2016.
I’ll never forget that as long as I live because at 3:00 in the afternoon, I was finally relieved that the American people would understand that the Russians had attacked us because prior to that everybody called us liars.
I mean, I was — I had no credibility because how do you prove it?
I couldn’t prove it.
I could not defend myself, nor could I defend my party.
And so you have to accept the fact that, you know, with patience the truth will come out.
I was so gratified, and then we had the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, Donald Trump, it’s over.’
And then Podesta.
Of the three major stories that day, which one had legs?
The Podesta e-mails.
The Podesta e-mails became the story that basically shaped the narrative until Director Comey came out on 10/28.
So 10/7 to 10/28, 21 days, throughout the debate season, throughout that entire period, that shaped the political narrative, and if you look at the polls, Hillary’s numbers kept dropping and dropping and dropping, and finally at that last debate and then Comey, Donald Trump.
I referred to it in my book as the day that we got hit by an 18-wheeler.

There are a couple of things that have come out of 2016 as well.
A change in the rules for superdelegates.

Yes.

You’ve been a superdelegate for a long time.

I still am.

Now, in 2020, superdelegates will not be able to vote in the first round of voting in the convention when nominating the Democratic Party nominee.
How will this affect the caliber or the kind of nominee the Democratic Party will put forward to beat Donald Trump?

I am still opposed.
I would have eliminated superdelegates as a category of delegates versus removing the right to vote.
The right to vote is sacred in my judgment.
Superdelegates get one vote like regular delegates.
We are a minority of delegates.
A majority of delegates are pledged delegates.
But we removed the right to vote in order to help unify and reform the party.
My governor in Louisiana, my mayor in Washington, D.C., will not have the vote on the first ballot.
So if the party nominates someone without that support, what I’m fearful of is that they will not have the kind of political leadership they need in those states in order to win in a general election.
I believe it was a bad move, but we’ll relitigate that at another point.

Do you think, in the context of the struggle or the tension between mainstream Democrats and progressive Democrats that this could lead to the nomination of a candidate that is wildly popular within the progressive base of the Democratic Party but sadly unelectable in a general election?

The majority of delegates will come from states, large and small, that are very diverse, and I do believe that the party nominee will be someone within the mainstream of the party.
There’s no way the Democratic Party is going to transform into a Republican Party where a total disrupter comes into the process and take over the party.
We have, within the Democratic Party, I think, the kind of electorate that will prevent that from happening.

This was maybe the first presidential election cycle, 2016, where both parties considered replacing their nominee at one point.

Yes.

And you went through every permutation in case Hillary Clinton was not going to be well enough to serve as the nominee, and your perfect combination was Biden-Booker.
Vice President Biden and Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey.
What is your top pick or who is the candidate, looking forward to 2020 in your mind, that will be able to mobilize the coalition?

Well, first of all, I’m elected about the 2020 prospects.
We have a great bench.
But what really excites me is the fact that we have so much young blood, young talent within the Democratic Party.
I want to make sure that we have an open process, that we can get the kind of leadership within the party that can not just unite the Democratic Party but also unite the country, so before we get to a person, I think we have to figure out our mission.

As you went the day after the election to teach your Georgetown students, you tell a story about how one of the things you learned from them, the day after the election, was that they disliked the identity politics that they heard from the Democratic Party.
You wrote, ‘They thought that Hillary spent too much time trying to appeal to people based on their race or their gender or their sexual orientation and not enough time appealing to people based on what really worried them, like issues like income inequality and climate change.’
And so, I wonder if your sense, because identity politics can be a, um, controversial frame, a double-edged sword.
But is it something that risks tearing the party apart and the country apart when pursued that way by focusing more on what’s different about people than what we have in common?

You know, Barack Obama rode into the White House on a wave of hope and change.
People believed in that message.
We need to ensure that we have a candidate who can ride in a wave of hope and optimism.
They don’t want — I think, because of the divisions that we’re seeing and that the president has exploited, they really want to find a leader that lifts up the country, lift up what America means and the values of our society as opposed to ‘You’re this but you’re not that.’
I think we’re beyond that, but we’re gonna have to litigate that also as Democrats pursue the White House in 2020.

One other lesson the Democrats, it seems to me, are struggling with to learn from 2016 to move forward to 2020 is how do win back the white working class voter, and that voter is best embodied and reached, in my view, on the Democratic side by Bill Clinton.
I mean, Bill Clinton won Macomb County.
Bill Clinton was secretary of explaining things.

Mm-hmm.

Should the Democratic Party be benching Bill Clinton?

Bill Clinton is still a very strong leader within the party, but we just need to ensure that our candidates are able to talk to all voters across every economic spectrum and not just limit the conversation to a handful of people.

So is that a yes?

I think Bill Clinton will continue to be a voice of reason within the Democratic Party.

But he’s not gonna be leading the charge.

You know what?
The good news is that there are so many wonderful candidates out there who, in addition to being like Bill Clinton in terms of messaging, they are strong enough to carry their states and to help carry the party into the future.

Is he too compromised because of his past with women?

I’m not going to run the Democratic Party, but I’ll tell you, every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama to Bill Clinton, they’re an asset to the Democratic Party, and they are an asset to our great country.

So, you’re a consultant.
If you were hired to come consult Republican candidates or if Republicans really wanted to know in this age of Trump, it seems only 10% of the vote, African-American vote goes to Republicans, and it’s not hard to understand why, certainly from my perspective.
What would be your advice to Republicans in terms of really reaching out in an authentic way to earn African-American votes?
And one election and one race comes to mind in 2018, which was Larry Hogan in Maryland, governor, who was re-elected, who was re-elected, doubled his support in the African-American community at 30%, which is really unprecedented for a Republican candidate.
And he was running against an African-American candidate, Ben Jealous, who had been the head of the NAACP.

That’s right.

So what is he doing right that other Republicans should mimic?

He recognized and respected the leadership of African-American leaders in his state, the African-American community.
I heard time and time again, because I live within the Beltway, that he responded to their needs, whether it was transportation, education, creating small businesses.
Larry Hogan is seen as a hands-on governor that serves everybody.
The majority of African-American seniors consider themselves conservative.
There is a base within the African-American community that Republicans can appeal to, but you cannot appeal to them by looking back.
You got to look forward.
They want to hear about education.
They want to hear about opportunities.
They want to live in a society where they are no longer judged by the color of their skin.
If you can run as a compassionate conservative — It’s not the conservatism that scares African-Americans.
It’s the lack of compassion and empathy that scares African-Americans.

Donna Brazile, your journey in politics is also tracked with a really important time in American history, and you’re a role model for many women and for many of us in politics.
Thank you for being on ‘Firing Line.’

It’s always great to see you, Margaret, and thank you.
Wonderful work.

Thank you.

Thank you.