If the DNC helped nominate Trump

Leaked email suggests that the Clinton campaign and DNC elevated Trump during the primaries. Good strategy or dangerous gamble?

A document recently released by WikiLeaks, if genuine, shows that the Clinton campaign and possibly the Democratic National Committee (DNC) intended to elevate the most conservative positions and candidates of the GOP. The main revelations are found in a PDF memo attached to an email from Marissa Astor, Clinton surrogate and former assistant to campaign manager Robby Mook, addressed to both the DNC and John Podesta, Clinton campaign chair, sent on April 23 2015. The memo identifies Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson specifically as “Pied Piper” candidates. It states:

“We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to them seriously … [and] … force all Republican candidates to lock themselves into extreme conservative positions that will hurt them in a general election.”
The first page of the two-page memo. Credit WikiLeaks.

None of this is illegal, new, or surprising. It’s even good strategy. But what will the long term consequences of this kind of politics be? What does it say about the Clinton campaign and DNC if they have indeed worked to promote the weakest and most extreme candidates?

Is this even real?

The DNC has not denied or confirmed this leak. While every unverified leak should be met with healthy skepticism, WikiLeaks has broken a lot of credible stories. Prior leaks of DNC communications has led to the resignation of multiple senior members of the DNC including party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The story also pairs nicely with the phone conversation between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump a month after this email in which Clinton encouraged Trump to run for office, though none of this constitutes proof of this specific document.

Newlyweds Donald Trump Sr. and Melania Trump with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at their reception held at The Mar-a-Lago Club in January 22, 2005 in Palm Beach, Fla. (Maring Photography/Getty Images/Contour by Getty Images)

The rest of this article will be written from a perspective that assumes the leak is reliable on the basis that the allegations are highly plausible both for simplicity (rather than including constant qualifiers and disclaimers), and for the purpose of discussing the campaign strategy, which is not unique to this election.

It’s just politics.

As acknowledged, this is not a new strategy. But it’s not new in the same way cronyism, corporate money, lying, and all other variety of unsavory political reality aren’t new. Most of us accept that corruption is commonplace and likely impossible to get rid of completely. And we support candidates, political parties, and policies knowing that they’re likely not untouched by corruption.

Values only exist as far as our commitment to them.

But the situation qualitatively changes when illicit behavior is publicly discovered. Because how we respond in the presence of these kinds of revelations, especially within our own ranks, defines our values. When a politician is caught lying, one can respond by holding them accountable, or with a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive declaration that, “It’s not like that’s illegal, and all politicians lie!”

How one chooses to feel and respond to such a situation demonstrates the degree to which they value honesty in a politician, and turning a blind eye to dishonesty doesn’t just normalize it, it shows that it’s accepted. To defend on the grounds that the GOP likely does it too is suggesting that the GOP should be our moral barometer, something the Democrats disagree with almost by definition. Values only exist as far as our commitment to them. We both can and should acknowledge that dirty political tactics are common, and that we should disapprove when we catch it.

What if you lose?

The most obvious problem with elevating weak and extreme candidates of the opposing party is the possibility that the candidate will both secure the nomination and then win the general election. The Clinton campaign has already accomplished the first step and helped Donald Trump secure the GOP nomination. And while Clinton is widely projected to win this election, it was just over a month ago, Sept. 17, that Clinton was up by less than a point according to the Real Clear Politics poll aggregator. Elevating a candidate like Trump in hopes of securing a Clinton victory is gambling with potentially nuclear stakes. This is no sporting event. Given how commonly politicians and their institutions miscalculate, there’s no reason for anyone to simply trust that the strategy would not backfire. If Donald Trump wins the general election, the Clinton campaign will be at least partially responsible.

It’s okay as long as it works!

Even a successful execution of this strategy has unacceptable consequences in both the short and long term. The first is that by promoting the weakest candidates and forcing them to lock in their most extreme positions, the Clinton campaign is strengthening the very policies they allegedly oppose the most. We elect them not just because we want them to win elections, but because we hope that they will fight against misogyny, xenophobia, and neofascism. Making tangible progress on such polarizing issues is difficult, and gaining enough of a consensus to actually pass policy to solve them is next to impossible as long as gasoline is being poured onto the fire. Even if Trump loses the general election, his movement is likely going to stick around. So-called deplorable demographics of voters that have had no political power for decades have found a leader in Donald Trump and made their home in the GOP. Clinton may win the election, but it will be a hollow victory if she’s unable to govern.

If the DNC wants to proclaim that it wants what’s best for all Americans, then it needs to act like it.

Regardless, the tactic would still be dishonest and counter to most voters’ interest. Elections are supposed to be a process by which political parties nominate their best and then have them pitch their vision of the future to the country. We already live in a country where voters are only given two feasible candidates for president. But by elevating Trump, a candidate completely incapable of challenging her policy and track record, the Clinton campaign will have done its best to reduce that number down to one, dealing a blow to political discourse.

In addition to helping the GOP nominate the worst presidential candidate of all time, Clinton surrogates have not forgotten to remind Democrats that they should not vote third party. Their argument for why? Because Trump is so dangerous it is irresponsible to vote for anyone other than Clinton. Reasoning that rings sincere from the individuals, but a muddied message from the party that elevated him and his worst policies. If the DNC wants to proclaim that it wants what’s best for all Americans, then it needs to act like it. In the most charitable light, this is still a bullying and fear mongering campaign against the Democrats’ own voters.

Conclusion

Political polarization combined with a lack of trust in the government and our elected leaders is a serious problem. Not only does it drive down civic participation, but it fuels the right-wing narrative that the federal government should be trusted with as little involvement in our lives as possible. If both parties resort to dirty tactics like those described in this document, then we will consistently be asked to choose between the two weakest and most extreme candidates. Rebuilding trust and bipartisanship will take time and leadership, but saying no to this kind of zero sum game might be an acceptable start. Remember, when they go low we go high.