Two events in the past week highlight the struggle our domestic politics is having with a vastly more challenging post 2016/Russia cyber and digital landscape.
First, driven by cybersecurity concerns, the DNC took the extraordinary step of recommending the elimination of a remote voting program in two early caucus states just months before voting begins. Then, a few days later, the campaign of Beto O’Rourke raised the alarm that even a well-run, modern Presidential campaign wasn’t capable of adequately responding to a targeted and aggressive misinformation campaign which falsely tied the former Congressman to a recent mass shooter.
As someone who has worked in national politics since before the advent of the Internet, I can tell you that those on the front lines of our politics today — the national party committees, candidates, and staff — are facing unprecedented challenges. Who before has had to worry about all elements of our system — from voting machines to one’s phone — getting hacked by hostile foreign powers? Or those same hostile foreign powers, or largely anonymous actors here in the US, spreading demonstrably false information with such speed and reach? The answer is no one. No one has had to face what those in US politics are facing this election cycle.
As hard as the environment is now, it has been made far worse by the President’s refusal to allow any kind of coherent response by the government or Congress to these new challenges; and of course, by the Republican Party’s institutional embrace of these illicit tactics in their own politics. It is not an overstatement to say that the campaigns and party committees, but particularly Democrats, are essentially on their own to manage this world. From a national security policy perspective, three years after Russia successfully attacked Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, it is just unbelievable that this is where American politics finds itself. But here we are.
From a practical standpoint, this means that the Chairs of the six national party committees have become front line actors in the battle to preserve our democracy. I don’t think they, or Congressional leaders overseeing our security, or officials at DHS/FBI, have really come to terms with just how central the party committees are now to the national security of the United States. It is likely to eventually lead to the formation of the “Big Six,” a grouping of the party chairs similar to the “Gang of Eight” who oversee sensitive security and intelligence matters for Congress. If established either formally or informally, the Big Six would meet regularly with the US government and Congress to keep lines of communication open and where possible, strategies aligned.
Far-fetched one might argue. But it isn’t practical for DHS and US intelligence agencies to ever work with hundreds of campaigns directly, many of whom don’t have IT staff let alone sophisticated cyber or disinformation staff. The government is going to need the efficiency and standardization that working with just six large entities brings. And similarly, Congress must not only conduct routine oversight of what the party committees are doing to protect our democracy, but should view the party committees and their leadership as vital partners in developing successful strategies to protect our democracy in the coming years. An early example of this kind of approach is a recent bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden to help make it easier for the party committees to pay for cybersecurity tools for campaigns and state parties. Endorsed by FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, the idea for this bill came directly out of the experience some of us had working on these issues at the DCCC in 2018. It is a great example of the kind of collaboration that needs to happen to make sure what we do is effective in the years ahead, not just well intentioned.
Of course the most significant culture change or re-imagination will have to come in the party committees themselves. They will have to come to understand themselves as cogs in our national security apparatus, not just organizations designed to win elections. This means huge changes in staffing, leadership, operations, and budgets. It should involve the hiring of a high-level, cybersecurity experienced Chief Security Officer with a security clearance at all six committees who reports directly to the Chair or executive director (the DNC has brought on the very able Bob Lord in such a position). It can also involve appointing Vice Chairs for Cybersecurity and Disinformation at the committees to institutionalize greater knowledge and experience. It will require setting up significant cybersecurity and countering disinformation teams to help train and equip the campaigns and state parties with the knowledge and tools to navigate this world, and to support them when issues arise. As Beto O’Rourke’s campaign manager has repeatedly said this week, it is unreasonable to believe that even a large Presidential campaign like theirs can handle this new world on their own — and she is right. The only place that can realistically be expected to help them and other campaigns manage all this is the DNC or its House and Senate counterparts.
My back of the envelope estimate is that this is all going to cost at least $60–75 million dollars every two years. As discussed earlier, there are real issues with current campaign finance law which will have to be addressed to allow all this to happen right. Some have even suggested having the US government provide grants to the committees to cover the costs given the importance of the work. It may be that given the crush of spending for campaigns this is really the only way to guarantee the party committees are able to afford what is required of them — but I realize this is not a simple matter.
Making all of this work in the months ahead will continue to require new, innovative, out of the box thinking and risk taking. We saw that with the DNC’s hard call to cancel the remote voting programs in Iowa and Nevada. Thinking about how to counter fast moving misinformation and disinformation campaigns, can the DNC and the other committees begin to think about connecting their “War Rooms” to their databases of supporters, and ask them to become digital disinformation fighters? Do we need to reimagine the War Room concept, one I helped develop 27 years ago, from young staff in a room to millions of people wired together each day correcting the record, and advancing the party’s agenda and candidates? I’m not sure of the right course here but yes what we are talking about at its core is the re-invention of American political parties themselves in the coming years to enable them to meet the challenges of this new political era.
Finally, it is my hope that all six party committees heed the call of European political leaders, Vice President Biden, and the 50 state Democratic parties and agree to forgo the use of the kind of illicit tactics we saw in 2016 in our politics going forward. It just cannot be that the use of fake accounts, altered video and audio, “deepfakes,” hacking, and other things not yet imagined become commonplace in our politics. It is my belief that we must take a firm stand, draw a clear line of right and wrong here, and as Democrats commit to not use these tactics against one another or Republicans next year. Given the Trump campaign’s and RNC’s early embrace of these tactics this cycle, it may be only Democrats who make this commitment, but to me that’s okay. It is a start, new norms, a smart response to a daunting new challenge.
Whatever the long term solution is to these new post 2016 digital challenges, there are thousands of candidates and staff who have to face them in this election, right now. The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties really have no choice but to step up and do all that they can to support their candidates and allies, giving them the very best set of tools and understandings to mitigate and counter the attacks to come. They are going to have to learn now to do new things, including working cooperatively with DHS/FBI and Congress. And for the rest of us, we too have to step up and do everything we can to support them in this vital task, and work to provide them with the resources and strategic counsel required for them to succeed. The health of our democracy demands no less.
Simon Rosenberg helped oversee an operation to counter disinformation at the DCCC in the 2018 election cycle. You can learn more about this work in this NBC News article, and in this Future State podcast with Richard Clarke.