Democratic Convention to Start Under Cloud of Scandal and Beheading at the Top

New email brouhaha threatens to spoil efforts to contrast Democratic unity under Clinton with GOP discord under Trump; Debbie Wasserman Schultz pays the price.

God or Vladimir Putin, or both, must have it in for Hillary Clinton. As if she didn’t have enough problems with one email scandal, which seriously hurt her image, she now has to deal with a second email brouhaha that is casting a long and dark shadow over the opening of the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to take place in Philadelphia on Monday. The celebration that was supposed to showcase a party reunited after its grueling primary season will apparently be slightly less festive and slightly more on edge than originally planned. Party Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz is already paying the price, announcing on Sunday afternoon that she will resign following the convention.

The convention will gather at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, which also serves the city’s basketball and hockey teams. As in Cleveland, about 50,000 delegates are slated to descend on the City of Brotherly Love, while the number of party delegates will be double: 4,483 Democrats compared to 2,470 Republicans. And while the GOP convention was remarkably quiet given the divisive nature of Donald Trump’s candidacy, its Democratic counterpart could turn out to be unusually raucous, despite the consensual support that is now backing Clinton as a result of the fears and anxieties generated by the Trump candidacy.

The newest storm began with the weekend release of over 20,000 emails from the computers of the Democratic National Committee and published by Wikileaks. A few of the leaked emails seemed to confirm complaints made by Bernie Sanders throughout the primary season of DNC's collusion against him. In one email, a party functionary suggests highlighting the fact that Sanders is an atheist rather than a practicing Jew, a trait that will not go over well with his Southern Baptist friends. In other cables, Wasserman Schultz appears to be using DNC resources to plot her upcoming campaign against her Republican competitor in Florida’s 23rd Congressional district.

Wasserman Schultz’s prospects for reelection, already dimmed because of backlash to her support for the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her opposition to the legalization of marijuana, which is backed by one of her main donors, will diminish even further. Clinton and her aides preferred to express public discontent with Wasserman Schultz over alleged DNC misconduct rather than back her up and risk Sanders’ continued wrath.

A supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders holds up a sign call calling for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to be fired, July 24, 2016, in Philadelphia.
Alex Brandon, AP

Wasserman Schultz is a prominent Jewish member of Congress and, despite her support for the Iran deal, relatively hawkish on issues relating to Israel. She fell victim to the vendetta carried out by the militant right against supporters of the deal, to her increasingly strained relations with her DNC colleagues, to her tense relations with Sanders and his campaign staff and, apparently, to her own indiscretions as head of the DNC.

The new headlines generated by the leaked emails also cut short the brief honeymoon that Clinton enjoyed over what seemed to be the generally positive reaction to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine’s appointment as her vice presidential choice. The new allegations of an anti-Sanders DNC fix enraged Sanders supporters, already fuming over Kaine’s appointment because of his support for free trade, their cardinal sin. The emails reinforce their otherwise baseless belief that their hero Sanders was the victim of a party establishment conspiracy that robbed him of his supposed victory in the Democratic primaries.

The perfect timing of the Wikileaks publication provides impetus for Clinton supporters to develop their own conspiracy theory by which the whole operation was carried out by Russian hackers at Putin’s behest. The theory seemed to confirm growing allegations about the supposedly unkosher ties between Trump and the Russian leader, which include revelations that several pro-Putin billionaires have invested heavily in Trump enterprises and possibly saved them from bankruptcy. And then there is Trump’s own Rasputin-like campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was employed for many years by Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov but spent them advising and buttressing deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is seen as Putin’s puppet. In that sense, then, Trump is now dogged by the same kind of rumors that have engulfed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for many years.

The rekindling of tensions with Bernie supporters increases the risk of disturbances and demonstrations that could break out on the floor of Wells Fargo, which would be broadcast on live television. Although such concerns were even greater in advance of the GOP convention in Cleveland, the burden of historic trauma lay heavier on the Democrats: Many of them are old enough to remember Chicago 1968 and the violent riots in the street that paved the way for Richard Nixon to clinch the presidency by framing himself, as Trump has recently, as the law-and-order candidate.

Clinton could also suffer from a surfeit of stars. Unlike the GOP convention, which was absent its main actors — with the notable exception of Ted Cruz, who probably did more harm than good — the Democrats are not lacking in polished and popular speakers who may shine a positive light on their party but eclipse Clinton in the process. The list includes U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, in what could be framed as emotional farewells from the party that sent them to the White House, the always admired First Lady Michelle Obama, the often eloquent former president Bill Clinton as well as Sanders, whose words will be eagerly awaited and closely dissected. Even Kaine, who may not be the most charismatic of politicians, can look forward to a warm and enthusiastic reception as the new kid on the block, on whom a lot of unrealistic hopes are now riding as a game changer that could clinch Clinton’s victory.

Clinton will have to exert herself to tower above this Democrat dream team. She will try to stop the drop in her popularity and her standing in the polls, the products of the previous email scandal as well as the nonstop demonization being waged by Trump and his cohorts. She will have to convince Democratic delegates that she has the right stuff to overcome anti-hero Trump. If she flops on her acceptance speech on Thursday, she will enter the home stretch of the head-to-head presidential race with an unexpected disadvantage.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on the last day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21, 2016.
Jim Watson, AFP

In the end, despite their gallery of stars, it is Donald Trump who is taking center stage at the Democratic convention, just as he did at his own. His selection as GOP candidate has turned the 2016 election into a do-or-die confrontation, the likes of which have never been seen: Trump sparks enthusiasm among his supporters, resignation among Republicans who view him as the lesser evil and fear and loathing among everyone else, including the Democratic delegates coming to Philadelphia.

The Democrats will make an effort to present detailed programs and to proclaim lofty goals, but it is the fear of Trump that will drive their voters to the polls this year. Republicans didn’t make such effort and didn’t pretend to submit a coherent alternative to Clinton: they all know that it is their shared hatred for Clinton that unites their camp and gives them their only chance, crazy as it may sound, to get Trump elected.