There hasn’t been a national political chair as controversial as Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz since, well, Michael Steele. He was the gaffe-prone chair of the Republican National Committee until earlier this year, selected by a party that was spooked by Barack Obama’s victory into thinking it had to embrace diversity at any cost.
Wasserman Schultz’s selection in May is also a sign of a troubled party. The White House has had to endure flak from party liberals over issues ranging from the troop surge in Afghanistan and the failure to close Guantanamo to giving ground on tax cuts. In addition, recent surveys show Jewish Americans increasingly view the Obama administration as hostile to or at best ambivalent toward Israel. “Weak Jewish support could significantly narrow Mr. Obama’s margins in states like Florida, while a disappointed left could deprive him of the volunteers so critical to his success in 2008,” says Karl Rove, the strategist behind both of George W. Bush’s presidential victories.
Wasserman Schultz, a cheerleading liberal congresswoman with a 100 percent voting record from Americans for Democratic Action, and a habitué of the Jewish condo belt in South Florida, is transparently an attempt to appease those groups. While she can be a robotically effective transmitter of a liberal message on cable TV and is a decent fundraiser, her penchant for verbal gaffes and stilted talking points clearly would not put her on anyone’s short lists of political geniuses. She is not the late Lee Atwater or Ron Brown, two skilled pols who helped guide George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton to national office and were ruthlessly effective national committee chairs.
By contrast, Wasserman Schultz does her party no favors with over-the-top rhetorical sallies that marginalize her as a mindless ideological cheerleader. She had been chair only a few days before she proceeded to launch a machine-gun–like stream of invective against Republicans. Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare “would literally be a deathtrap for some seniors” and would “throw younger workers to the wolves.” The website Politifact.com branded her as “Loser of the Week” for that overkill.
A short time later she decided to put a Baghdad Bob best face on the economy, just days before unemployment increased to 9.2 percent a full two years after the 2008–09 recession had ended.
“We own the economy,” she proudly told reporters in June. “We own the beginning of the turnaround and we want to make sure we continue that pace of recovery.” The New York Post compared her remarks to someone taking custody of a shipwreck. “If this is a ‘turnaround,’ what would a quagmire look like?” the paper wondered.
Then she decided to tout the Obama administration’s record in bailing out the auto industry. If General Motors had not been transformed into something akin to Government Motors over the opposition of Grinch-like Republicans, she was convinced “we would all be driving foreign cars.” Alert GOP opposition researchers soon found that the primary vehicle registered to Wasserman Schultz at her Florida home was an Infiniti, a Japanese luxury sedan. Unfazed, she accused Republicans of distracting from the real issues by inconveniently bringing up her inconvenient choice of car.
BUT ALL OF THOSE verbal artillery shells were small-bore stuff compared to her attack on Republican efforts to combat voter fraud by requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls — a position backed by 80 percent of Americans, including two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics.
Once again, Wasserman Schultz couldn’t be troubled with the facts. “The Republicans…want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates,” she told a television interviewer in June. That whopper prompted Politifact to brand her statement as “false,” upon which she engaged in a modified, limited retreat. “Jim Crow was the wrong analogy to use,” she conceded while still claiming that photo ID laws would restrict the right of minorities to vote.
But that stance became laughable just a few days later. In early July, Rhode Island’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislature (Republicans are outnumbered at least 3 to 1 in both houses) passed a bill mandating that state residents show identification when they vote. It was signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent who won in 2010 on the strength of liberal votes. Chafee issued a statement saying the ID requirement would ensure the “accuracy and integrity” of state and local elections. He went on to say that concerns about ballot integrity had been brought to him by the state’s “minority communities” and their stories of ballot shenanigans were “particularly compelling.”
Indeed, a key supporter of the legislation in the state house was none other than Speaker Gordon Fox, the first African American to head that chamber in Rhode Island history. In the state senate the chief sponsor was Harold Metts, that body’s only African American. “As a minority citizen and a senior citizen I would not support anything that I thought would present obstacles or limit protections,” Metts said in a statement. “Voting should be at least as secure as everyday tasks as renting a car or getting a library card that routinely require IDs. Asking for an ID protects the rights of every voter.”
The reaction of national Democrats to Rhode Island’s move was conspicuous silence. That disappointed Ralph Mollis, the state’s Democratic secretary of state, who told the news service Stateline that “my job is to maintain the integrity of elections. I would love to see the Democratic base nationally embrace something like this.”
He was echoed by state representative Jon Brien, a key sponsor of the photo ID bill, who says he was pressured by the Democratic Party not to put forward his bill. “I think that party leaders have tried to make this a Republican versus Democrat issue. It’s not. It’s simply a good government issue.”
Wasserman Schultz is one of those Democrats who never sees a red-meat partisan attack point she can resist chewing on and regurgitating. “Debbie Gets It Done” was the rallying cry of her supporters in the run-up to her election as DNC chair. On the evidence of her first couple months in office, a more accurate slogan would be “Debbie Gets It All Wrong.” It’s no wonder that Reince Priebus, her counterpart at the Republican National Committee, has launched a recurring “DWS Outrageous Fact Sheet.” For Republicans who are recovering from the embarrassment of Michael Steele, Barack Obama’s handpicked DNC chair is a welcome gift from the political heavens.