PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic convention had all of the earmarks of a Russian spy novel as it started here on Monday.
Democrats, who are on hand to unite their party behind presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, spent part of today trying to get back on message after the head of the Democratic National Committee said she would step down in the wake of an e-mail scandal that reportedly could be tied to the Russians.
The controversy, strangely mirroring an albeit different controversial path that the Republican convention took just a week earlier in Cleveland, centered around e-mails published by WikiLeaks over the weekend that are being tied to Russian state actors, forcing DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to retire.
Her resignation, slated for the end of the convention this week, came after hackers leaked reams of e-mails showing the DNC’s bias toward Clinton during the primaries and against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Clinton campaign and DNC officials worked hard at a press briefing Monday morning to redirect the messaging back to the first day of speeches, which will include Sanders as “the closer,” and heavyweight Democrats including First Lady Michelle Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) will also be featured speakers tonight.
But the re-messaging proved difficult as the officials were peppered with questions about the allegations of Russian leaks with sinister motives to help Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as well as their decision to let Wasserman Schultz gavel in the convention tonight.
“What the experts are saying and what the experts said when this breach initially happened at the DNC was that they believe it was Russian state actors who took these e-mails,” said Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary for America. “Further experts are saying that…the Russian state actors were feeding the e-mails to hackers for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.”
The FBI is now reportedly investigating the hacking and leak of the e-mails.
“The theme of the first day of the convention is to kick off broader themes for this week and that is that Secretary Clinton has spent her entire life fighting for kids and families, fighting to provide opportunities to those that are given the least and fighting to break down barriers to those opportunities,” said Mook. “What we are going to focus on tonight in part is to show how we are going to get this economy working for everyone, not just those at the top. We are going to have some of the brightest stars in the Democratic party speak tonight.”
Mook said the speakers will focus on Clinton’s motivation to fight for others and the “unique qualities” she has to “bring our country together.”
The First Lady will speak about the challenges facing families today and the “type of leadership it will take in the White House to put families first,” Mook said.
He said Warren will “talk about the clear choice between Secretary Clinton fighting for working class families, fighting to get the economy working for everyone and Donald Trump who has spent his entire career making himself wealthier and more famous at the expense of others.”
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, outlined the plan to unite the party. He said the campaign will “hit the ground running” after the convention where Clinton and her vice presidential pick Tim Kaine will hold an event and then go on the road on a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio — to “go after rural, working-class voters who we know are disaffected by the state of the economy that Donald Trump is targeting,” he said. “We are convinced that we have plans to actually speak to the lingering economic anxieties that voters face.”
The shake-up at the DNC on the eve of the convention in the City of Brotherly Love could either prove to be a minor distraction or a full-blown scandal that overshadows Clinton’s theme and effort to unify the party.
“The e-mail scandal and the DWS resignation threaten to completely disrupt Clinton’s convention week,” pronounced David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation. “This election has stirred up deep resentments among Sanders and Trump voters who feel that the system is rigged, and the e-mail leaks play right into that very challenging narrative for Secretary Clinton. She can neutralize the scandal with a strong show of unity from across the Democratic spectrum, and I will be surprised if her fellow Democrats don’t close ranks very quickly around her.”
Marick Masters, a business professor and director of labor at Wayne State University, said: “The announcement of the resignation of the DNC chair is a distraction. The DNC chair is really inside-the-Beltway politics. The replacement will make everyone forget about it in no time. Clinton needs to emphasize that the party needs to move on and focus on the real contest in November.
“To unify the party, Hilary Clinton needs to underscore Trumpism. Paint a picture of stark contrast, just as Lyndon Johnson did in 1964,” Master said. “I recall that when Goldwater supporters said that, ‘in your heart you know he’s right,’ the Democratic retort was, ‘In your guts you know he’s nuts.’ It cut to the chase, which is what Democrats need to do with sharp phraseology. “
Phillip Swagel, a professor of international economic policy at the University of Maryland, used a basketball metaphor to describe the state of the presidential race and the conventions.
“This has been an election of missed layups. Republicans had a large field of talented candidates, and selected the one less popular in the general election than Hillary Clinton — missing a layup to win the White House,” Swagel said. “After the shambles of the Republican gathering in Cleveland, Democrats have now missed their own layup at running their effective convention. But the Democrats can still take solace that they will have other chances this week: if they get their acts together and merely demonstrate competence and a shared purpose in opposition to Trump, that will be enough for a successful convention and a bounce that likely will keep Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump in the key states of Florida, Michigan and Ohio — all must-wins for Trump.
“Clinton is still favored by far. But she and her colleagues are making this much more difficult (and perhaps interesting) than it needs to be,” Swagel added.
The media had a big story to chew on leading up to the Democratic convention. The e-mails fed into suspicions that the chairwoman tipped the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Wasserman Schultz plans to open the convention at 4 p.m., which will likely be contentious. On Monday morning, she gave remarks at a breakfast before the Florida delegation. Wasserman Schultz, who is a U.S. representative of Florida’s 23rd congressional district, was booed off the stage during her five-minute remarks.
Pundits and journalists mulled on what may happen should she indeed take the stage later today.
“Instead of getting on the stage, she should get on a plane to Miami,” said CNN commentator Paul Begalia, who also runs a Hillary Clinton Super PAC.
“This is an ugly political scandal,” said MSNB’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski, who had been calling for Wasserman Schultz to step down throughout the Democratic primary.
“It didn’t feel like a fair, impartial process,” she said, of the primary process.
In the leaked e-mails, Wasserman Schultz e-mailed NBC, parent company of MSNBC, calling for Brzezinski to “apologize” for her statements about the process.
Surrogates for the DNC even e-mailed Chuck Todd, Brzezinski’s colleague at NBC, asking him to make Brzezinski and her “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough “stop” calling for the chairwoman to resign.
Now with more hard evidence that Wasserman Schultz did lean toward Clinton, pundits made the case that the scandal is overshadowing Clinton’s big moment, and further harming the party, which had appeared to be on the path to unity after Sanders endorsed his former competitor.
A somewhat similar scenario played out last week in Cleveland when Sen. Ted Cruz spoke at the Republican convention, but declined to endorse his former rival Trump. Cruz was booed and he slunk off the stage when Trump made a cameo to sit with his family. Cruz later defended his decision not to support Trump, telling Republicans to “vote your conscience.”
“[If Wasserman Schultz opens the DNC], you’re going to make Ted Cruz look like Miss Congeniality,” said Scarborough, who asked why the chairwoman doesn’t go away.
“Why?” replied Bloomberg Politics co-managing editor John Heilemann. “Money, money. Money. She’s raised a lot of money for the DNC.”