Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t get it

The New York Times published an interview between Ana Marie Cox and Debbie Wasserman Schultz yesterday, and the DNC chair’s answers were wild from start to finish. From declining to explain why the Democratic Party temporarily cut off Bernie Sanders’s campaign’s access to the party’s voter activation network (VAN) — which isn’t actually that difficult of a question to answer — to blaming young women’s “complacency” for their lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton to a positively backwards defense of her opposition to legalizing marijuana, practically every one of her answers was problematic in some way or another, and didn’t do anything to stave off the mounting pressure from progressive groups that are calling for her resignation.

Let’s break a few of these answers down:

AMC: After the Bernie Sanders campaign improperly accessed voter data, the Democratic National Committee was swift with its punishment, suspending his campaign from having access to the database. How did you come up with that sanction?

DWS: Quite honestly, we are putting this behind us. The American people deserve an intelligent debate, and this isn’t one.

There are two ways to put an issue to bed: Refuse to answer questions and hope people stop asking, or give a good enough answer that no followup is needed. As I’ve written before, given the extent to which Bernie Sanders’s campaign acted inappropriately in taking advantage of NGP VAN’s data breach, temporarily suspending the campaign’s access until the issue was resolved seemed like a standard and reasonable procedure. That’s all she has to say, but her refusal to address the issue at all gives the impression that there’s more being left out. It makes me — someone who’s actually on her side of that particular debate — scratch my head and wonder why she’s being so cagey.

AMC: Do you notice a difference between young women and women our age in their excitement about Hillary Clinton? Is there a generational divide?

DWS: Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.

This was the answer that really got her in trouble with the progressive community yesterday, and it’s hard not to see why. Yes, there is a generational divide in excitement about Hillary Clinton, but it’s a generational divide that cuts across genders. Young men and young women are about equally likely to support Bernie Sanders, and Wasserman Schultz seems to be implying that this shouldn’t be the case. She seems frustrated with young women who just don’t get that they’re supposed to support a female candidate because they weren’t on the front lines of the feminist battles of past decades.

There are a number of problems with this, but the most glaring one is that young women today (and men, for that matter) are on the front lines of new, arguably more progressive feminist battles than the ones Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz are used to. To be clear, that’s the result of past struggles and incremental victories, but it doesn’t change the fact that progressive social policy in 2015 is to the left of what counted as progressive social policy in 1994. Young progressives today don’t see why they should be expected to add “and rare” to assertions that abortion should be safe and legal, especially since doing so perpetuates harmful stigmas and undermines the concept of reproductive choice. They’re troubled by Hillary Clinton’s support of her husband’s efforts to dismantle welfare programs and benefits for teachers — both in Arkansas and nationally — that have made life measurably worse for women. They’re not at all on board with Clinton’s work as Secretary of State that made life positively horrific for women abroad. They are willing to put aside what representational gains would come with electing a female president in favor of the much larger material gains offered by the more progressive candidate in the Democratic field.

That’s the opposite of complacent. That’s engaged.

AMC: You’re one of a dwindling number of progressive politicians who oppose legalization of even the medical use of marijuana. Where does that come from?

DWS: I don’t oppose the use of medical marijuana. I just don’t think we should legalize more mind-altering substances if we want to make it less likely that people travel down the path toward using drugs. We have had a resurgence of drug use instead of a decline. There is a huge heroin epidemic.

AMC: Heroin addiction often starts with prescribed painkillers. Pill mills were a problem in Florida, but the state didn’t make prescribing opiates illegal.

DWS: There is a difference between opiates and marijuana.

The single most common “gateway” substance known to man is alcohol. As Zaid Jilani of The Intercept pointed out yesterday, Debbie Wasserman Schultz counts the alcohol industry as one of her biggest sources of campaign contributions. If you’re looking for a reason as to why she would repeat the tired, discredited idea that marijuana is a uniquely dangerous precursor to more harmful, addictive drugs (there is indeed a difference between opiates and marijuana), there’s your answer.

AMC: Still, your opinion on this does seem like an outlier.

DWS: It’s perfectly O.K. to not be completely predictable. I am a person, and I have individual opinions that may not line up ideologically. They’re formed by my personal experience both as a mom and as someone who grew up really bothered by the drug culture that surrounded my childhood — not mine personally. I grew up in suburbia.

Among a long list of bad answers, this one is, I think, the worst. Debbie Wasserman Schultz opposes legal marijuana because she’s always associated it with bad people in bad neighborhoods from which her family intentionally isolated themselves. She didn’t have any actual experience with the drug culture in those, you know, urban neighborhoods…she just knows it was bad. And the people in those urban neighborhoods deserve to be punished. So there’s no reason to curtail or otherwise change one of the single most racist public policy initiatives our government continues to engage in.

A majority of US citizens, and an even stronger majority of Democrats, support marijuana legalization. For the leader of the Democratic Party to make old, discredited, backward, privileged and borderline racist arguments against legalization is a huge issue for her. At best.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, via Wikimedia Commons

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, via Wikimedia Commons

AMC: Are there any other positions that you have that might surprise people?

DWS: My criminal-justice record is perhaps not as progressive as some of my fellow progressives’.

AMC: It sounds as if these are things that come from a personal place for you.

DWS: I guess I’m protective. Safety has been my top legislative priority. I’m driven by the idea that safety is really a core function of government.

AMC: Conservatives hate that framing of the relationship between citizens and government.

DWS: I don’t think we should just let things happen to people and let them be stupid and the victims of the consequences of their actions. I think we can put enough obstacles in the path of poor decision-making.

At this point, Wasserman Schultz needs to stop calling herself a progressive and just stick with calling herself a Democrat. Politicians who say that safety is their stop legislative priority have, with few if any exceptions, been willing to sacrifice and sell out civil liberties and economic freedoms — true progressive principles — for the sake of arcane, reactionary initiatives like the War on Drugs.

A lot of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s politics would have played well in 1994, but 20 years later, they are fundamentally out of step with where her party currently is and where it’s headed. If she isn’t ready to lead a truly progressive party — if she’s content with being “not as progressive as some of her fellow progressives” — then perhaps it really is time for her to step aside and let someone else take the reins.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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