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It’s time to pull your party together, Democrats

Updated: 
November 8, 2017 - 12:05am

As Democrats once again find themselves facing questions about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, raised this time by the party’s former interim chairman Donna Brazile, one stands out: Why did Clinton bother with manipulating party rules when she was going to win anyway?

“Why not welcome (Vermont Sen. Bernie) Sanders and the energy he undoubtedly would (and did) bring into the party,” writes Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, “rather than scheme to lock him and others out?”

Good question. Taibbi doesn’t really try to answer it, but a year after President Donald Trump’s surprising victory, it matters. Polls of party preference are offering good news for Democratic Party leaders, thanks mostly to bad news generated by Trump. But Dems face an uphill struggle in getting their voters to turn out in next year’s midterms, a time when conservative voters tend to have a turnout advantage compared to presidential election years.

Questions about whether the party’s fairness — or lack of it — to Sanders have been resurrected by an explosive new memoir by Brazile, “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.”

Like generals who keep refighting old wars on new battlefields, Democrats are still arguing over whether the 2016 primaries were “rigged” against Sanders, nominee Clinton’s strongest rival.

In an excerpt of the memoir published in Politico, Brazile details how, during the final weeks of the campaign, she discovered that Sanders’ suspicions were too true for her comfort.

Clinton’s campaign had effectively taken control of the Democratic National Committee, pulling the strings at the DNC for almost a year before she was the official party nominee, Brazile writes. The DNC was dead broke and deep in debt. Former chair Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had spent too much, Brazile writes, and raised too few funds. President Barack Obama helped, she notes, but not by much as he paid far more attention to his own rival group, Organizing for America.

Hillary rode to the rescue, for a price. The former secretary of state cut a deal to retire the organization’s debts in 2015 and “put it on a starvation diet,” Brazile writes. But the secret joint fundraising agreement also stated that “in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy and all the money raised.”

Was the party’s primary process “rigged” against Bernie Sanders?

“Rigged” is too strong of a word for even Brazile to use. On Sunday, she reiterated on ABC’s “This Week” what she says in her book that she found no evidence that the 2016 primary was “rigged.”

Current DNC chair Tom Perez points out that Sanders tended to lose primary elections, which are controlled by the states, but won caucuses, which are run by the DNC.

Even so, it still would be hard to argue that the Clinton campaign didn’t get special benefits from its cozy arrangement with the DNC. Why couldn’t she have reached out sooner to Sanders and his mostly young and anti-establishment supporters?

That sounds like past Clinton-related questions. Why, we ask, did she not avoid sending emails over an unsecured server in her house? Why did the Clintons not avoid even the appearance of corruption in donations to the Clinton Foundation?

After their many years of persecution from the right and the nosiness of us journalists, the Clintons too often have seemed care about legality but not enough about the appearance of impropriety, which can be just as damaging in politics as the real thing.

Like Richard Nixon, the Clintons seemed to build a fortress mentality that, in Hillary’s campaign, shut her off from the pro-Trump rebellion building outside Washington’s Beltway.

Now, of course, it is a time for both parties to be looking to the future, not rehashing the past. Yet Democrats need to understand where they’ve been in order to avoid snatching more defeats out of the jaws of victory.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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