Commentary Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Blames Voters for Failures of Democratic Party

Jodi Jacobson

Women are critical to the success of Democratic candidates. These voters might be forgiven for being unclear about whether those for whom they vote actually mean to keep their promises when they get into office.

Rarely do politicians appear to go out of their way to alienate their core constituencies. It is even more rare that they do so in the course of an election cycle in which they play a critical role, and in which turnout will be key to winning. Nonetheless, that is exactly what Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) did, in what was an otherwise very brief interview published by the New York Times Magazine on January 6.

It’s a doozy. Wasserman Schultz is also chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and ostensibly working to elect more Dems in 2016. Yet in a few short paragraphs, she insulted an entire demographic of female voters, made misleading statements about medical marijuana and the heroin epidemic, and suggested that drug addiction was not a problem “in the suburbs.” The interview has caused a firestorm among progressive groups and advocates, including CREDO Action, which has launched a petition calling on her to resign. Wasserman Schultz calls herself a progressive, but that appears more an effort to ally herself notionally with a growing political movement than a reflection of her actual politics, positions, or actions. 

Take this exchange between interviewer Ana Marie Cox and Wasserman Schultz:

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

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Are young women complacent? Not according to actual data. Voters ages 18-to-29 make up a decisive share of the Democratic electorate. In 2004, 2006, and 2008, this group gave Democrats the majority of their votes. In 2008, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of younger women voted Democratic, compared with 62 percent of comparably aged men. In 2012, the “youth” vote gave Obama his second term, and the gender gap—with a majority of younger women voters supporting Democrats—persisted well into 2014. While youth voting rates declined in 2012 and 2014 relative to earlier years, a majority of voters ages 18-to-29 supported Democrats. This does not sound like complacency to me.

And while state legislatures throughout the country have done more to unnecessarily restrict access to abortion than to address the real economic, social, and educational needs of their residents, people in their late teens through their 30s have been raising money for abortion access funds; protesting anti-choice laws; staffing political campaigns; and educating, mobilizing, and campaigning for change in communities across the country. Young women and men came out in droves to occupy the Texas state capitol building for several days in 2013, and helped at least temporarily defeat efforts to eliminate access to abortion care in that state, until then-Gov. Rick Perry later convened a an “emergency” midnight session to pass that same bill.

It is true that some polling shows younger adults less likely to name abortion as “an important issue,” but that does not necessarily signal complacency, so much as a lack of effective political education and a lack of leadership on behalf of the Democratic party itself on the importance of access to abortion care as a matter of public health and human rights.

In fact, if anything, Wasserman Schultz and other Democratic leaders have consistently sent mixed signals to the very voters she decries as being complacent. Under the watch of former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel and Wasserman Schultz at the DNC, the Democratic party has gone out of its way to support the campaigns of anti-choice Dems in numerous states and refused to support progressive candidates in others. In some notable cases, Wasserman Schultz refused to endorse and instead effectively supported Republicans over Democrats in critical races for her own personal gain, all the while raising money off of threats to Roe v. Wade and off the unrelenting campaign against reproductive rights waged by legislatures throughout the country.

Young people may be perceived as “complacent” by the Democrats, but are more likely frustrated, confused, and yes, perhaps even exhausted from supporting candidates who too often take those voters for granted. For example, while President Obama is signing every executive order under the sun, he has refused for years now to correct a “misinterpretation” of the 1973 Helms Amendment, which “restricts the use of foreign aid to pay for abortions overseas, even in countries where abortion is legal.” By signing an executive order clarifying what is allowed under the Helms amendment, U.S. organizations could provide safe abortion care abroad under the exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and where the pregnant woman’s life is endangered, a very critical unmet need given the immense refugee crisis now enveloping Europe. The continued lack of action on this issue signals that Democrats don’t take abortion care very seriously.

Moreover, under the Obama administration and the leadership of Wasserman Schultz and others, we got the Stupak Amendment, a set of restrictions in the Affordable Care Act that represented a profound loss of reproductive rights enshrined in law. We then had Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services unnecessarily expand the Stupak Amendment to high-risk insurance pools. We’ve had carve-outs for religious groups receiving federal and state funding, allowing them to discriminate against the health and rights of women and girls. We’ve had Democrats endlessly repeating rhetoric that cements the Hyde Amendment by relying on the refrain that no federal funding goes to abortion care without challenging—at least until recently and under great pressure—the very premise of why this is wrong. These are but a few examples of why younger women might find themselves less than excited about a Democratic party that promises more of the same.

Women, and specifically Black women, are critical to the success of Democratic candidates. These voters might be forgiven for being unclear about whether those for whom they vote actually mean to keep their promises when they get into office.

In addition to her comments on abortion, Wasserman Schultz also made confusing and inaccurate statements about drugs and drug addiction. For example:

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? 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.

Heroin addiction often starts with prescribed painkillers. Pill mills were a problem in Florida, but the state didn’t make prescribing opiates illegal. There is a difference between opiates and marijuana.

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

The insinuation here is that drug use and abuse is a problem centered largely or mostly among low-income urban dwellers.

I grew up in suburbia, in the majority white, prosperous suburbs of northern Long Island. And my brother is a recovering heroin addict. Suburbia not only didn’t protect him, it probably contributed to his addiction in many ways—but that is the subject of another article. While never personally involved in drug use, I could not but help see the drugs being bought and sold all around me in junior and senior high school by my affluent white peers. For more than a decade, heroin has increasingly become a problem concentrated among suburban white men and women in their 20s and 30s. Surely, as a leading legislator and someone who describes herself as a “progressive,” Wasserman Schultz should have a more informed and nuanced view of drugs and drug culture, not to mention a better understanding of the desperately far overdue shift from the “just say no” approach to drug use and abuse of the past to a much more effective and humane focus on public health and human rights.

Wasserman Schultz’s comments on drugs angered progressives not only because she is wrong on the facts, but because she also has been a major congressional supporter of private detention centers and private prisons, which in fact profit greatly from criminalizing drugs—especially among populations without the wealth and resources to get access to treatment instead of being sent to jail.

Wasserman Schultz was already under fire for her decisions to limit Democratic candidate debates to Saturday nights, a move that strikes many people as an effort to weigh the scales in favor of one candidate over another. She’s also been criticized for her efforts to undermine the Iran deal in Congress, and for other concrete actions she’s taken in Congress and as chair of the DNC.

You don’t get to call yourself a “progressive” unless you walk the walk. And if anything, progressives, especially younger activists and voters, want change and accountability, not government leaders they perceive as engaged in favoritism, cronyism, and yes, complacency when it comes to corporate control of our democratic system. Wasserman Schultz’s own actions and statements seem to lay blame outside the nexus of power that she controls, rather than looking inward to how she may be contributing to the very problems she laments.

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