Just who is Debbie Wasserman Schultz? The frizzy-haired Floridian was President Barack Obama’s surprise choice to head the Democratic National Committee following the departure of former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is now running for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia.
Born in Queens, New York, Wasserman Schultz, a former legislative aide, was, at one time, the youngest female legislator in Florida history. A prolific fundraiser — she reportedly raised more than $17 million for her congressional colleagues in 2006 — she nonetheless seems an odd choice to lead the national party. She is not terribly well-known, is not considered an expert on the less-than-gentle art of politics, and, as she has shown in recent days, is somewhat gaffe prone.
Wasserman Schultz is, as former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heyeacknowledges, “an effective messenger.”
“Since coming to Congress, she’s been one of the Democrats’ most aggressive, effective messengers,” Heye says. In her new role, he adds, “The aggressiveness is still there, but, so far, she has not been as effective as one might expect.”
But is that enough? Some say it is, pointing to the Democrats’ unexpected victory in a recent special election in a heavily Republican congressional district in upstate New York once represented by conservative icon Jack Kemp.
Those who were on the ground in the race suggest the eventual victory had more to do with the GOP fielding a weak candidate, state Assemblyman Jane Corwin, than with any kind of meaningful, cohesive strategy. Messaging played a role, but only in the sense that Corwin’s failure to respond in a timely way to attacks made by her Democratic opponent, newly elected U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul, allowed her to be defined in a way the made any response, when it finally came, too little, too late.
Nevertheless, Wasserman Schultz has been thrust into a position of national leadership in a way that doesn’t exactly make sense unless you consider that Obama’s chief objective over the next two years is to win re-election.
She has two assets that Obama desperately needs. First, she can help him wage an effective campaign in Florida — a state he won in 2008 and almost certainly needs to win again if he hopes to remain president. Second, as an active member of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Wasserman Schultz is a much-needed bridge to a community that is already terribly suspicious of the president and his intentions toward Israel.
At a recent newsmaker breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Wasserman Schultz pointedly said that:
One of the most tremendous sources of pride for me is that I am the first Jewish woman to represent the state of Florida in Congress. And another tremendous source of pride is that I am a pro-Israel Jewish member of Congress and I proudly support a president that is pro-Israel.
Whether Obama is pro-Israel or not is open to debate. His recent public call for the use of the pre-1967 war borders as the basis for negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian state has a lot of people thinking he isn’t. Obama needs the support of the Jewish-American community, which is overwhelmingly Democratic in its political giving and voting patterns and which is singularly important in a state like Florida. As part of her new job, Wasserman Schultz needs to play fixer. She has her work cut out for her.
Even here the road has been rocky. Matt Brooks, who heads the Republican Jewish Coalition, recently took Wasserman Schultz to task for promising to muzzle debate over Israel in a meeting both attended with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You appealed to us, in front of the leader of a foreign nation,” Brooks wrote Wasserman Schultz in a letter released to the press, “to pledge to refrain from any debate about these matters. I do not think that the timing or the venue you chose for raising this issue was appropriate.”
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz is obliged to “support candidates whose positions on Israel are different from yours,” as Brooks put it. “To that end,” he continued, “I understand why you would like to shield and provide political amnesty to those Democrats whose positions undermine Israel’s security.”
It’s a small story, but one that underscores the kind of problems Wasserman Schultz’s new role creates for her. As a national political figure she faces political pressures different from those every member of Congress experiences, yet which must also be addressed.
“A potential problem, as expressed to me by a senior Democratic official,” said one Republican consultant, “is that she has two full-time jobs that require full-time attention — the job voters in Florida elected her to do and the job President Obama asked her to do. At some point, as the old song says, something’s gotta give.”
It’s not likely that she’ll be hurt too much by her divided loyalties. Returned to office in 2010 with 60 percent of the vote, she seems unbeatable in her home district. Whether she can help the Democrats nationally is another story.
With the spotlight on her as DNC chairman, her comments are going to be subjected to much closer scrutiny, something former RNC Chairman Michael Steele found out much to his dismay. For example, her recent claim that seniors with pre-existing conditions would be denied Medicare coverage under the GOP’s reform plan wasdebunked by the non-partisan FactCheck.org, which concluded that “[t]he House GOP plan specifically says insurance companies ‘must agree to offer insurance to all Medicare beneficiaries.’”
“She also repeated a false Democratic talking point that future beneficiaries — those who are now younger than 55 — would be left on their own to buy insurance in the private market,” FactCheck.org stated. “The GOP plan, as we have written before, would provide subsidies for future beneficiaries to buy private insurance from a Medicare exchange set up by the government.”
These kinds of gaffes, which can be damaging to an ordinary member of Congress, take on a whole new meaning when they come from the national chairman of one of the political parties. This is the case whether the issue is big or small.
Take her recent observation that, “If it were up to the candidates for president on the Republican side, we would be driving foreign cars.” According to The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, she owns a 2010 Infiniti FX35.
Then there are her somewhat bizarre assertions that the GOP, which currently has Minnesota Congressman Michele Bachmann and former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin contemplating presidential bids, is “anti-woman.” Or that the Republicans are to be considered suspect because they believeillegal immigration “should in fact be a crime,” as the video clip below highlights:
These are the kind of hypocrisies that voters understand intuitively. The hypocrisies that reflect one set of rules for the people we don’t like and another set of rules for the in clique. They don’t like it and they remember it when they vote.
Wasserman Schultz has some time yet to “grow into the job.” As long as the White House is happy with what she’s doing, she’s not going anywhere because, at the end of the day, she works for the president — not the party. Meaning he bears some responsibility for what she says and does.