Before things went awry, Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii had been planning to be in Las Vegas for her party’s first presidential debate. Gabbard is one of five vice chairs of the Democratic National Committee; of course she would be there. But instead of talking up her party’s prospects on the Strip earlier this week, Gabbard was in Honolulu. Her presence in Sin City was strictly virtual, and anything but boosterish: She spent debate day giving cable-news interviews via satellite, claiming that, as retribution for loudly calling for more Democratic debates than the DNC currently envisions, she was deemed unwelcome in Vegas by the committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz—who Gabbard suggested is an enemy of free speech, as well as a liar.
For most debate viewers and Democratic voters, the Gabbard flap, if it registered at all, was little more than a sideshow. But among Democratic officials and strategists, the dust-up was an embarrassing public spectacle—a boiling-over of long-simmering frustrations and resentments within the party hierarchy at a highly inopportune moment.
Of two dozen Democratic insiders with whom I spoke this week, including several DNC vice chairs, not one defended Wasserman Schultz’s treatment of Gabbard. Most called it ridiculous, outrageous, or worse. Many argued, further, that the debate plan enacted by the chairwoman is badly flawed—an assessment shared by many party activists, left-bent supporters of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, and those candidates themselves, all of whom see it as a naked effort to aid and comfort Hillary Clinton. And they maintained that the plan was a clear reflection of Wasserman Schultz’s management style, which many of them see as endangering Democratic prospects in 2016 and beyond.
“The person who is supposed to be leading us is not leading us.”
R.T. Rybak, DNC Vice Chair
One top Democrat who feels precisely this way is DNC Vice Chair R.T. Rybak, a former mayor of Minneapolis who, along with Gabbard, has publicly called for more debates. But Rybak’s indictment of Wasserman Schultz is more sweeping—and pointed—than that. “In the days before and after the debate I kept my mouth shut,” Rybak told me by phone on Thursday. “But I’ve begun to deeply question whether she has the leadership skills to get us through the election. This is not just about how many debates we have. This is one of a series of long-running events in which the chair has not shown the political judgment that is needed.”
I asked Rybak if he was calling for Wasserman Schultz to resign.
“I’m coming really close,” he replied. “I’m not quite doing that yet, but unless I see some significant shift in the way she’s going to operate and see that she has some ability to reach out and include people who disagree with her, then I seriously question whether she’s the right person to lead us.”
Rybak and other Democratic critics of Wasserman Schultz have been holding their tongues about what they see as her deficiencies for years. But the dispute over debates has proven sufficiently contentious that it is suddenly causing those tongues to loosen.