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Why DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz won’t speak at her own party’s convention

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, right, on Capitol Hill. She will be seen and, mostly, not heard this week in Philadelphia.
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, right, on Capitol Hill. She will be seen and, mostly, not heard this week in Philadelphia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Update: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday that she will resign at the end of the convention.

This week’s Democratic National Convention is set to feature some of the party’s most prominent advocates — President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker, Fergie and Lena Dunham.

Notably absent from the list, however, is one name that has divided Democrats perhaps more than any other: Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of the highest-ranking leaders in the Democratic Party.

Wasserman Schultz was dropped from the Democrats’ speakers list on Saturday after WikiLeaks published 20,000 internal DNC emails, some of which appeared to show DNC officials deriding Sanders and plotting ways to help Hillary Clinton. She also won’t preside over any of the convention, CNN reported Sunday; it was also reported Sunday that she's officially resigning as DNC chair following the convention. She will be replaced by interim chair Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and television commentator.

Though Schultz was reportedly still asking to at least hold the role of ceremonially gaveling in the convention, she told the Sun-Sentinel that she "decided that in the interest of making sure that we can start the Democratic convention on a high note that I am not going to gavel in the convention." This happened after CNN reported she'd been booed at a Florida delegation meeting Monday morning.

As Vox’s Tim Lee noted, none of the emails contained a smoking gun demonstrating that the primary was rigged for Clinton — or even that DNC officials set in motion any of the plans to derail Sanders’s candidacy.

But the emails do strongly suggest that some DNC leaders personally regarded Sanders as an outside threat and that they wanted him to lose. The officials who pushed Wasserman Schultz out of her convention speech won’t care about that — they also supported Clinton. But they do care about ensuring Sanders loyalists turn out for the Democrats in November, and giving Wasserman Schultz a speaking slot at the convention increasingly looked like one way to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

Why the email scandal is so damaging to Wasserman Schultz

On the one hand, the complaints against Wasserman Schultz sometimes look like exaggerated, puffed-up outrage. The vast majority of Democratic officials endorsed Clinton, so it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that the top leaders at the DNC would also want Clinton to win.

Bernie Sanders standing behind a podium at a 2016 campaign rally where signs read, “A future to believe in.” Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Moreover, claims that WikiLeaks "proves the primary was rigged" are wildly overblown. The ugliest revelation so far showed DNC staffers considering ways to use Sanders’s religion against him, but that plot was never implemented. More than anything, the emails show the extent to which DNC officials were frustrated by accusations that they were out to get Sanders, when they internally really believed they’d been fair. (Ironically, some of those exact same emails have since been misinterpreted as proof that the DNC really was rigging the system.)

Still, it’s easy to understand why Wasserman Schultz has become so toxic to Sanders’s allies — and why the emails appear to confirm their worst fears.

The Democratic Party was officially supposed to maintain a neutral stance throughout the primary, and Wasserman Schultz failed to appear credibly balanced. She got into bitter arguments with the Sanders camp about obscure Nevada caucus rules, made a mess of the debate schedule, fought over ballot access data, and may have helped Clinton skirt the campaign finance rules.

All of that may have been enough on its own to frustrate Sanders voters, but it fused with a powerful preexisting fear — sometimes stoked by Sanders himself — that an all-powerful "Establishment" was out to thwart him from the get-go.

This is why the email leak is so damaging. By laying bare DNC staffers' personal suspicions of Sanders, the emails suggest to his voters that much more sinister tricks against their candidate were occurring just outside of public view. Perhaps, even, some that weren’t put down in writing on official email chains.

Why Sanders needs Wasserman Schultz to step down

Released just before the DNC convention in Philadelphia kicks off on Monday, the emails come at a precarious time — just as Sanders tries to convince his supporters to come out and vote for Clinton.

Asked about the email dump on Sunday, Sanders stressed that he still backs Clinton over Donald Trump for the presidency. But in the same interview, he also renewed his call for Wasserman Schultz to immediately relinquish her post as DNC chair.

"I think she should resign, period," Sanders said on ABC. "And I think we need a new chair who is going to lead us in a very different direction."

clinton (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

These two approaches work in tandem. Sanders probably really does believe that Wasserman Schultz should step down. But he also needs to call for her to step down so he can continue to support Clinton.

Since Sanders endorsed Clinton, he’s faced some criticism from within his own ranks for backing a candidate they see as compromised. If Sanders wants his voters to vote for Clinton — rather than staying at home or supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein — he’ll need them to believe he’s meaningfully pulled the party in his direction. Getting Wasserman Schultz to step down is one way for him to save face without looking like a sellout to his own supporters.