By Mike Lillis - 09/03/15 06:01 AM EDT
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has a tough fall ahead.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) chief is under fire from some of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls over her handling of the primary debates, and she's facing a huge decision over whether to support President Obama's historic nuclear deal with Iran.
Those issues highlight the difficulties facing the six-term Florida Democrat as she juggles her responsibilities to the president she supports, the constituents she represents and the broader party she's leading into the high-stakes 2016 elections.
Wasserman Schultz's primary role as DNC head is to devise a campaign message that unifies the Democrats and distinguishes their priorities from those of the Republicans in the eyes of voters. But both the debate controversy and the Iran vote have distracted from that objective, threatening to undermine the show of Democratic unity even as party leaders are calling attention to the deep divisions in the GOP.
The DNC stirred a hornet's nest in May when it announced a six-debate schedule through the primary season — roughly a quarter of the 2008 total and half the number available to the Republican candidates this cycle.
The Democratic underdogs — notably Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIt's time for Sanders to exit stage left Green Party could be election spoiler Trump courts energy industry MORE (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — wasted no time hammering the schedule as insufficient. The contenders want more opportunities to face off with front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonIt's time for Sanders to exit stage left Navy SEAL congressman endorses Trump RNC’s Katie Walsh: A behind-the-scenes leader MORE, and their criticisms have only escalated this month after the DNC released more details surrounding the debates.
Sanders on Sunday accused the DNC of being "dead wrong" in its debate strategy, while O'Malley charged the leaders of his own party with pushing a “rigged process” designed to advantage Clinton.
“I think it’s a big mistake for us as a party to circle the wagons around the inevitable front-runner,” O’Malley said last week.
Wasserman Schultz's office did not respond to requests for comment this week, but the DNC chairwoman has defended the debate schedule, saying the six events will both lend voters "ample opportunity to hear from our candidates about their vision for our country’s future" and "highlight the clear contrast between the values of the Democratic Party which is focused on strengthening the middle class versus Republicans."
Some former DNC officials agree.
David Mercer, the DNC's deputy national finance director during the Clinton presidency, said the six debates present both "a level playing field" and "an amazing opportunity" for the Democratic candidates to make their case to voters.
Mercer, who worked under nine DNC heads between 1989 and 1997, said the criticism "has more to do with candidates seeking short term media and news coverage and visibility than anything to do with what we know to be a fair, balanced debate schedule that will command a diverse and national audience of millions."
"In the end, it's one's performance in debates, not complaint about them, that will attract voter attention and, hopefully as a result, voter support," added Mercer, now president of Mercer & Associates, a strategic consulting firm.
But such arguments have done little to satisfy the Democratic critics. Indeed, O'Malley announced Wednesday that he's urging supporters to join a protest outside DNC headquarters on Sept. 16.
"It's time to take it up a notch," reads a release from O'Malley's campaign office.
The Iran vote, for Wasserman Schultz, is no less troublesome.
The Florida Democrat represents a significant Jewish population — more than 15 percent, according to numbers compiled by the Jewish Federations of America — and she's been a fierce defender of Israel and its chief lobbying group in Washington, which opposes the nuclear accord.
Recent polls show Florida voters also strongly oppose the deal, and several Florida Democrats have already said they'll vote against it when the Republicans bring a disapproval measure to the floor this month.
But the administration has been pressing hard on Democrats to support the agreement; the top Democrats on Capitol Hill — including Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo Overnight Healthcare: House loosens pesticide rules to fight Zika | A GOP bill that keeps some of ObamaCare | More proof of pending premium hikes The Trail 2016: Digging up dirt MORE (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — are rallying behind it; and the leading Democratic presidential contenders — including Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley — have all endorsed it, as well.
An opposition vote by the DNC head would not only diminish that unity, it would also lend political ammunition to Republicans, who are near-unanimous in their opposition to the nuclear deal.
Adding to the pressure on Wasserman Schultz, Vice President Biden is scheduled to meet with Jewish leaders Thursday in her district to pitch the agreement.
The dynamics have left Wasserman Schultz with a tough choice: Reject the deal opposed by most Floridians and risk highlighting Democratic divisions on Obama's top foreign policy issue, or support the agreement for the sake of party unity and risk alienating her constituents.
William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton, said those frictions come with the territory when lawmakers accept positions of national leadership.
"By accepting that role, she has, in a way, bound herself to consider interests broader than herself and the constituents she represents," said Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's not simply pressure from the party, it's a responsibility she has to the party in her leadership position.
"You're not a free agent the way you might have been before."
Julian E. Zelizer, political scientist at Princeton University, agreed, saying it's "not uncommon for there to be tensions between party needs and constituent needs."
He noted that many Democrats who backed President Clinton's proposed tax increases in 1993 suffered politically at home, and the same was true for a good number of lawmakers who backed Obama's healthcare reform law in 2010.
"Balancing these needs is one of the toughest jobs for a legislative leader. There is no clear path forward," Zelizer said. "Obviously the biggest danger is alienating your constituents so much that they vote you out of office.
"You can heal wounds among party leaders," he added, "but sometimes constituents can be unforgiving."