News & Politics

DNC Nominates King Midas to Chair

The nomination of Democratic Fundraiser-in-chief Terry McAuliffe as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee confirms the devolution of political parties into fundraising machines. McAuliffe has no public policy experience, but anything he touches turns to gold.
The announcement that Democratic Fundraiser-in-chief Terry McAuliffe has been all but anointed as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee is a ringing public acknowledgement of what has been a reality for some time now: the devolution of political parties into fundraising machines. In the past, with DNC chairs like Senator Christopher Dodd, Colorado Governor Roy Romer and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, there was at least the veneer that the DNC was about more than raising money.

The elevation to the chairmanship of a man with no public policy or elected office qualifications comes at the same time -- like a one-two punch on the cash register -- as Bill Clinton's Christmas gift to his soon-to-be ex-employees in the form of a scantily reported decision to rescind the five-year ban on lobbying by former senior Administration officials. Yes, this was the same ban that Clinton initiated to great fanfare by Executive Order in the still-idealistic early days of his presidency.

The sleaze of our political life is becoming more blatant -- and less-lamented -- with each passing month. And now we enter the New Year with the president quietly easing the return of his lobbyist pals to their natural highly paid private-sector habitat. (God forbid that Sandy Berger should have to wait an hour longer than absolutely necessary before cashing in on his public service.)

And it won't be long before King Midas is installed as the head of the DNC.

McAuliffe's gift for turning anything he touches into gold is beyond dispute. After all, no one before him had ever helped raise more than $300 million for Democratic causes or sold $500,000 tickets to a political fund-raiser that ended up netting a record-breaking $26.5 million in a single night. But with the party embracing money-raising as the ultimate leadership skill, it won't be long before, like Midas' daughter, it turns into a golden but lifeless edifice.

There is a world of difference between being the finance chair of the DNC and being the official face of the party -- making the talk-show rounds, speaking not about money but about ideas and policies. The head of the party is supposed to give voice not to the party's bottom line but to its soul. McAuliffe has proven a master at dialing for dollars, but his ability to represent the hopes, dreams and fears of the party faithful is completely untested.

Raising their voices in opposition to McAuliffe are the few not ready to abandon their party to the bag men. The DNC's black caucus chairman, Al Edwards, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Maxine Waters, are instead backing former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. "I would rather," Rep. Jackson Jr. told me, "have Maynard Jackson responding to high unemployment and assaults on affirmative action, voting rights and police brutality in our community than Terry McAuliffe. I support Maynard as chairman to give the party vision and voice, and Terry as finance chair, which is his expertise."

Edwards, a Texas state representative and member of the DNC's executive committee, is organizing the anti-McAuliffe forces for the February vote. "The entire Texas delegation agreed on a conference call last night to hold off supporting McAuliffe," he told me Wednesday.

But look at who's lined up on McAuliffe's side: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney -- and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The ascension of the money-raisers is disturbing not only to idealists for whom politics should be a battle of ideas but to political pragmatists worried about the downside of putting the man most associated with the 1996 fund-raising scandals -- the $50,000 White House kaffeeklatsches, the Lincoln Bedroom overnights, the illegal contributions swap with the Teamsters -- in charge of the entire party. "This appointment is an indictment waiting to happen," a Democratic insider told me. "It opens the door for Republicans to return to the Teamsters scandal and pronounce McAuliffe an unindicted co-conspirator."

And then there are the sealed court documents from lawsuits, by former business associates, settled out of court for undisclosed sums of money. According to the Legal Times, one suit charged that McAuliffe and his then-partner Tony Coelho "reaped more than $2.3 million in real estate commissions by leveraging Coehlo's and McAuliffe's political influence and connections in the highest levels of the Federal Government."

Such concerns loom large for those supporting McAuliffe's challenger. "Maynard is widely known," Rep. Maxine Waters told me, "as a man of impeccable integrity who will work full time to build registration and strengthen the grassroots of the Democratic party. McAuliffe, on the other hand, is a money man who will not be able to withstand the public scrutiny."

"Over two hundred years ago," current party chair Joe Andrews writes on the DNC's Web site, "our Party's founders decided that wealth and social status were not an entitlement to rule. They believed that wisdom and compassion could be found within every individual and a stable government must be built upon a broad popular base." McAuliffe would no doubt agree, provided the base were broad enough to include well-heeled backers and deep-pocket donors able to write really big checks.

Al Gore once called Terry McAuliffe "the best finance chair in this or any other universe." If any of the business or fund-raising scandals from McAuliffe's past blow up in his face, Democrats may wish he were ruling the roost in another universe -- as far away as possible from the DNC.

Regardless of whether it catches up to him, it's clear that the culture McAuliffe represents has decisively carried the day.
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