A Tale of Two Appointments
In the opening pirouettes of Campaign 2004 -- yes, it is under way -- the Republicans wiped the Democrats.
Look at how each side started assembling its new team. George W. Bush -- whose every step can be viewed as part of a reelection campaign to win him the legitimacy he cannot currently claim -- chose as his first-pick Colin Powell, an American icon, so popular he inspired a GI-Joe-like action-figure toy. Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was tapped to become the first African-American secretary of state and, in accepting, became an ambassador for Bush's GOP.
Meanwhile, the Democrats put forward Terry McAuliffe, a renown political fundraiser, who has collected up to $400 million -- much of it from corporate interests -- for the Clintons and the Democratic Party. (McAuliffe says he does not keep track of the exact amount.) McAuliffe, who has skated past various campaign scandals, was named chairman of the Democratic Party. Heralded war hero versus cash-man extraordinaire. Slam-dunk.
With Powell, Bush and the Republicans have harnessed the star-power of perhaps the most hailed man in public life. That won't hurt Bush's prospects in 2004. It's not that Bush's embrace of Powell will boost Bush's position with African-American voters. Black voters were unimpressed with Bush's campaign of photo-op diversity, and, according to various polls, his standing among blacks was further weakened by his opposition to counting ballots unread by Florida's error-prone punchcard machines (which were used disproportionately in counties with large black populations).
Powell, though, can boost Bush with white voters. The retired general -- who supports affirmative action and abortion rights -- will provide Bush cover, should the Democrats try to depict Bush and his posse as rightwing meanies who only care about rich countryclubbers. With prominent minorities in senior posts, Bush reassures those Republicans and independents who may have once fretted that the GOP was intolerant. (Remember the Republicans as the party of the angry white man in 1994?) And Bush has reason to be more concerned than previous president-elects with his next election.
It doesn't matter that the dreams-can-come-true fairy tale of Colin Powell, which Bush is renting, cannot withstand close scrutiny. Powell's rise to power as a manager-general has a dark side. In Vietnam, he adopted a lackadaisacal attitude when asked to investigate allegations of U.S. military atrocities. In 1987, he misled congressional investigators probing the Iran/contra affair. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh even considered prosecuting Powell. And advocates of veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome say Powell has distanced himself from their cause. (The details of his less honorable actions are covered in a piece I recently wrote for The Nation; see www.thenation.com.)
But Powell remains an admired and inspirational figure for many. It was a no-brainer for Bush to kick off his administration by enlisting Powell. There could be no better campaign ad for 2004.
The designation of McAuliffe as the Democrats's point-man was an act of no-brains. The initial coverage of his selection was dominated by talk of whether the appointment of this Clinton loyalist signaled that Bill Clinton (or Hillary?) was pushing aside Al Gore. But the more significant question was, what does McAuliffe stand for? The answer: nothing but money.
He is not identified with a message or a cause useful for the Democrats. An impresario of the soft-money loophole that has rendered campaign finance law practically meaningless, McAuliffe only represents checkbook politics. Why should anyone care about his views on any issue? He has reached this position solely because he has the ability to persuade rich people and corporations to donate to the Clintons and receive up-close-and-personal access in return. Moreover, he is a reminder of the Clinton fundraising scandals. Who's doing PR for the Democrats?
McAuliffe was the fellow who suggested Clinton hold White House coffees for donors. True, these were not fundraisers, in that Clinton did not actually pass a hat. But these meetings were stroking sessions for past and potential contributors.
McAuliffe also proposed those infamous White House sleep-overs for Clinton's most generous financial backers. Credit him for transforming the president's mansion into Motel 1600. The Republicans had used the White House for fundraising purposes prior to this, but that did not make the Clinton moneychase any less unseemly.
McAuliffe also played significant cameo roles in other scandals. In 1996, officials of the Democratic National Committee and the Teamsters agreed to a contribution swap. This was the deal: if the DNC found someone who would donate $100,000 to the reelection campaign of Ron Carey, the union's president, then the union's political action committee would hand about $1 million to state Democratic parties.
This arrangement was illegal and several people were prosecuted for it. One of the key plotters, Martin Davis (who was a consultant to both Carey and the DNC) testified that McAullife participated in the initial discussions of the swap. And after the first attempted contribution exchange fell through, according to Davis, McAuliffe "asked if I would attempt to raise $500,000 from the Teamsters [for the Democrats].... It was understood between us that he and others would try to identify a person who would contribute a hundred thousand dollars to the Carey campaign." Two other Democratic fundraisers told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 1997 that McAuliffe had informed them that if they could line up a donor for Carey, they would receive financial assistance from the Teamsters.
When McAuliffe was first questioned about this by the Republican-controlled committee, he maintained "he didn't do anything with the Teamsters." In a subsequent session -- after the committee had found evidence that McAuliffe had discussed the Teamsters with Davis -- McAuliffe testified there had been a meeting in which Davis said he was looking to raise money from the DNC for the Teamsters, but that McAuliffe had referred him to another Democratic fundraiser and had nothing else to do with it.
"All I know," McAuliffe told the committee, "is when the first story...on the Teamsters came out, I didn't have a clue about any of this."
Shortly after McAuliffe spoke these words, the guilty pleas of Martin Davis and Jere Nash, Carey's campaign manager, became public. Both maintained that McAuliffe had asked Davis to arrange a Teamsters contribution to the Democrats in return for a donation to the Carey campaign. The committee's investigators, with some justification, requested that McAuliffe drop by for yet one more deposition. McAuliffe declined, with his lawyer noting he could "add little if anything to the record the committee has already developed on this issue." That is, he ducked out.
McAuliffe's integrity was not enhanced by the Teamsters episode. In September 1997, he told the Syracuse Post-Standard, "I'm not involved.... I wouldn't know Ron Carey if he fell on my head." But two months later, federal investigator Kenneth Conboy, in disqualifying Carey from running for reelection, noted that Carey had called McAuliffe to thank McAuliffe for his fundraising efforts on Carey's behalf.
And in another shady episode, Fred Havenick, a business partner of three Indian tribes seeking federal permission to turn a dog track into a casino, claimed that at a Clinton-Gore fundraising event, McAuliffe had told him, "I got [the] Indian project" -- meaning, the casino -- "killed." McAuliffe apparently had mistakenly associated Havenick with other tribes that had contributed to the Democrats and had lobbied against the casino project. What was a Democratic fundraiser doing boasting about his intervention in a Department of Interior decision?
In January 1998, McAuliffe declared that all the fundraising investigations were getting to him. "I don't want any more press," he declared. "My wife and I decided I don't want to do it anymore. I ought to be left alone."
Implicated but never caught, McAuliffe went on to become the chair of the Democratic convention this past summer. When asked then about critics who claimed the event had become a frenzy of corporate fundraising in which the party was being corrupted by the business donors residing in the skyboxes, McAuliffe pooh-poohed the charges: "Sure, you sit up in your skybox and you might get a beer. But at the end of the day, that doesn't change anything. So they get some popcorn and some beer. Big deal.... So what if some people have some boxes and they get some free beer and peanuts. Who cares?"
There are Democrats -- and non-Democrats -- who do care and who wonder if the so-called party of the people has sold out to deep-pocket contributors. By placing McAuliffe in charge, the party has confirmed the worst. Whenever McAuliffe is seen spinning away on a talk show, it will be a literal reminder of what many people dislike and fear about politics: money talks.
The Republicans lead with a symbol of the American Dream; the Democrats, with a big-time bagman. They ought to know that money can't buy soul.