Time for Terry McBucks To Go

I hope this column is irrelevant by the time you read it.

That is, I hope Terry McAuliffe is gone from his post as chair of the Democratic National Committee.

After the Democrats dropped the Senate and fell several seats further into the minority in the House in the Nov. 5 election, a recriminations-rama commenced immediately. That was good. There's nothing wrong with finger-pointing when the goal is to render an institution more effective. Who lost the Senate? It is appropriate -- even necessary -- to review the performance of those who steered the Democrats into the rocks. Already one of the three chief Democratic strategists has fled the helm. On November 7, House minority leader Dick Gephardt announced he was resigning his leadership post. (To run for President apparently. What's the slogan: "He can't lead a party, but he can lead a country"?) That leaves Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and McAuliffe in the crosshairs.

As of yet, there's no whiff of a move against Daschle among Senate Democrats. (Gephardt would have been challenged had he attempted to linger on.) But McAuliffe's ears ought to be on fire. Disgruntled, dismayed, disgusted and discombobulated Democrats have been demanding his departure. The more ungracefully, the better. McAuliffe signals he's staying put. But, then, this is the guy who two weeks before the election declared -- with no qualification -- Florida Governor Jeb Bush was toast (even as public and private polls showed Bush pulling away). Final results: Republican Bush, 56 percent; Democrat Bill McBride, 43 percent.

McAuliffe's sin was not that he missed a call -- or ten. But that he -- along with comrades Gephardt and Daschle -- produced no coherent, overarching message for his party. He raised plenty of money, but no ideas. All three seemed to believe that the sluggish economy would drive voters to the polls and that these voters would somehow divine that electing Dems would lead to better days. Initial indications are that even Democratic die-hards were not jazzed by this lazy approach. Regular readers of this column might recall that I had noted before the election that Democrats were pursuing theme-less politics. Others observed that, too. But it was somewhat surprising to see the lickety-split formation of a post-election consensus -- among Democrats -- that the Democrats had squandered a historic opportunity by failing to present a clear alternative to George W. Bush and his Stepford Republicans. Liberal and conservative Democrats both cried, in the words of a Democratic Leadership Council statement, we "need a new, clear message...unmistakably distinct from that of the Republican Party or the President."

Of course, Democrats -- the party of ideological chaos -- disagreed over the thrust of said new message. Left-leaning Democrats proposed defining the party as the opponents of Bush's millionaire-friendly tax cuts and his dash to war in Iraq. The DLCers urged development of a "positive, centrist" vision. What might that entail? Here's how these corporate-backed Democrats put it: "there is an urgent need for Democrats...[to create] a message and agenda based on broad values and policy goals rather than government programs, that is aimed at building new majorities rather than tending to old coalitions and that promotes reform, growth, international and domestic leadership, and opportunity, responsibility and community." Did they miss any platitudes?

But both sides did concur on a key point: McAuliffe had crashed. And his post-election performance did not endear him to Democrats. He downplayed the significance of Democratic defeats, while boasting about the amounts of money he had bagged for the party. And he griped that "a lot of [Republican] money came in from special interests." Which is akin to Britney Spears complaining about the explicit gyrations of Christina Aguilera, for McAuliffe has collected literally hundreds of millions of dollars from his own special interests for the Democrats. "I'm not sure what we did wrong," he said. His best explanation: "We faced a very popular president who campaigned more than any other president." Then consider this a warm-up to 2004. And if McAuliffe could not devise a strategy for countering Bush in a time of economic anxiousness in an off-year election -- which traditionally favors the party out of the White House -- does he deserve another swing?

McAuliffe was a lousy pick for this post. Bill and Hillary Clintons foisted him off on the Democrats, after he had become the most prolific fundraiser in modern-day politics by serving them. That was his qualification for the job. Not his ability to develop ideas, but his skill in convincing rich people, unions, and corporations to write checks. He had cut his teeth in Democratic Party politics in the early 1980s helping Representatives Tony Coehlo and Dick Gephardt court corporate donors that had been overlooked by the GOP. The Democratic convention of 2000, under his guidance, was designed to comfort the corporate underwriters of the party, even as nominee Al Gore vowed to fight the powerful on behalf of commoners. Yet when questioned about this, McAuliffe waved aside any suggestion at his fundraising efforts contradicted Gore's late-in-the-game stab at populism..

McAuliffe -- a wheeling-dealing businessman -- has always had a hucksterish aura. During joint appearances with Republican chairman Marc Racicot, he was often outclassed by a man who had been an Enron lobbyist. McAuliffe spoke quickly, zapped out the spin, aggressively (desperately?) trash-talked the opposition -- more like a fellow attempting to close a sale than a public leader trying to persuade people to follow him. A slick corporate money-grabber, who was chauffeured around Washington in an SUV, was hardly the best face to put on a Democratic Party that supposedly champions working families, the needy, and the environment.

Then there were his ethical missteps. They never became much of a public issue. But he was the bright bulb who suggested President Clinton hold White House coffees and sleepovers for past and future contributors. He was also strongly implicated in both the Teamsters contribution-swapping scandal of 1996 and a shady episode in which the Clinton administration may have denied three Native American tribes permission to turn a dog track into a casino in return for campaign money from competing tribes.

Political parties need fundraisers. Most citizens realize that. But, as a rule, they should be not seen and not heard -- at least not on Meet The Press and cable television shows. McAuliffe aspired to be more than a moneychaser. But he could not shake the image. And when a party is out of the White House, its chairman does play an important PR role. He has been a symbol of the party -- the wrong symbol.

At a November 6 press conference, McAuliffe was asked how the Democrats would fare in the new post-McCain-Feingold world, in which soft money fundraising will be restricted. McAuliffe observed that the party -- which in recent years had done better in the competition for soft money than in the contest for so-called hard money -- faced a serious challenge. Indeed. Hard money is now the name of the game (with the exception of creative, loophole-permitted soft-money gimmicks both parties are establishing.) The Democrats were outspent by the Republicans overall this year $527.4 million to $343.7 million. But in the hard money category, the GOP more than doubled the Democrats' take: $289 million to $127.4 million. (Hard-money contributions come from individuals, mainly rich people, and they tend to be GOPers.) As Thomas Edsall, a political correspondent for The Washington Post noted, "The Republicans' cash lead this year is seen as a precursor to an even greater advantage in 2004."

At first blush, this may suggest that a man of McAuliffe's show-me-the-money skills is needed at the top of the DNC. The Democrats will have to become quite ingenious in fundraiser in the years ahead. And creative and energetic money-seekers will be required, as well as methods to garner much more small-money donations from non-wealthy citizens. But the Democrats must find a way to leverage message against money. If the structural advantage of the GOP increases -- the party that better protects the interests of corporations and well-to-do Americans is naturally going to have an edge in fundraising -- the Democrats will have to best the Republicans on other grounds. Say, ideas. McAuliffe is not the fellow to guide the party into this new and difficult era.

At this moment, McAuliffe, if he does want to remain DNC chief, is helped by the fact that there is no obvious successor. (How about this as punishment? McAuliffe has to remain.) Should the Democrat, once again hit their back-to-the-70s playbook, and turn to Jimmy Carter? Well, he does have a Nobel peace prize. Sarcasm aside, it is hard to propose the ideal leader of a party that lacks ideological cohesion. (It has been split on the two paramount issues of the moment: the war on Iraq and whether to criticize, let alone repeal or postpone, Bush's tax cuts.) McAuliffe, after all, did represent what unites most Democrat politicians -- the yearning for campaign funds.

But in the years ahead, the Democrats can thrive only if message beats money. And that's not McAuliffe's game. It is time for the party to cash him out.

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