The discontent with the chairman's tenure exploded in the aftermath of the 2002 election defeats. In the face of Bush's radical turn rightward, the party had failed to articulate a compelling critique or alternative. "Bring me the head of Terry McAuliffe!" Arianna Huffington wrote. Another liberal columnist (me) recommended stringing McAuliffe by his heels over one of Washington's many traffic circles.
But we critics missed what he was actually doing.
Harold Meyerson is one of journalism's shrewdest observers of American politics. He often looks below the surface features pondered by the beltway bloviators to see what is actually happening on the ground, and what he sees happening at the Democratic National Committee gives him hope for our chances next year. In fact, McAuliffe may be modernizing and improving the DNC more significantly than any DNC chair since the late Ron Brown.
It was under Brown's chairmanship that the DNC implemented the "coordinated campaign," in which candidates and party organizations would pool resources to conduct field operations such as canvassing, voter identification, phone banking and get out the vote (GOTV) operations. Since Democrats' electoral success often hinges on turnout within high Democratic performance/low turnout demographics, coordinated campaigns devoted much of their activity to targeting and driving up participation of these potential Democratic voters. Under McAuliffe, the DNC is engaging in similar targeting efforts, this time on a state level.
"Look, we'd love to have kept the [Mississippi and Kentucky] governorships," [McAuliffe] begins, "but as it relates to what I worry about every day -- the 270 electoral votes -- it's not a factor."
Not all of his fellow Democrats are so sanguine. Just that day, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told the congressional newspaper The Hill that "McAuliffe is out there on his own agenda, which does not involve the South."
Thompson's not entirely wrong. McAuliffe has indeed shifted the focus of the national committee to the coming presidential contest -- that is, to the 17 to 21 almost entirely non-southern "battleground states" that could go either way in November 2004. "We've always had our hands tied by the fact that we had to care about all 50 states; we were afraid to do targeting," says one veteran party operative. Under McAuliffe, though, targeting has come to the DNC with a vengeance. And it's about time.
Working largely under the radar, McAuliffe has actually made the DNC better prepared for a presidential election than it may ever have been. While the innovations in fund raising and communications of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and MoveOn.org have been widely noted, the analogous changes at the DNC have largely escaped attention. So, too, has the ramping up of its 2004 field campaign, which, under the direction of general election strategist Teresa Vilmain, is taking place earlier than ever before.
McAuliffe came to the DNC known primarily for his prowess as a high-donor fundraiser. Indeed, McAuliffe's biggest achievements include eliminating the $18 million debt left from the 2000 election; raising an additional $25 million to purchase and rehab a building, eliminating future lease payments; and greatly improving the party's small-donor fundraising. But McCain-Feingold has largely eliminated the ability of the national party committees to elicit large donations, so McAuliffe has adapted his focus to the new terrain, and that's good news for Democrats who want campaigns with a potent field effort.
The main purpose of the DNC should be in providing the party's Presidential candidate with the machinery, capacities and resources needed to win elections. Under Brown's leadership the DNC, in addition to pushing coordinated campaigns, embarked on an impressive program of training campaign workers and volunteers in state-of-the-art field organizing techniques. After Clinton became President, however, the DNC was reduced to mostly collecting the tens of millions of dollars that paid for the soft-money issue ads that Clinton used to bludgeon Bob Dole during the summer of 1996. But McAuliffe is transforming the DNC from a fundraising operation for paying for advertising into an operation that raises funds to create and maintain a campaign infrastructure.
Among the highlights are "Demzilla," a database that started with about 400,000 names but now has the names and contact information of over a million Democratic activists and donors. The DNC has also consolidated voter files from the various state and local party organizations. Supplemented by commercial databases, DataMart has information such as voting history, party registration, responses to voter identification efforts conducted by campaigns, and demographic information on over 150 million voters. To ensure this information is fully utilized the DNC has provided software and training to the state and local party organizations. And assuming the nomination is determined by this spring's primaries, as soon as the party has a presumptive nominee the DNC will give him the maximum allowable donation of $18.6 million, something the party has never been capable of doing before September or October.
Meyerson doesn't entirely let McAuliffe off the hook for the party's lack of a coherent message. But he is sympathetic to McAuliffe's quandary.
McAuliffe argues persuasively that the DNC chairman has no right to formulate a position for the party. Yet Democrats even have trouble coordinating the messages they agree on. The culprit here, says McAuliffe, is a system in which elected officials view themselves as individual entrepreneurs, particularly because they have varied constituencies and funding bases. "You're not going to tell House members and senators what the message is," sighs McAuliffe. "It's just not gonna happen."
Many people mistakenly believe that McAuliffe became DNC chair because he was favored by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the New Democratic Network (NDN), when in fact he became chair because he was supported by almost every faction of the party. This is significant because, largely because of McCain-Feingold, the party apparatus is being supplemented and occasionally supplanted by one of the factions that supported McAuliffe's ascendancy. And contrary to what many might fear, the "privatized party" is not falling under the control of the DLC-NDN, but of McAuliffe's allies in the AFL-CIO.
This year, no account of the changes in the Democratic Party can be confined to the Democratic Party. Since McCain-Feingold blocked such major donors as unions from financing voter registration and media buys, a number of 527s have arisen to do such work outside the formal structure of the party. And though these organizations have been called into existence by the exigencies of campaign-finance law, they may be better suited to mobilizing the Democratic base, both for this election and the long term, than the official party.
The central figure in the privatized party is Steve Rosenthal, until recently the political director of the AFL-CIO. One of federation President John Sweeney's first hires, Rosenthal transformed labor's political program, increasing both the share of union voters in elections and the percentages by which those voters supported Democratic candidates...
Rosenthal is not convinced that all Democratic Party officials share a strategic commitment to building a party on the ground. "Five years ago," he recalls, "I met with the state party chairman from a battleground state. I said, 'Build a real party. Start in three cities; the AFL-CIO will train your organizers and pay them.' I never even heard back from him." Now Rosenthal runs organizations that can train and pay those organizers no matter how benighted the local party leaders may be.
Several organizations have arisen to fund and direct field organizing; GOTV; coordinating activities between campaign, party organizations and allied progressive organizations like environmental and reproductive rights groups; and to pay for issue ads. The common denominator in most all of these organizations is the dominant role of organized labor, which has proven since Sweeney's rise to power to be the powerhouse of American politics. While staying steady over recent years at 14% of the workforce, since 1994 voters from labor families have supported Democrats 2-1 and increased their share of the overall vote from 14% to over 26% in 2000. Much of labor's success came from field activity and direct voter contact, so transferring what has worked among union members to the electorate at large is an exciting prospect. Even the only 527 mentioned by Meyerson that's not directed at field activity and is not run by a former labor official--the "Media Fund," which is expected to run between $50 million and $80 million worth of issue ads between March and the Democratic convention--has strong connections to organized labor; it's executive is Harold Ickes, the former Clinton official who was the key contact between the President and organized labor.
McCain-Feingold provides some fundraising advantages to the Republicans. But if what Meyerson calls the "privatization" of the Democratic party puts organized labor in a position to direct much of the party's grass roots voter contact, then fewer big bucks going to the DNC could be a net gain because organized labor, with the support of Terry McAuliffe, will direct their cash into field operations where they'll get more bang (and votes) for their bucks.