Judging Terry

Terry McAuliffe doesn't know how to shut it off. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), says Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, "is a great salesman; he has this infectious optimism." Even in the face of abjectly awful election outcomes, McAuliffe hasn't been able to tone down that optimism. Nuance seems beyond him. On election night 2002, as all available intelligence pointed to a Democratic debacle, McAuliffe nonetheless told Larry King, "I think it's going to be a very good night for the Democrats."

And when the chairman sits down with me two nights after this November's election, in which the Democrats lost the governorships of Mississippi and Kentucky, he remains true to form. He has just flown in from Florida, where he'd spoken to his usual audience -- Democratic high rollers -- and he seems to still be flying. Plopping himself on a couch, he immediately launches into a high-voltage, somewhat hyperbolic account of his tenure at the DNC.

"Look, we'd love to have kept the two southern governorships," he 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.

Part of the reason that the DNC changes have been shrouded in obscurity, however, is the committee's continuing inability to put forth a really powerful message to the party faithful. At bottom, the successes of both Dean and MoveOn are a function of their strong stance against the Iraq War -- a stance that McAuliffe, constrained by the party's divisions on the issue, felt incapable of taking. The committee's online critiques of the Bush administration lack the punch of those coming out of the Center for American Progress, the new progressive policy and communications operation headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta.

Indeed, much of the good news for Democrats these days is coming from a variety of organizations (dubbed "527s" in the argot of election law) that have been set up to do the kind of campaign work that, in theory, the DNC used to perform but which the funding restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law now make impossible. One such piece of good news came in the form of the re-election of Democratic Philadelphia Mayor John Street -- in a state that McAuliffe argues is more important than Kentucky or Mississippi. "We had a very good night in Pennsylvania," he effuses. "We need those 21 electoral votes."

Street's victory was, in fact, a big deal. Two months before election day, polls showed Street to be extremely vulnerable. Then came revelations that the FBI was bugging his office, which unleashed a wave of indignation at John Ashcroft and the FBI within the city's huge black community. But more important in terms of the implications for 2004 was the massive voter-registration drive in black and Hispanic Philadelphia. The first project funded by Partnerships for Working Families, a nationwide voter-mobilization program set up in the wake of McCain-Feingold, registered a stunning 86,000 new voters. In a city of 1.5 million residents, that's mind-boggling. Should it portend equivalent successes for the 527s just now gearing up, the turnout of Democratic base voters in battleground states next year could soar.

McCain-Feingold has redefined what the national parties can do (though the pending Supreme Court decision on it may redefine the redefinition). No longer are the parties able to solicit major donations for such "party building" work as voter-registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Now, though Democrats have created a new way to keep the party field campaigns funded, much of that work has passed to the 527s, and the party has been compelled to raise money in increments no greater than $2,000 per individual donor.

In theory, McCain-Feingold should prove McAuliffe's undoing. The chairman has always been a big-money guy, from the moment, two decades ago, when he went to work for Tony Coelho, the California congressman who brought unprecedented sums of corporate cash into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's coffers. As the DNC's finance chairman for much of Bill Clinton's presidency, McAuliffe made sure that Clinton wasn't wanting for funds in his '96 re-election campaign. When Al Gore was all but out of money in the summer of 2000, McAuliffe put together a nice $26.5 million dinner for him. And when the national chairmanship came open at the start of 2001, it was the core of the party's establishment -- Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, John Sweeney and Gerald McEntee, Gore and the Clintons -- that anointed McAuliffe.

Progressive Democrats, though, were uneasy with the choice. Neither Gephardt nor Daschle was able to mount an effective opposition to George W. Bush's surprisingly radical presidency, and as their national chairman, the Democrats were saddled with a plutocrat-coddling fund-raiser when what they needed was a resonant populist voice. McAuliffe's voice was plenty audible, but like the rest of the party leadership, he had nothing to say about the looming war in Iraq.

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.

"When I came here in 2001, I was horrified," McAuliffe says. "We were $18 million in debt. We were leasing space. We had 400,000 donors; their average age was 76! [At this, DNC Press Secretary Tony Welch interjects that he thinks the age was 67, but McAuliffe is on a roll.] Fifty million people had voted for Al Gore, and I could not go to my desk and pull up one voter from the Gore campaign. Not a single voter file was left in the building. Then, in 2002, I lost 80 percent of our disposable income with McCain-Feingold. So we changed all that."

And, to a large extent, he has. For reasons not just of legal but also of strategic necessity, the big-money guy is cultivating the grass roots. McAuliffe made two critical decisions shortly after he became chairman. The first was to devote major resources to building a small-donor list. The second was to assemble a master voter file, with the names, addresses, voting history and demographic particulars of every one of the nation's registered voters. The Republicans had long since had both.

In his first two, pre-McCain-Feingold years as chairman, McAuliffe retired the $18 million debt and raised an additional $25 million with which he bought and rehabbed a Capitol Hill building that will serve as the party's new headquarters when completed this December, and acquired the technology and the lists to reach donors and voters. The committee's techies dubbed the donor and activist list -- which has grown from 400,000 names to well over a million -- "Demzilla." Already the donations coming in from Demzilla, though they average just $38, bring in enough revenue to cover the DNC's operating expenses. McAuliffe is unsurprisingly bullish on its potential, announcing, "I will raise $100 million on Demzilla!" -- the amount of soft money the party raised in the 2000 election cycle.

Also notable is the DNC's creation of DataMart, its file on the nation's 158 million registered voters. Historically, lists of voters have been kept by state parties, individual campaigns and commercial list vendors. At the end of many campaigns, the results of the phone polling and precinct canvassing that the campaigns have done on voters -- often a pretty fair profile of those voters' politics -- are carted away by consultants or simply trashed. As for the state parties, most have lacked the technical capacity to maintain these lists. DataMart, ideally, will fix all that. "We had 27 million incorrect addresses and phone numbers," McAuliffe marvels. "In Florida alone, 1.6 million were wrong."

As election day loomed in 2002, the DNC was racing to get DataMart in working order, and attempted to use it in two last-minute experiments. In New Hampshire, working with the senatorial campaign of outgoing Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the DNC developed a profile of a likely Shaheen voter and identified 60,000 of them for outreach. But time ran out before the Shaheen campaign could contact them. In Arizona, the DNC was able to identify areas of Tucson where voters were likely to support the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic nominee Janet Napolitano but where turnout had been historically light. The campaign put late money into Tucson voter mobilization, a move that's credited for Napolitano's victory.

The party has now cleaned up the lists and is making them available -- along with new technology and newly trained technicians -- to the various state parties. Predictably, Democratic state party chairs are among McAuliffe's biggest backers. "Only half our county chairs even had computers," says Denny White, the chairman of the Ohio party. "Now they all have computers with good voter files on them." The battleground states are also on a McAuliffe-accelerated calendar to get their coordinated campaigns -- the field campaigns for the presidential and other party nominees -- up and running. The DNC has directed the parties to do their hiring this winter (historically, hiring takes place in the summer of an election year) so that the coordinated campaigns will already be in place when the party's nominee emerges from the primary process in March.

McAuliffe plans to deliver another gift to the Democratic nominee this spring. The eventual winner, McAuliffe fears, is likely to emerge from the primary season battered and broke. At that point, Bush will have at least $200 million on hand for media buys. "In 2000, Al Gore was dark," McAuliffe thunders, meaning that the vice president ran no television ads because he didn't have the money, "for 92 days!" Such darkness, McAuliffe vows, will not descend on 2004's nominee. "We will have tens of millions in the bank the day we get a nominee. On March 10, or whenever it is, we'll give the nominee $25 million." In the next breath, McAuliffe whittles the figure down to the $18.6 million the law permits the party to transfer. But his point is that such funding has never gone to the nominee "before September or October of election year."

McAuliffe's fund-raising success may have to do less with anything Democrats support than with something -- or someone -- they oppose. George W. Bush has provided more incentive for Democrats to give money to their party than Bill Clinton did. "I'm sitting here with $10 million in the bank," McAuliffe notes. "In the first nine months of 2003, we've outraised our totals for '96 and 2000"(the last two presidential election years). "And that's with a garbled message! When I have a nominee and we got a message, it's gonna be great!"

The "garbled" message seems to drive McAuliffe a little batty. "Nobody wants a nominee more than I do, because right now, we've got nine voices on Iraq and tax policy," he says. He is plainly pleased that "we'll have a nominee by March 10" or thereabouts; until then, he doesn't really have a distinct product -- save Bush hatred -- to market.

What gets sacrificed in this rush to judgment, though, is voters' ability to get to know the candidates. Nationally, voters really don't focus on them until the New Hampshire primary. But the entire primary season following New Hampshire is compressed to five or six weeks by McAuliffe's fast-forward calendar. McAuliffe defends his calendar by noting that this year, some of the states voting right after New Hampshire -- South Carolina and New Mexico, particularly -- have large minority electorates. But diversity, while good in itself, is no substitute for deliberation.

McAuliffe's critics question more than just his accelerated calendar -- doubting, for instance, whether the DNC's online presence resonates as deeply as it could. "Terry looks at Demzilla as a profit center," says one techie who's worked with the DNC. "Howard Dean's Web site gives his supporters something to do. Somebody in Peoria said, 'I want to build a Peoria for Dean Web site.' The campaign manager said, 'Great.'" At the DNC, there's no such two-way street when it comes to the flow of information. "They mainly want to clean up the state voter files and own the e-mail addresses of registered Democrats," the techie continues. "These are great ideas -- but then what?" The DNC is plainly reaching more Democrats than ever before, but when it comes to creatively engaging its rank and file, it is not in the Dean campaign's league.

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."

One Democratic operative acknowledges, "It's tough for the chair of the DNC, without the force of the White House, to bring congressional leaders together and say, 'This is the message.' But he does need to set up a system where governors, mayors, senators, congressmen can all put out a message they agree upon. I made this case to McAuliffe -- and it wasn't like it was rejected."

Neither, however, has it happened.

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.

Today Rosenthal heads two key 527s: the labor-backed Partnership for America's Families, which financed the astonishing registration program in Philadelphia, and the more broadly funded America Coming Together (ACT). Both organizations will register, propagandize and get out the votes of blacks, Hispanics and working women. Partnership has a $12 million budget through November '04; ACT -- which has received $10 million donations from several wealthy individuals, including George Soros -- is budgeted to spend $98 million.

During Rosenthal's tenure at the AFL-CIO, Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, chaired the federation's political committee. But McEntee had a falling out with Rosenthal and Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern over the establishment of these 527s, so he set up yet another, Voices for Working Families, with a budget of $20 million and a mission essentially indistinguishable from the other two. Whatever rift may have existed at the top, however, a trip to the fourth floor of Washington's 888 16th St. -- the building directly across the street from the AFL-CIO -- shows the two organizations working amicably at the opposite ends of the same hallway. "There's not enough money in Steve's world or mine to handle everything," says Suzy Ballantyne, Voices' executive director, "so it's very easy to divide things up. When we sat down to talk about Florida, it took all of three minutes to decide where we'd go first and where they would."

Yet another organization, Grassroots Democrats, is perhaps the purest artifact of McCain-Feingold. Its mission includes telling state Democratic parties where the 527s are canvassing so that the parties won't duplicate their efforts. (Sharing that information without an intermediary violates the law.) Headed up by Amy Chapman, a former Rosenthal deputy at the AFL-CIO, Grassroots Democrats exists chiefly to funnel contributions to state and county party committees, a function performed in pre-McCain-Feingold days by the DNC.

Then there's America Votes, also on the same floor as the 527s, a group where progressive organizations -- the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the NAACP Voter Fund, unions, the other 527s among them -- meet to coordinate their campaign activities. "Historically," says Rosenthal, these groups "have been tripping over each other. Now we'll know that if [NARAL] is reaching 100,000 voters in Orlando, ACT can look elsewhere."

Finally, because the $18.6 million that McAuliffe will hand the eventual Democratic nominee will buy nowhere near enough ads to counter Bush's, longtime liberal strategist Harold Ickes has established the Media Fund, which will raise between $50 million and $80 million, says Ickes, "to produce and run issue ads between March and the Democratic convention" (in July).

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.

Some argue that the new organizations, and the DNC's own improved outreach efforts, will lead the Democrats back to a more responsive party structure. "When one guy used to walk the ward, he could remember who wanted what," says Laura Quinn, whom McAuliffe hired to assess the DNC's technology. "Now the tools of individual communication allow you to develop that memory again."

It's worth remembering, though, that the old big-city machines weren't exactly models of bottom-up democracy. At their best, they serviced their constituents' needs while setting policy in a thoroughly top-down manner. Still, at a moment when the disconnect between Americans and their politics is as wide as it's ever been, Rosenthal's canvassers and McAuliffe's voter files give the Democrats a chance to forge the first connection they've had in decades with millions of estranged or merely vanished voters.

Not to mention a decent shot at deposing the president. "I will be defined by one race," McAuliffe says. "Do we beat George W. Bush or not? That's what I'll be judged by."

Republican mastermind Karl Rove has made clear that he intends to add many of the 4 million currently unregistered evangelical Christians to the GOP's ranks by next November. What McAuliffe needs to do, with Rosenthal's help, is clearly exceed that total and keep his candidate on the air. If he succeeds, his judges should go easy.

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