It was March 2-Super Tuesday-and John Kerry was in the process of nailing down the Democratic nomination for President. And no sooner had Mr. Kerry emerged from his huge victory, having burned through millions of dollars, than the Bush-Cheney campaign announced the launch of its first major television ad campaign.
For a certain Democratic Party chairman, it’s all happening right on time.
“I’ve been saying this for three years!” said Terry McAuliffe, the oft-maligned head of the Democratic National Committee, in a telephone interview with The Observer . “Bush is going to go up [with ads] in 17 states and … the D.N.C. has $17 million to respond. I’ve said this for three years, and I don’t know why you guys didn’t listen.”
There have been times when Mr. McAuliffe’s self-promotional tendencies have rubbed some people in the party the wrong way. But now, it seems, it may be time to gloat a little bit. With the results from today’s Super Tuesday primaries essentially ending the nomination contest, the D.N.C. and Terry McAuliffe score a major victory. The nomination proceedings are coming to a close right on the schedule he envisioned back in 2001, when he arranged for a front-loaded primary season.
“Even my biggest critics are saying this was a good idea,” said Mr. McAuliffe, without any attempt at false modesty. “Bill Kristol, talking on Fox, called me a genius.”
After three years of absorbing criticism as an ineffectual appendage after the embarrassments of 2000 and 2002, the D.N.C. is looking to carve out a substantial place for itself in whatever success the Democrats enjoy this year. Interestingly, conventional wisdom had it that party committees would dry up and blow away this year. Because of campaign-finance rules imposing restrictions on their ability to raise money, it was presumed that donor money would find its way into other channels. Speculation about the D.N.C.’s demise was heightened by the runaway fund-raising success of Howard Dean, whose gleeful mockery of the traditional party establishment only seemed to underscore its irrelevance.
This has not been the case. Between Dr. Dean’s collapse, Mr. Kerry’s string of successes and a series of legal decisions threatening the very survival of the independent soft-money groups, the party and Mr. McAuliffe-the fast-talking Syracuse native who is closely aligned with Bill and Hillary Clinton-are back in business.
The party has already raised $17 million in a “Presidential nominee” fund, specifically to spend when a nominee emerged from the primary-presumably broke and up against a barrage of Republican ads. But the D.N.C.’s potential as the party’s pre-eminent fund-raising apparatus isn’t close to being realized: Because of campaign rules that allow it to raise and spend money in coordination with the candidate, the committee will be a massive conduit for Democratic funds. That will allow Mr. Kerry to play on a relatively even field with an extremely well-funded Bush-Cheney campaign. In addition, the committees are allowed to raise money in chunks of $25,000, as opposed to the $2,000 increments that limit the candidates.
Of course, even with this success, there is also no shortage of critics within the Democratic Party itself. Though few wanted to air their gripes on the record, even those who had kind things to say about the D.N.C.’s work had reservations of one sort or another about the voluble chairman. “He doesn’t do a good job communicating,” said one operative. “Whatever stuff he’s accomplished with putting infrastructure in place, he’s just not a good representative of the party.”
Mr. McAuliffe, and the rest of the staff at D.N.C. headquarters, may also find their roles redefined after the primary, when Kerry campaign loyalists start moving in to take responsibility for many of the committee’s activities.
Mr. McAuliffe said in the interview that it’s “not his job” to have a message for the party, and that the committee’s primary responsibility of raising money and building infrastructure has been accomplished. He said that he and his staff have been talking to all of the campaigns “for months” about how to facilitate a smooth staffing transition after the primary, and added that he has talked to Dean campaign chief Roy Neel this week about possibly tapping into some of Dr. Dean’s success in reaching out over the Internet.
And as far as other voices in the party who say they lack confidence in the D.N.C.’s leadership, Mr. McAuliffe said, “The money we’ve raised speaks for itself.”
Asked whether he felt redeemed by recent events, he said, “I don’t work for redemption. The only redemption I want is winning the White House.”
With the fate of other independent fund-raising committees dependent upon a complex set of decisions to be rendered by the Federal Election Commission, it’s possible that Mr. McAuliffe’s D.N.C. will turn into a giant loophole of sorts, bankrolling the Kerry campaign when it runs out of money down the stretch. And the party committee will also have other unique assets on which to draw. One is a brand-new high-tech headquarters, built largely with the last wave of soft-money donations before they became illegal. Another is a massive database of 168 million names-a unique asset in Democratic politics-that it will try to leverage into the sort of fund-raising explosion envisioned by Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who dreamed of every registered Democrat donating $100 apiece. The Republicans have long excelled at raising money through the sort of direct solicitation this database makes possible, but this will be the first election in memory in which the Democrats have a chance to do something comparable.
“We can imagine a scenario where the convention itself is dedicated to launching this $100 revolution, and calling upon every passionate Democrat, and anyone passionate about defeating George Bush, to sign up with the DNC and give $100 before Labor Day,” read an entry on the New Democrat Network blog by the group’s president, Simon Rosenberg. “And from the end of July through mid-September every elected leading Democrat-elected official, pundit, allied group member, blogger, community leader-makes it their business to get every member of their professional and personal network to join the $100 revolution and give the DNC $100.”
Fund-raising mechanics aside, the other major factor aiding the party in its work is the same one that has propelled Mr. Kerry to such a convincing string of victories: the party’s new pragmatic streak. Chastened by defeat and being locked out of power in Washington, the famously uncooperative Democrats seem more willing than ever to fall into line.
“It’s a much easier job for the party this time around,” said Democratic operative Kevin McCabe. “Democrats just hate Bush, and they’re just so mad about everything else that’s going on that they’re willing to coalesce around whoever wins.”
For some Democratic insiders, the party’s return to fashionability is just a reflection of fickleness by cynical pundits. Political consultant Howard Wolfson, with more than a hint of irony in his voice, predicted the new story line thusly: “New conventional wisdom: Kerry wasn’t the only winner on Super Tuesday-McAuliffe comes off looking great, and the D.N.C. is newly relevant.”
The question now is whether the D.N.C., and the party as a whole, is merely enjoying a brief moment in the sun following a relatively painless primary process. After all, for whatever success the committee has enjoyed in raising money, the Democrats are still on a different plane from the Bush-Cheney campaign, which will probably raise $200 million in small “hard money” contributions alone. And as the upcoming ad campaign shows, the G.O.P. hasn’t yet begun to fight.
Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said that the President and the Republican Party still enjoyed much broader support from their contributors than anything the Democrats have mustered so far. “Since George W. Bush was sworn into office, the R.N.C. has received one million donations from first-time contributors,” she said. Those contributions averaged $30.
She predicted that the Democrats would rely largely on outside advocacy groups to promote their message. “If Terry McAuliffe truly has such confidence in the D.N.C.’s fund-raising ability, he’ll put his money where his mouth is and ask groups like MoveOn.org [an influential liberal advocacy group] to abide by campaign-finance laws.”