Democratic Party Chairman at Odds with His Party’s Rank-and-File?

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, puts the “P” in partisan. As attack dogs go, he’s the pit bull that Democrats believe they need to lead their party. When he rails against President George W. Bush, corporate corruption and the economy, if you’re like me, you stand back a few feet from the television so you don’t get hit by the foam and lather he’s spewing. But it seems that his tofu for you and steak for me routine is wearing thin – and that’s just what his own supporters are saying.

Notwithstanding his in your face approach of partisan politics, it turns out that McAuliffe may be the worst thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter met Ronald Reagan in 1980. The lessons of that election, in which the mild-mannered Southerner accused his opponent of political extremism and ended up in an electoral blowout and a loss of 12 Senate seats for the Democrats, might well have to be learned again.

When Democrats win elections, they do so by forming a coalition of labor unions, minority voters, economic populists, environmental activists, civil libertarians and disaffected independents to drive up turnout and build an electoral groundswell at the grassroots level. Since 1968 this coalition at the presidential level has averaged about 44 percent of the voting electorate. More important, since 1964 this coalition has never exceeded 50 percent of the voting public at the presidential level. Contrast that with the Republican coalition made up of small business owners, married couples with children, economic libertarians, property owners, social conservatives and anti-tax advocates. Since 1968, this voter base has averaged 49 percent at the presidential level and, more important, has been as high as 61 percent.

Herein lies McAuliffe’s problem. To win, Democrats need leaders such as Bill Clinton, who, despite personal failings, unite the party behind a left-of center-agenda and mobilize wide public support for “change” while hoping for a spoiler to divide Republicans. It’s worked three times since 1968. But it’s not likely to work in the next cycle if McAuliffe is still prominent. McAuliffe’s problem is that he embodies everything (except perhaps hypocrisy) that his party’s are opposed to.

Ask Al Sharpton what he believes about “Barbershop’s” treatment of Martin Luther King and you’ll have a sense of what Democrats think about Terry McAuliffe. With practically every action he takes, he gives them reason to remember that he’s not part of their team and, more important, that he doesn’t take them seriously.

McAuliffe doesn’t discriminate. He’s either said or done something that makes a mockery of practically every part of the Democratic Party’s activist base. Consider: environmentalists have a fun time explaining the sprawling real estate development project he spearheaded in the heart of Florida. Or there is the fun that the seniors in the party have justifying his role in squandering $5 million in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ pension program. That chicanery ultimately resulted in a Department of Labor investigation and six-figure fine assessed against two directors of the pension fund.

But wait, there’s more. The union supporters must be really excited about the “communication challenge” involving McAuliffe’s role on the board of a telecommunications firm that fired everyone when it went belly up.

Terry McAuliffe: investor, landlord, corporate negotiator. So much destruction in so little time. You have to wonder if it’s dawning on Democratic activists what this middle-aged white guy with more corporate connections than Kenneth Lay has in common with environmentalists, social liberals and union workers.

Analysts who study voter patterns attribute the steady decline in voter participation to a sense among voters that they don’t really have a choice. Well, it should come as no surprise that Terry McAuliffe’s record repels his own party’s activists. But when your voter bloc over the last 35 years has averaged less than 45 percent you just can’t afford to have them demoralized.

Congressional investigations into Global Crossing – an investment that reportedly made McAuliffe $18 million – will only further this alienation. When McAuliffe is called before Congress to explain his role in Global Crossing (as he likely will be), Democrats had better take the lead in demanding he come clean. Otherwise, the public and party activists will see that the party leader doesn’t believe in their platform. If he doesn’t believe in it, why should they? Next they may find out that he’s not even a vegetarian.


Horace Cooper is a senior fellow of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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