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Clinton's Party

Terry McAuliffe, friend of Bill, seizes the Democratic reins

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MATTHEW REES
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IN AUGUST 1986, Life magazine published a short profile of a precocious 29-year-old Democratic fund-raiser named Terry McAuliffe. It described McAuliffe as specializing in a "zany mix of sledgehammer persistence and personal magnetism," and it illustrated the point with an account of how he once wrestled an alligator in order to get the Seminole Indians of Florida to fork over a $ 15,000 contribution. Conveniently, a photo of McAuliffe in action found its way of Life's photo department.


The episode has become a staple of McAuliffe profiles written as he's ascended through Democratic politics. But omitted from these write-ups has been any reference to the letter Life subsequently published from a reader who had scrutinized the photograph. The alligator, far from being dangerous, had had its mouth tied shut, rendering it "as dangerous as a three-month old kitten." The reader observed, "If McAuliffe wrestled with anything, it must have been his conscience, and his conscience lost."


Now that McAuliffe is slated to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, this anecdote nicely captures what's likely to be the upside, and the downside, of his leadership. He will remain dogged in the pursuit of campaign contributions (it's noteworthy that as long ago as 1986 he was hitting up groups, like Indian tribes, who probably had no business making political donations). But in this pursuit he's destined to employ tactics that, like the tying up of the gator, violate the spirit of the game.


Just ask those who have studied his now legendary fundraising tactics for Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection effort. McAuliffe was the first to urge stepping up the use of White House hospitality, including the renting of the Lincoln Bedroom, as a lure to donors. One longtime advocate for campaign-finance reform of the McCain/Feingold variety, asked to assess the choice of McAuliffe to run the DNC, replied, "He single-handedly destroyed campaign-finance law in the United States."


It might seem odd to have a figure like McAuliffe lead a party whose elected officials almost unanimously support doing away with the fund-raising practices he helped pioneer. But don't expect much bellyaching from them, at least not in public. Distasteful though he may be, "the Macker," as he calls himself, is drooled over by party leaders. Al Gore, in a speech last May, made clear why. McAuliffe, he said, is "the greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe."


Gore had it right. McAuliffe has set all sorts of records for fund-raising, like the gala in Washington's MCI Center last May that netted $ 26.5 million in a single night, but the best way to measure his effectiveness is to take note of how other leading Democrats treat him. Richard Gephardt, a man not known for being warm and cuddly, once bought a golden retriever puppy, had it house-trained, and then personally presented it to McAuliffe on Christmas day, according to Fortune. A few years ago, Gore lobbied McAuliffe to accept the chairmanship of the DNC, and when he refused, Gore resorted to lobbying his wife. As for Clinton, he offered McAuliffe one of the most highly sought-after ambassadorships, Great Britain, even though McAuliffe's foreign-policy experience is said to be limited to owning an Irish bar in Washington, D.C.


McAuliffe declined the London posting in order to assist Al Gore's fledgling presidential campaign, but Clinton still found a way to pay his golfing buddy back. Within 48 hours of Gore's concession to George W. Bush, Clinton had put out the word that McAuliffe was going to be the next DNC chairman (Clinton's gratitude stems in no small part from McAuliffe's having raised $ 300 million in recent years for various Clinton causes). Bill Richardson, who wanted to run, and whose service as Clinton's bagman on numerous issues would seem to have earned him the right to run, was told in plain language to forget it. But Maynard Jackson, the former mayor of Atlanta, decided late last week to challenge McAuliffe, saying, "I don't think we can be so preoccupied with money that we forget about the grass-roots."


McAuliffe's expected accession guarantees Clinton will remain an active figure in Democratic politics. It's also an early indicator of just how primed Democrats are to win congressional majorities two years from now, and to take back the White House in 2004. For if there's one thing McAuliffe will deliver as party chairman, it's money, and lots of it. Indeed, there's little doubt that with McAuliffe at the helm the DNC will, over the next few years, raise more money than ever before, even without the benefit of the Lincoln bedroom.


That will win him plaudits from Democrats. So will his expected willingness to accept a role that's relatively narrow. After the harrowing experience with Ed Rendell, the recently departed party chairman who committed a gaffe nearly every time he spoke, leading Democrats will be happy with McAuliffe if he functions as nothing more than a full-time fund-raiser. Mike McCurry, a former Clinton spokesman and an enthusiastic McAuliffe backer, thinks his friend will be content with this role: "He is more on the schmooze side than the substance side of politics."


But Democrats can only keep their fingers crossed and hope that the thin ice on which McAuliffe skates never caves in. Over the past decade he's been mixed up in a number of complicated business deals that have attracted the scrutiny of federal investigators. Republicans are likely to intensify the scrutiny of McAuliffe; a leading Republican strategist told me, "Choosing him is very risky. There's so much attached to him that something is bound to blow up." McAuliffe naturally professes total innocence -- he once told Business Week, "The worst thing I've ever gotten is a speeding ticket." One of those who vouch for him is his fund-raising mentor, Tony Coelho, the former congressman who temporarily chaired Gore's presidential campaign. ("He's about as honest as they come," Coelho once told reporter Tim Burger.) But given Coelho's own checkered past, praise from him for honesty is a bit like praise from Madonna for modesty.


Those potential problems notwithstanding, McAuliffe would seem to be well positioned to have a successful chairmanship. In the aftermath of the Florida election controversy, Democratic voters are infinitely more hyped up than they otherwise would be after losing a presidential election. And their party is poised to win majorities in the House and Senate two years from now, for which McAuliffe will inevitably get a chunk of credit. He may even help prevent an excessively divisive presidential nominating process in 2004, given his clout within the party -- not to mention his experience wrestling alligators.




Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.