American Democracy From the Eyes of a Democratic Fundraiser

Terry McAuliffe, former head of the Democratic National Committee and chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, on the Democratic vision of America and why we have yet to achieve it.

February 27, 2007  |   Terry McAuliffe, former head of the Democratic National Committee, is a very accomplished player in American politics, and as the chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he will be in the spotlight again for the next two years.

McAuliffe claims he does what he does so the average American can enjoy a chance at the American dream. A self-described Irish storyteller, he’s written a lively book about his political career, the kind an average American can enjoy.

The book, “What a Party,” is a fun read. But I also wonder what Terry McAuliffe has learned in the trenches about why that vision of an America that serves the people has been so difficult to achieve? Why has it been so hard to win elections with that laudable objective? And why so hard to implement when in power? Think universal healthcare.

After years of fundraising for Democrats, McAuliffe chaired the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, then served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005. For the first time the DNC raised more than the RNC — over $535 million.

McNally: When did you start your first business?

McAuliffe: When I was 14. My father had said, “Terry, you want to go to college, that’s great. You’ll have to pay for it.” I was walking home one day in Syracuse, N.Y., after caddying — carrying two golf bags up and down hills for five hours. I got about ten dollars, so basically I was getting $2 an hour. I figured I was throwing my life away. I got to start my own business. I got to get going.

I saw a guy out doing his driveway, hot tar all over him, and I said that’s what they’ll hire young kids to do. Got home, typed up a letter, went door to door, had 10 to 15 jobs my first day, From there, I went out and conned my uncle out of a truck, started buying all the tar wholesale, and I was off to the races. It was a great experience.

McNally: How did you first get involved in politics in a big way?

McAuliffe: My father was the treasurer of the Onadaga County Democratic Party. Ever since I was just a toddler, he had me going to events with him. I met LBJ when I was just a little tyke. I’ll never forget huge LBJ looking down and asking, “How you doing, son?” Probably the only time in my life I was speechless. And I just stayed active. I did petition drives, licked stamps, sealed envelopes …

McNally: You were financial director for Carter’s reelection campaign at 22 … ?

McAuliffe: I was going to law school. Friend of mine working in the Carter campaign said they needed help raising money. I’d never done it before, but I said, “Oh, heck, I can always go to law school.” I left, and within a year I became Carter’s No. 1 fundraiser and then his finance director.

McNally: “What a Party” is not your normal political memoir. How did you decide to write this book in this way at this time?

McAuliffe: I put it all out there — about Yassir Arafat rubbing my leg at dinner one night, about the Korean Secret Service thinking that Bill Clinton and I were lovers. It’s about 400 pages, and I think you’ll actually laugh at most of ’em.

But on the serious side, I got really upset after the 2004 election. We should have beaten George Bush by 10 points. I thought the Kerry campaign blew it. Now I don’t write this book to be negative. In fact, I sat with John Kerry at dinner and said here’s what I’m writing. A lesson is learned by mistakes, so I figure it’s time to lay it out. I talk about what we did wrong in 2000, and about the three or four things we really screwed up in 2004. Absolutely handed the election to George Bush. Got to learn by that if we’re going to win in 2008.

McNally: Tell us those three or four things.

McAuliffe: You should know Kerry agrees with me, so it’s not like he’s mad.

He should have responded to the Swift Boats ads immediately. The man went to Vietnam, fought for this country; George Bush didn’t — and we lose the issue.

Second thing, we’re not allowed to use George Bush’s name at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Could not use his name. So how do you beat a guy if you can’t even talk about him at your convention?

McNally: That was the word put out by the Kerry campaign … Bush had shown such incompetence, and they wouldn’t let anyone criticize … ?

McAuliffe: Including me. The chairman of the party, that’s your job.

And third, the day Bush said on the Today show that he couldn’t win the war on terror. In the book, go through this one ad nauseam, which will sicken your stomach. How I tried to call John in Nantucket. “Get off the island. Go to Pennsylvania, where United 93 went down, and say, ‘I’ll win the war on terror.'”

Bush just said he couldn’t win what was his only argument for reelection, and no one told John about it supposedly. And the press asks him, and he’s out windsurfing. Huge mistake for us. Blown opportunity, Bush went out the next day, cleaned it up.

And one thing I’ll never get over — they had $15 million left in the bank on election day. Here I am at the party, having outraised the Republicans. I even secretly borrowed an extra $10 million the weekend before, just in case. And they were sitting on this money. For the life of me, I can’t understand why.

McNally: Could that $15 million have made a difference in Ohio?

McAuliffe: Absolutely. Do you know what $15 million could do for turnout? The Kerry campaign was not doing any black radio two or three weeks before the campaign; they were not building up the grass roots. You could have done phone banking.

McNally: Would that have just made voters wait 12 hours instead of 10?

McAuliffe: In fairness, a couple of colleges had the 10-hour wait, but many places they didn’t have to wait. We just had to increase the vote and change the vote. $15 million. People didn’t give money for it to sit in a bank account after an election. I just can’t get over it.

McNally: Two workers in Ohio were convicted of acting improperly with the regard to the recount. In Ohio, if someone asks for a recount, you count a few sample precincts. If they line up with the original vote, you don’t have to recount the rest. These two locked the doors and cherry picked the precincts — found some that aligned with the original vote, and put those out as the sample precincts. It should be front page news.

McAuliffe: I hadn’t heard that. They ought to put them away for 100 years.

McNally: — about page 17 of the L.A. Times.

You say that the reason for your work in politics is not just about raising the money or winning the elections, it’s about making the American dream available to more Americans.

You also make the telling point that it’s one thing to talk and write about politics. It’s another thing to do politics, and you’ve been willing to get down and dirty and fight the fight.

You made enormous progress at the DNC — in terms of developing a database, harnessing electronic media and raising money. Yet against a party and an administration that got very little right and some important things tragically wrong, Democrats lost in ’02 and in ’04. How did that happen?

McAuliffe: Pretty much 9/11. The 2002 election was all about the war on terror. It was too close to 9/11 and Bush very effectively — with the White House and the bully pulpit — scared the daylights out of voters.

I mean, they ran ads against Max Cleland in Georgia, you know, Max a triple amputee from Vietnam. They ran ads of him with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein. But Max should have swung back.

Joe Lieberman came up with the idea of Homeland Security. They took the issue away from us and all of a sudden somehow, we’re not patriotic ’cause we weren’t supporting all the legislation the way the Republicans want it.

McNally: They put the vote up just before the election. They were forming Homeland Security, a former Democratic idea, but you couldn’t unionize the workers.

McAuliffe: They were collapsing nine federal agencies into Homeland Security. So people who were going into this new agency wanted to take the benefits that they’d accrued working for the federal government. The bill said no, you’re starting at Ground Zero. Well that was crazy, if you’ve worked for the federal government for 25 years …

McNally: It was a set up. That’s only fair to people who’ve worked all their lives.

McAuliffe: So that was 2002.

2004 we should have won. I mean we won a lot of elections around the country. I talked about a few things that John did. He also did a lot of things right, but you know he had some bad breaks. I mean six days before the election Osama bin Laden did the video — which I knew was going to happen — and he talked about red states, blue states … This guy knew more about American politics than many Americans.

And it scared the daylights out of people. The swing voters we had we lost overnight. The problem was, John did not establish the basis that he was keeping us safer than George Bush. And when John said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [October 2003 supplemental funding bill for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it,” we lost our foundation.

So 2004 I can explain very easily. Never has another party beaten an incumbent president in a time of of war, but these were extraordinary circumstances. We should have beaten him by ten points.

McNally: The team of Bush and Rove are electoral savants — good at demonizing and defining opponents, winning elections, but with no inclination to govern.

McAuliffe: John Kerry came to my office on March 10th, sat with me for an hour one on one: “Terry what are you worried about?” I said, “John, they’re going to come at you hard,” and he said, “Terry, don’t worry about it. They come at me, I’m going to go back at them harder.”

McNally: When Bush and Cheney won — not were elected, but won — in 2000, I had the image of the 20th century reaching up out of the grave and saying not so fast, I’m not going without a fight. Gore’s was to be the first 21st century administration, but it was stolen, and we end up with two oil guys in the White House. We’ve gone backwards the last six years — on energy, on environment, corruption, war.

McAuliffe: Look what Enron did here. I started raising heck about that day one. We were all proven right. They manipulated your supply, your prices, look what they did to you folks out here in California. This administration was bought and paid for by the huge energy concerns, plain as day. They write an energy policy, and they don’t want to tell you who’s in the room with them. I mean, come on, this is democracy?

McNally: You’re willing to fight like the Republicans, and you’re able to raise money like them. What have you learned in the trenches about why your vision of an America that serves the people has been so difficult to achieve?

McAuliffe: What Hillary took on in 1993 — and she’s quoted all through my book — she had no idea they’d come at her the way they did. They made it look like her plan was so complicated and you could not go to your own doctor. Her idea was, listen, let’s make it universal healthcare, make it more affordable. Let’s make it competitive.

At the time we had 32 million Americans with no health insurance, now we have 50. She was right. Did we go about it the wrong way? Yeah, probably. Tried to do too much too quick. Live and learn, I’d rather have somebody who made mistakes and gets up and does it again.

But you’ve got to understand there are very powerful interests in Washington who spend a lot of money lobbying. I hate these earmarks. Nancy Pelosi, God bless her, she said let’s get rid of all the earmarks. I cannot say enough, how much I respect her for doing that. We need to clean up Washington.

McNally: What if money is the obstacle? What if the way we finance politics no longer serves your reason for doing politics? Everyone points to the Kennedy-Nixon debate as the dawn of the age of television. A few elections later began the even more influential age of television ads — and the cost of campaigns skyrocketed. What if the price of democracy has become too high for the average American to afford?

You’re a great salesman. How would you sell public financing of elections?

McAuliffe: I don’t take any pay for this … I’d love it if I didn’t have to raise anymore money. I think the public financing system we have today is absolutely broken, there are so many holes in it.

McNally: The system where you check off a box on your tax return. In 2004 the lead candidates said they wouldn’t take it in the primaries. Hillary’s already said she’s not taking it in the primaries or the general, and people say any candidate who’s going to run seriously is going to have to do the same …

McAuliffe: You can only give at the most $2,100 to Hillary or any of the candidates. Or twice, $4,200. But on the outside there are all these independent groups, 527’s, who literally spend zillions of dollars. The Swift Boat campaign was a 527. There’s no control, they can say whatever they want. So unless you shut the 527’s down, it sort of defeats the whole purpose.

McNally: What about real public financing? The kind of system that’s in place in Vermont, Maine, Arizona? I’ve said since the 2004 election that people may care about the environment or healthcare or anything, but if we focused on getting public financing of elections, then we’d have a chance to pass things for the average Joe you talk about.

McAuliffe: It’s really not the campaigns that you’re beholden to, because nobody can give more than $2,100. We’ve really got to raise most of our money through the Internet and small donors. The big distinction is the lobbyists and the lobbied interests.

I wish you’d get rid of all of it, I couldn’t agree with you more. We raise all this money to go on television and do these ads which I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to, now with TiVo and everything else.

McNally: And the money channels right through. You take it from a corporate donor, you pay for a television commercial, you go on television and it’s gone.

So you would be for public financing?

McAuliffe: Sure. I have never lobbied. I’m not into that game up there on Capitol Hill, but I know enough of what goes on. These people need to raise money to run their ads and all that. Lobbyists raising a lot of money, it’s how the system works. If you can get rid of all that — I would love a shortened season, the way England does it, I think it’s terrific. And give people equal access to television. I would love debates where people actually get to ask questions. I think the debates are the best part of the whole presidential process.

McNally: So you’re for free TV, real debates, and shorter campaigns. Of course, this is going to be the longest one yet.

McAuliffe: It’s going to be the longest general election, ’cause the primaries will be over on Feb. 5th, unfortunately.

McNally: If Hillary gets elected, would you devote yourself to passing public financing?

McAuliffe: You think these candidates enjoy this? They hate it. I can’t get Hillary to make a money call; she hates it. Every candidate hates it. Bill Clinton never would make a call in his life. And when you’re in the House and Senate, you’ve got to go to these fundraisers every night. It stinks.

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