Unshackling The DNC

For three years the Democrats have wandered the political wilderness because they have lacked a unifying voice to lead the party. The party, so dependent on the presence of a single leader to give focus to the myriad interest groups that make up its base, has floundered in the absence of such an individual. Only the last few heated months of the primary race re-energized the party and propelled the Dems back into serious contention. But the situation remains basically the same, and the party still runs the risk of similar exile some day in the future. As long as the unity of the ever-fractious Democratic constituency is tied up in party leaders threatened by term limits and local electoral battles, the party remains one unlucky election away from disarray. Fortunately, they already have a perfect candidate to take responsibility for a party-wide message—the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The national committees of the parties represent the safest of safe seats—permanent players able to command the attention of the media. Yet even as the DNC becomes more able than ever to take up the role of spokesman for Democrats at large, the party leadership becomes ever more nervous about letting it grow out of its archaic traditional role.

For Democrats, the last few years have been almost painful to watch. Ever since Al Gore removed himself from the public eye in the spring of 2001, Democrats have been rudderless and without a leader. Confused delegations and weak congressional leadership have led to repeated embarrassments for the party. Democrats endured House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt’s decision to fully support the Iraq war resolution, which divided the party and was a major reason for the GOP’s success in the 2002 midterm elections. They watched Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader, vote in favor of the much-loathed Bush energy bill even as the rest of his delegation fought to block it (Daschle felt he had to support the bill to ensure his own upcoming reelection in South Dakota). And, to top it all off, Democrats have seen their congressional delegations dwindle even further in the years since Bush was elected.

Still, congressional Democrats have not been without some success. The staunchly liberal Nancy Pelosi succeeded Gephardt as leader of the House Democrats on promises to shore up the party’s strength. In the months that followed, she achieved levels of caucus discipline perhaps not seen on the left side of the aisle since the 1960s and the heyday of John McCormack and Carl Albert. Tom Daschle, meanwhile, has made positive strides as well, and has capitalized on the successful filibuster of conservative judicial nominee Miguel Estrada. Senate Dems first targeted their filibustering effort at three of the president’s more rightwing nominees, and recently expanded it to include all nominees in retaliation for Bush’s use of recess appointments—the fight has turned into a rallying cry for dispirited party members.

But the DNC has not come into its own as an effective party tool. For Bill Clinton and his advisors, so adept at building a message that appealed to all of his supporters, a DNC capable of developing a message was superfluous in the 1990s. Instead the DNC was used as an ATM, a megaphone, and a ready-made organization to be deployed whenever an election rolled around.

After the 2000 election, lacking a leader to follow, the DNC found itself at a loss, like a megaphone without a master. As a result, the DNC fell back on its core function—raising money. Fundraising is, after all, the primary strength of the current chairman, Terry McAuliffe, and the reason Clinton installed him in the first place. McAuliffe himself has said that “I do mechanics, not message.” In recent years, he’s displayed his talent, and party fundraising can boast of impressive milestones like taking in $11 million at the recent unity dinner headlined by the Dem presidential candidates, trumping the DNC’s previous best of $4.7 million from a dinner in 2001. Moreover, McAuliffe has eliminated the party’s debt even in the new and unfriendly post-McCain-Feingold world, and raised enough cash both to revamp the party machine and bankroll a respectable campaign in 2004.

The DNC’s efforts to modernize have been myriad, suggesting a willingness to try anything that looks promising. Some improvements have been traditional—the Committee inhabits its own custom-built headquarters for the first time in history. Some have been more technical—the DNC’s research department has doubled in size in recent years and now runs on electronic data, which allows it to convert sources ranging from government documents to television news into searchable electronic documents in days if not hours. DNC staffers claim it is now the best place to start any search for information concerning George W. Bush. The DNC’s commitment to modernization has stretched even to low profile projects, such as becoming one of the first large political organizations to commit attention and resources to the online weblog community, and initiating other online projects such as the ePatriots fundraising scheme.

“Everybody realizes the DNC hasn’t been doing what it needs to do, hasn’t maximized its potential. So they’re doing things that are putting it in a different place, and then you have a somewhat different organization and, hopefully, a more effective one,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a fellow at The Center for American Progress. “But what you actually do with this reinvigorated institution is not worked out.” Indeed, the lack of a plan is what is most hampering the DNC’s efforts at present. So far, they have modernized almost for the sake of modernization, while remaining within the confines of their old outdated role in the party. The money put into rebuilding the institution’s crumbling infrastructure may become McAuliffe’s most important contribution to Democratic prosperity, but only if the organization it has bought is ever put to good use.

At the moment, the DNC is in its quadrennial incarnation as the nominee’s attack dog, making the charges and counter-charges that, if they came from the candidate, would ruin the aura of above-the-fray civility that Kerry must maintain until November. Recent DNC press releases have ranged from serious attacks on the cost of Medicare and job losses under Bush’s tenure to less-than-polite attacks on Bush’s credibility, like the recent exchange of half-joking, half-hostile St. Patrick’s Day limericks between the DNC and RNC.

The DNC has also made more extraordinary moves in recent months. In an unusual flexing of the organization’s influence, McAuliffe’s recent comments on Bush’s dubious National Guard service record shoved the issue from the province of activists like Michael Moore to the front page of national newspapers. Only weeks after Wesley Clark had uncomfortably tried to duck the issue in a debate, McAuliffe made it respectable with a few words on a Sunday talk show, spurring more investigation than had occurred in all of the 2000 campaign. It was an exercise of power that worried members of the Kerry campaign. While the results of the ensuing media attention have been almost entirely positive, staffers from the campaign at the time expressed worry that it was the wrong moment, and distracted the public from the campaign’s preferred talking points.

The lack of any further public discussion of differences between the DNC and the campaign suggests that the two groups have worked out their differences behind closed doors. DNC National Spokesman Jano Cabrera said that the DNC “will play that traditional role that it always plays” in the presidential election, that of organizing in key states and identifying important issues in the campaign.

A spokesman for the Kerry campaign also emphasized the cooperative effort between the two groups, saying “We are working closely with the DNC to get Senator Kerry’s message out to the country.” Still, those in the Kerry campaign seem to treat McAuliffe’s comments as a distraction that they wish would disappear, despite their appreciation for the effects the comments have had. For the DNC, the resulting displeasure from the Kerry campaign is an annoying smudge in an otherwise bright period.

The Democrats now have two choices. One is a return to their previous structure, which has proven both effective, in the Clinton years, and lacking, in the years since then. At best, a strict message discipline will put Kerry in the White House for one or perhaps even two terms. At worst, a loss in this or some future November may very well put the Democrats right back in the position they were in at the beginning of 2001, or maybe even deeper down the hole.

The other choice is to establish a diversified field of major Democratic players loosely coordinated by the DNC, each making their own case for the party’s core issues and against the Republicans. Such a structure could ideally ensure that even a loss this election would not effectively silence major Democratic voices of opposition. More voices mean more opportunity for mistakes, however, and the Democrats are wary of the consequences.

“The risk-averse strategy is to not unleash Terry McAuliffe or anyone else. A slightly more edgy strategy is to…realize that every time they open their mouth they might not help you, but in a general way it’ll help get your issues into the news cycle and counter the Republican machine. That’s the calculus [the Democrats] have to make,” said Teixeira. “The Democratic party has not been notable until very recently, in the last few years, for taking very many risks.”

The lack of any further significant comments from McAuliffe or the DNC at large since the AWOL debate suggests that Democrats have returned to the Clintonian model of one leader, one message, all the time—backing up Teixeira’s suspicions about Democratic timidity and reluctance to try a new strategy. The DNC seems to have resigned itself to its standard role as organizer and money machine.

However, the DNC is already growing too large for this lackluster role. A more independent DNC might be enough to keep the party cohesive after a defeat, and a constant exercise of the national committee’s influence and organization would keep it in fighting shape in the run-up to each new election cycle. The move might even have other unexpected benefits. If it draws its message from the right places and holds tight to a strong Democratic line, the DNC could be able to silence some of the perennial complaints about the undue influence of Beltway interest groups, thus stifling support for Nader-like spoiler candidates. Indeed, a DNC with a voice of its own, or at least without the presidential candidate or congressional leadership holding its tongue, might give renewed life to a real discussion of the party platform.

There is a definite risk to allowing the DNC more room to run without orders from the nominee. A single unified message from everyone with a D after his or her name would be even less likely than it is now. How to ensure that an independent DNC and a nominee’s campaign cooperate, how to reconcile differences between the DNC and nominee’s messages, and how to cope with the lack of absolute unity of message are all problems that the party would have to face. But in the end, the Democrats need to come up with a blueprint for how they will exist in the 21st century. At present, the DNC itself, with its expanding research department and new outreach schemes, seems to be moving towards an era when it might function with some autonomy from the nominee. Democratic leaders, however, still seem nervous about what might happen if they unchain such a large beast, their fears dominated by the possibility of a DNC that is uncontrollable and off-message.

But Democratic leaders might not have to look too far back to find a situation that would assuage their fears. A year ago, nine different people with nine different messages vied for the Democratic nomination. Editorial and Op-ed pages fretted over the damage such a large field of candidates without an obvious front-runner might do to the Democrats. Nine months later, the effect of their chorus of voices on Bush’s poll numbers left many Democrats hoping that the race would last as long as possible. Now, the party has an unchallenged nominee and looks strong going into the summer. So perhaps there’s room for more than one message after all.