Virginia, just say no to Terry McAuliffe

My dinner was interrupted tonight by a phone call from the Terry McAuliffe for Governor campaign. In case you haven’t heard, Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is running for governor of Virginia. No doubt, his campaign wanted my support and likely my money too. Just hearing whose campaign was calling me was enough for me to hang up the phone. While I am a good Democrat, I simply cannot abide this man. I will hold my nose and vote for him in the general election if necessary, because the Republicans will doubtless field someone worse. However, I refuse to vote for him in the upcoming Democratic primary.

You ever see a picture of someone or just hear them and instinctively not like them? I feel that way about Terry. So in part, my reaction is not logical. However, it is not hard to find logical reasons to hope this guy’s campaign flounders. Let us start with the biggest one: despite having a house here in Fairfax County for twenty years, in spirit he is no Virginian. Rather he is a Washington insider intimately connected with national politics.

Nevertheless, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s look at his resume. How did he do as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005? It depends on whom you ask. Friends and partisans like Donna Brazile have plenty of nice things to say about Terry. He was good at raking in the money. During his tenure, the DNC raised a record $578 million. He also compiled a computerized database of over 170 million voters for targeting. It takes money to win elections, of course, but the money he raised apparently was squandered. In the 2002 election, Republicans gained eight House seats and two Senate seats. In 2004, Republicans picked up three more House seats and four Senate seats. In short, all that fundraising prowess was for naught. He left the Democratic Party significantly politically weaker than it was when he assumed chairmanship. The party was so out of touch with many of us Democrats that many like my wife had to be coaxed (or in her case, pushed) into the voting booth. The slate we were given was milquetoast.

What did he do wrong? Clearly he had to deal with some strong Republican headwinds, flamed by 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. It does not matter because he had the responsibility to change the dynamic, and he failed. He lacked the imagination to properly harness the power of the Internet. He raised money the old fashioned way, with rubber chicken dinners for wealthy donors and by sending out fundraising letters to targeted demographics. Nor did he give the Democratic Party a clear and positive message to distinguish its brand from the Republican’s. When he left the DNC, the Democratic Party still looked like Bill Clinton’s party. What it needed was a chairman willing to remake the party into a newer and better brand.

It took Howard Dean to change the dynamics. Dean was somewhat reluctantly elected DNC chairman in 2005, almost as a consolation prize. Dean however had a grasp of the bigger picture and the changing dynamics. Dean may have irritated the party establishment, but he proved to be a focused and agile leader of the party, putting recruiters in all states, not just the swing states. The results in 2006 and 2008 were telling. Democrats now control Congress and the White House. Most importantly, Dean connected with the disenfranchised Democratic voter, people like me who wanted a progressive agenda, not more of the Democratic-lite brand popularized by Bill Clinton. The result was apparent not only in the voting booth, but in bulging DNC coffers and an energized Democratic Party on both coasts and many states in between. Today, compared with a few years ago, significantly more Americans identify themselves as Democrats than they do Republicans.

In short, despite his protests to the contrary, McAuliffe represents the Democratic Party that was, not the Democratic Party we are today. Apparently, he figures he can use his old-school skills to buy his way into the governor’s mansion. With his well-practiced schmoozing, he will likely have little trouble raising more funds than his two announced primary challengers. He also looks trim and dashing in his three-piece suit. To try to connect with Virginians beyond the Capital Beltway, who he knows tangentially at best, he is trying to do a Mark Warner thing and visit every part of the state. The problem is that he comes across as a Washington insider because, well, he is.

Call me old fashioned, but if I am going to vote for someone for governor, can they first have experience in state and local government or running a business or large non-profit in the state? McAuliffe has none. He knows as much about the Virginia beyond the beltway as he does about city council elections in Fargo, North Dakota. At best, he only dimly understands the culture of the state, which is complex and very polymorphic. How would he get along with the Virginia legislature, which has one house firmly in Republican hands? Many prominent Virginians who have spent many years in public office do understand the dynamics of our state government. McAuliffe appears clueless.

Virginia, don’t be mesmerized by this fast-talking Washingtonian. McAuliffe’s real destination is the White House. The governor’s mansion in Richmond is just a way station. Elect someone who understands our state. Just say no to the slick and superficial Terry McAuliffe.

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