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Terry McAuliffe Deserves to Take A Victory Lap

Three people will be taking figurative victory laps (security would make a literal lap impossible) around the Fleet Center in Boston this week — Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Kerry’s campaign was near life-support status last December. A series of bold moves, from mortgaging his house to enable him to waive the federal match for contributions and bypass the onerous spending restrictions of the presidential funding system, to pouring serious resources and putting his campaign on the line in Iowa, to shaking up his campaign and bringing in Mary Beth Cahill and Michael Whouley to complement Bob Shrum and others, enabled him to win Iowa, rocket ahead and sweep to an easy victory that has obscured the early difficulties and daring tactics.

[IMGCAP(1)]Edwards also came from behind, falling just short in Iowa (if retired Gen. Wesley Clark had chosen a different strategy and started in Iowa instead of waiting for South Carolina, we might have seen a different outcome). But after Edwards’ run at Kerry fell short a few weeks after Iowa, he turned his focus to nonstop campaigning for the Democratic nominee-to-be, showing his loyalty and energy, and honing and reiterating his message of two Americas, a pointed but not strident populist appeal that seems tailor-made to appeal to swing voters and to hit the Bush administration’s vulnerable areas. Edwards solidified his appeal among Democrats and created excitement wherever he went, without looking as if he were shamelessly auditioning for the No. 2 post.

On to McAuliffe, who deserves the longest victory lap of all three. Full disclosure: Terry was my student many years ago at Catholic University of America. My friend Michael Robinson and I have the unique distinction of having taught both national party chairmen at CUA (along with party and policy guru Tom Donilon, NBC anchor Brian Williams, rising Louisiana political star Mitch Landrieu, and others). For some odd reason, Maureen Dowd, who was also a student at Catholic during Terry and Tom’s time, never took any of our classes in politics.

I got to know Terry well over his four years in college. I have joked in the past about his academic prowess. He was never destined to be an academic superstar like his classmate Tony Corrado. His interests were not directed that way. But it was clear from the get-go that Terry was going to be somebody very special.

He turned out to do both. As party chairman, Terry navigated through the 2000 elections, presided over the 2002 midterms, and has carried his party forward to this convention and will do so beyond it to the fall campaign. After 2000, and especially after Democrats lost seats in both houses in 2002, one of the few midterms in history where the president’s party gained ground, Terry took an enormous amount of flak. Most of the flak he took was nonsense; the results in 2002 were due to extraordinary times and the extraordinary and bold decision by President Bush to campaign personally and hard in a midterm contest — and to use the homeland security issue against Democrats as a central wedge.

Through all of this, Terry also navigated his party through the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known popularly as McCain-Feingold. His own party officials and campaign consultants were relentless and often vicious critics of the bill, arguing that it would kill both political parties, but with the Democratic Party suffering a horrible, painful demise first. Terry turned his focus on how to make reform work and how to make the Democratic Party stronger.

Before BCRA passed, Terry took advantage of the pre-reform system to raise a ton of money to finance a new party headquarters, making it state-of-the-art for the telecommunications age — and presciently geared for Internet fundraising. During and after BCRA, Terry began to build a large base of small donors and to develop a substantial base of maximum donors. He saw that BCRA’s changes in the hard-money contribution limits, including its generous overall amounts available to parties from individual donors, presented opportunities, not just drawbacks.

The numbers, frankly, are stunning, as a guest observer column by Corrado and Thomas Mann in Monday’s Roll Call shows. Both parties have raised more in hard money in this cycle than in hard and soft combined in the previous, and all the party committees — the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — are in solid financial shape, closing the gaps with the Republicans that existed in the pre-reform era. The Democrats have other heroes in this process, including Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), who has done a masterful job heading the DCCC; Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), who is accelerating the pace of fundraising at a remarkable level for the DSCC; and Howard Dean, who paved the way with his astonishing success at Internet fundraising. But Terry can point to a Democratic Party that has a solid grassroots campaign, a healthy, debt-free balance sheet, a unified and disciplined convention, and a base that can be built on for the future.

Go back and read the Congressional Record from the debate in both houses on BCRA. Also read the newspaper accounts at that time. Look at all the predictions made by opponents like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), George Will, Bob Samuelson, and party operatives Joe Sandler and Bob Bauer. Now compare them to the reality. As Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) noted Monday, the aims of the sponsors of BCRA have all been achieved, and the naysayers’ stark and gloomy predictions, especially about the national parties, have been disproved. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rep. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), Meehan and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) deserve the kudos.

All of us believed both parties, relieved of the drug of soft money which had no party-building function, would go back to basics and be stronger. But most of us thought it would take the Democratic Party longer to reach that stage. It took no time at all. True, Democrats’ giving patterns and fundraising prowess have been aided by the deep animus many feel toward President Bush. But that motivation would not be enough without the structure in place, the tools to implement a strategy, and a vision to build a party from the bottom up. Take your lap, Terry. And I’ll go back and change the B in the political parties course to an A-plus.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.