Politics & Policy

Goodbye, Terry, Sorry We Lost

Democrats pay tribute to their losing chairman.

Here’s the dilemma Democrats faced as they staged the enormous and expensive “Tribute to Chairman Terry McAuliffe” at Washington’s National Building Museum Thursday night: How do you pay tribute to a man whose main legacy was losing elections?

And the answer was: awkwardly and painfully.

After the standard gala-evening beginning–”God Bless America” sung by the Urban Nation Hip-Hop choir, an emotional tribute to McAuliffe from actress Ciceley Tyson, and a slide show of McAuliffe’s tenure at the Democratic National Committee projected on huge screens around the room–the program got underway with a dream-sequence video of McAuliffe, sitting with his feet up, at his desk at DNC headquarters.

If only 60,000 votes had gone the other way in Ohio, McAuliffe says to himself, as he begins to doze off. If only…

The video then cut to the opening of CNN’s Crossfire. In McAuliffe’s dream, the program begins with the announcer asking, What’s next for Terry McAuliffe? After the DNC chief led his party to victory in the House, the Senate, and the White House, will McAuliffe now become secretary of Commerce? An ambassador? The sky’s the limit.

And then, awkwardly and painfully, Crossfire co-host–and Democratic consultant–Paul Begala brings McAuliffe’s dream to an end. All those victories were just dreams.

After the video, the Democratic comedian Al Franken took the stage. After a few awkward and painful jokes–Franken tried to get a laugh out of the crowd by saying, “I’m probably the only Democrat who was for the war but against the troops” and then reminding them that he had been on several USO tours–Franken introduced a series of videos from television personalities bidding farewell to McAuliffe.

Each one–from CNN’s Judy Woodruff to Fox’s Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, and Bill O’Reilly to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to CBS’s Bob Schieffer–seemed a reminder of McAuliffe’s record of losing the House and Senate in 2002 and the House, Senate, and White House in 2004.

And then there was NBC’s Tim Russert. On the set of Meet the Press, Russert played clips of McAuliffe predicting a big Democratic victory in the House. And a big Democratic victory in the Senate. And a big Democratic victory in the Florida governor’s race. And a big Democratic victory in the presidential race. Before those predictions, McAuliffe had bet $1,000–to be given to charity–on his side winning. As Russert listed the losses, McAuliffe’s debt rose and rose.

It was all done in good humor, but the effect, at the supposedly gala tribute to McAuliffe, was awkward and painful.

No one seemed to sense that more than Franken. “Didn’t the planners of this event do a great job helping us relive all those losses?” he asked, not even trying to be funny.

Then Franken introduced the evening’s main speakers, former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, former president Bill Clinton, and McAuliffe himself.

Kerry went first. As did all the other speakers, he praised McAuliffe’s talents at raising money. In fact, Kerry said, “I had the perfect job waiting for him if I had won the presidency.” The job was to give McAuliffe a cell phone and a call list and tell him to retire the federal debt. McAuliffe could have done it in no time, Kerry said.

Then Kerry told one of those awkward and painful jokes that he sometimes seemed to specialize in during the campaign. “After I lost, Terry was trying to make me feel better,” Kerry told the crowd, “and he said, ‘Look, the exit polls were all wrong. You won 100 percent of the wind-surfing goose-hunters.”

Then Kerry gave his prescription for what the Democratic party needs to do to win. And the answer was: Nothing. “This great party of ours doesn’t need a makeover,” Kerry said. “This party is poised to win in the future.”

For much of the time Kerry was talking–he went on for quite a while–Clinton and McAuliffe were carrying on a conversation a few feet away on the stage. They weren’t alone. From the din in the cavernous Building Museum’s main hall, it was clear that many of the people in the audience were carrying on their own conversations, too. Nobody was paying much attention to anybody else.

The only time the crowd became even a little bit quiet was when Clinton began to speak. “I truly love Terry McAuliffe,” Clinton said. “I loved his daddy.” The former president also said that he loved McAuliffe’s wife and children.

Then Clinton began a long analysis of the Democratic party’s problems. Winning, he said, wasn’t really all that hard, even though it has eluded Democrats since he left office. “All that has to happen is you have to have a clear vision, a plan for the future, good campaign tactics and fight like the devil,” Clinton told the crowd.

And how should Democrats do that? “We need to brand ourselves better,” Clinton said. “There were too many people who didn’t know why we were Democrats except that we were against President Bush’s policies.”

And then, in the way that Democrats sometimes do when they want to criticize Bush’s economic policies, Clinton branded himself by telling the crowd that he has become very, very rich. Speaking of John Kerry–who by that time was having his own conversation with McAuliffe–Clinton said, “He and I have more money than we need–and so does McAuliffe.” The intended effect of that remark was to suggest a certain amount of selflessness in their opposition to tax cuts and other policies that Democrats say favor the wealthy. The actual effect was to remind everyone that Clinton, Kerry, and McAuliffe are a bunch of rich guys who don’t need tax cuts.

Finally, McAuliffe got his turn to speak. He seemed a bit emotional in his first few moments at the podium, as he thanked everyone for their help during his four years as chairman. And then, as he had done in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and 2004, he gave a rosy assessment of the Democratic party’s prospects. “Our future is bright,” McAuliffe declared, with what appeared to be great sincerity. “We have renewed this party, and now we will renew this country.”

As McAuliffe spoke, Clinton and Kerry began an animated conversation onstage. Members of the audience, too, renewed their loud conversations with one another. And many of them began to leave.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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