Party Crasher

Why is Terry McAuliffe so eager to drop the curtain on the Democratic drama?

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“After February 3, if you haven’t won a contest, you have to assess your candidacy.”

That was the message Terry McAuliffe delivered to the seven remaining Democratic presidential candidates last Friday. Today (it is after Feb. 3, after all), only one of the group took the party boss’ advice to heart: Sen. Joe Lieberman packed it in after another humiliating showing. But, while McAuliffe may hope that other candidates will join Lieberman on the sidelines, others argue that the chairman has again misread the political landscape. The unpredictable and drama-rich contest, they contend, has energized Democrats like never before, while providing the party with a national soap-box from which to take shots at President Bush.

McAuliffe was a outspoken advocate of frontloading the Democratic primaries, shifting the schedule forward to assure an early winnowing of the field. That schedule, McAuliffe argued, would give Democrats plenty of time to raise money, pull together, raise more money, establish a message, and raise a whole lot more money in preparation for the battle royale with Bush, Cheney, Rove et al. Now, with Kerry’s rapid climb, all seems to be going according to McAuliffe’s plan. But is it really best for the Democrats to wrap up their democratic process so soon?

The buzz following Tuesday’s primaries in seven states was mostly about the “energized” state of the Democratic Party. Joe Erwin, the South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman, told US News and World Report, “Yes, we’re a red state. But this primary has so energized us that it is rebuilding the party.” South Carolina’s primary saw record voter turnout – over 270,000 voters cast ballots as John Edwards recorded a vital victory, more than twice the 114,000 that voted in the state’s 1992 Democratic primary. In part, the turnout might be written off to local excitement over native son Edwards and strong African American support for Al Sharpton. But South Carolina isn’t alone. New Hampshire also saw record Democratic turnout. It seems easy to argue that this year’s unusually large pool of candidates, combined with Democratic enthusiasm for unseating Bush, has actually strengthened the party.

E.J. Dionne Jr, of The Washington Post asserted as much Tuesday night on NPR. As long as several candidates are fighting for the nomination, Dionne argued, the Democrats as a whole will continue to get a disproportionate share of airtime, “even here on NPR.”

It’s no coincidence that the recent polls showing both Kerry and Edwards beating Bush head-to-head have come in weeks when Democratic candidates are everywhere in the national media, sometimes taking shots at one another, but always hammering away at the president and his record. As The Christian Science Monitor writes in an editorial, a broader field “will give Democrats more choices, and keep a useful bright light on Kerry.”

“This primary season was purposefully shortened by party leaders. Unfortunately, more debate and campaigning would be useful, even with a winnowed pack, at least through March 2 (Super Tuesday).

Democrats would be better served by more rigorous exchanges on issues like the economy and healthcare – and the wars in Iraq and on terror – rather than negative exchanges between candidates, which only foster cynicism and discontent.”

Even if Kerry has all but wrapped up the nomination, and even if discussion of policy issues falls victim to lackluster campaigning, it’s possible that simply witnessing and taking part in a legitimate, American-as-apple-pie, democratic process could be the perfect cure for the Democratic woes. By cutting short that process, McAuliffe and the Democratic establishment could threaten one of the their best hopes for inspiring a big turnout in November – especially in such key states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, none of which have held primaries yet.

That seems to have been the case in South Carolina, especially among the state’s African American voters. As the Charleston Post & Courier reports, districts with large black populations reported stronger than expected turnout.

“In the hour before polls closed, voters had to wait in a short line to cast ballots at Burke High School. The turnout was “fantastic,” said poll worker Ruth Johnson. “It hasn’t been this way in quite some time.”

Voters cited an array of reasons for participating.

West Ashley resident Allison Smith said she always votes, regardless of the election. She said her first choice had been Howard Dean, but she decided to cast a ballot for John Edwards because she believes he has a better chance to win.

Sadie Fox, a West Ashley resident who cast a vote for Edwards, said she is ready for a change in the White House. “I don’t have a right to complain if I don’t take action, and I’ve done a lot of complaining in the last four years,” she said.”

Finally, McAuliffe runs another risk by rushing to bring the primary season to a premature close. Howard Dean may have failed to win a single state primary, but his supporters remain highly loyal. If McAuliffe is seen pushing Dean from the field before the former Vermont governor is ready, he risks alienating the Deaniacs — and losing any chance to tap their ardor. Marc Cooper, writing for The Nation, found Dean supporters in Arizona already struggling with the prospect of having to support another candidate.

“The dilemma of where-to-go when Dean pulls out was emotionally debated this weekend among a group of “Cyclists for Dean,” who had come from Los Angeles to pedal and canvass the precincts of Tucson. “I don’t think Kerry has much integrity, given how he voted on the war,” said one volunteer as he mounted his bike. “But if I have to, I’ll work for him just as hard as I am for Dean. The point is to defeat Bush.”

But his canvassing partner sharply disagreed. “I can’t say that. I just can’t say that,” she said strapping on her helmet. “I’ll vote for Kerry if I have to. But I won’t work for him like this. I don’t love Kerry like I love Dean. Kerry can be voted for. But Kerry can’t be loved.”

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