Clinton Follows the Money

The power play was swift, effective and ugly. Within hours of Albert Gore's concession, Bill Clinton was moving the levers of insider politics to install his personal money guy, Terry McAuliffe, as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Albert is already history because Mr. Bill intends to run this party for the next four years. That is terrible news for any hope that the out-of-power Democrats might regenerate themselves as the party of new ideas and fundamental reforms. Clinton will defend his checkered legacy and advance his own unspecified ambitions by dispensing the mother's milk of politics--money--to those Democrats who adhere to his manipulative, hollow style of leadership. Think small, act symbolically. Talk reform, but stick with the New Democrat moneybags on the big economic questions. Among other things, this move makes a weak joke out of the Democrats' supposed commitment to campaign finance reform. Indeed, it insures that the stench of extralegal money scandals that Clinton-McAuliffe generated will continue to hang over the party. Only now, George Bush's Justice Department will be in charge of the investigations and may show more thoroughness than Clinton's has. Has the statute of limitations expired on the 1996 election and other money schemes connected to McAuliffe? Democrats must hope so if they allow this guy to become nominal party leader.

The DNC has not been a meaningful institution for many years--it's a mail drop for political money, that's all--and normally no one except insiders should care who's in charge. But Terry McAuliffe is special. This man has fabulous connections--he reeks of them--but party-building is not among his talents. He raises big bucks for the Clintons' personal debts and the presidential library, even offered to put up $1.35 million in earnest money for their mortgage. He was leading co-engineer of the 1996 fundraising scandals when Clinton blew out the gaskets on the campaign finance laws, when reformers plausibly argued that the "soft money" law (not to mention perjury laws) had been violated by the Clinton money machine. McAuliffe, furthermore, was named in court testimony by a former DNC finance director as the inside player who repeatedly promoted an illegal money swap between the Teamsters and party donors. Teamsters president Ron Carey, the supposed reformer, was tossed from office, two aides pleaded guilty and a third was convicted. McAuliffe's ascension should provide good grist for Senator John McCain's floor speeches on campaign finance reform.

Party leaders and rank-and-file activists should rise up in anger and reject Clinton's clever ploy, though there is little reason to hope they will do so. This deal is wired at the top. House minority leader Dick Gephardt was an usher at McAuliffe's wedding. Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle bubbles up with praise. Leaders of organized labor are cozy with Terry, too. They do union business deals and pension-fund investments with him (including one Florida real estate project the Labor Department investigated because, according to the Orlando Sentinel, McAuliffe realized a $2.4 million profit without investing any money of his own). Friendship trumps principle, especially when money makes the friends.

If McAuliffe gets the DNC job, he will be a living window on the party's cynicism. A few weeks ago, its nominee was promising to fight for "the people against the powerful." The election's over--hold that happy talk about "the people" until the next campaign.

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