Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe is not leaving quietly.
With two days left before he hands the gavel over to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, McAuliffe was running at full speed yesterday, wrapping up the last details of the party's finances, lunching with reporters, and being feted at a gala whose speakers included former president Bill Clinton and the party's 2004 presidential nominee, John F. Kerry.
Clinton used his remarks to warn Democrats to set aside ideological differences, develop a national message and embrace the centrist politics he practiced, rather than lurching to the left in the wake of two losses in two presidential elections.
"Every time I see somebody who identifies himself as a liberal saying I betrayed the liberal base of the party, I want to say 'How?' " Clinton said, arguing that his presidency had boosted the middle class and the poor and that his policies had brought gains for women, minorities and gays. "We've got to stop beating on each other and redirect our fire against the people we disagree with."
Last night's bash was a grand send-off for McAuliffe, who just two years ago was the target of pointed criticism for the party's midterm election losses and the subject of articles and editorials suggesting he ought to resign. Now, in his last days, McAuliffe is being hailed for modernizing the national committee and for the first time outraising the Republicans in a presidential election cycle -- though the results were another string of losses for the Democrats last November.
The man who called himself the chief cheerleader of the Democratic Party used his lunch to offer opinions that might make even free-speaking Dean wince, as he attacked some of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, criticized some decisions by Kerry's campaign and accused abortion rights activists of unfairly attacking one of the candidates to succeed him.
McAuliffe lavished praise on Kerry himself. "John Kerry ran a great race," he said. "We had every player on the field. We had more money. We had the largest field operation. We got close. We got to the 1-yard line. But we didn't win. John Kerry gave it all he had."
Then came the criticism. "Should we have responded to the Swift boats [veterans' attacks on Kerry]? No question," he said. And he was clearly rankled by the Kerry campaign's decision not to attack President Bush at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last summer.
"I think, to be honest with you, it was ridiculous," McAuliffe said. When he received the final approved draft of his convention speech, he recalled, "I just threw it in the air and said, 'Why don't we just say George Bush is a great guy? We can do better.' . . . Meanwhile, they [Republicans] go to New York and spend four days ripping our face off and they go up 10 points in the polls."
A Catholic, McAuliffe said criticism of Kerry's support for abortion rights by some members of the church's hierarchy was beyond the pale. "I was very dismayed at the Catholic Church in last year's election," he said. "The way they went into their pulpits and told people it was a sin to vote for John Kerry was nothing short of just outrageous."
But he minced no words in criticizing abortion rights activists for attacking the candidacy of former Indiana representative Timothy J. Roemer for party chairman because Roemer opposes abortion rights. "There was a lot of negativity by campaigns in the chair's race, and I thought it was over the top as it relates to Tim Roemer," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe, who is close to Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), arrived in his post four years ago with a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser from the old school, comfortable in the pre-campaign-finance-reform world of big soft-money contributions.
But faced with new rules and a declining base of small donors, McAuliffe turned around the party's fundraising operation. In the 2003-2004 cycle, the DNC raised $402 million to the Republican National Committee's $392 million. McAuliffe said yesterday that $248 million came from small donors.
Democrats give him considerable credit for that achievement, but it was Dean who first showed the party how much could be collected by appealing to rank-and-file activists through the Internet. Kerry's campaign also set records for fundraising by tapping into the same anti-Bush sentiment that fueled contributions to the party.
On his way out the door, McAuliffe has been busy, dispensing money to the gubernatorial campaign in Virginia and to the party's House and Senate campaign committees. He also has established a center on faith and outreach to overcome the Democrats' perceived values gap.
McAuliffe offered only a little advice to his successor, who will be elected tomorrow, saying Dean must rebuild state parties the way the national party was revamped the past four years. And, he said, the party must find a message. "It all comes down to message," he said.
Like many Democrats, McAuliffe said he mistakenly believed Kerry had won on Election Day, based on what turned out to be incorrect exit polls. But until he learned the truth, McAuliffe said, he had a wonderful time thinking about the possibilities.
"I had the greatest eight hours of my life," he said. "I mean, I was secretary of commerce, I was ambassador to England. Honestly, I had never felt better from the eight hours that I had."