The John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum is usually a sedate place — a venue for sonorous policy debates and sober updates from ambassadors, public intellectuals, and heads of state.
But this week (Oct. 6), Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party operative, took the stage as if by storm, pacing in front of the lectern with his big, hoarse voice and armed with waving hands and a clip-on mic. Midway through, he stripped off his suit jacket and rolled up his white sleeves, ready for battle.
After an hour, when questions from the audience petered out, McAuliffe, a visiting fellow this year at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, seemed crestfallen. “I thought we were going to go all night,” he said.
During his remarks, McAuliffe predicted historic strength and greatness for his party, especially by 2020, when demographic trends could deepen the Democratic hold on black and Hispanic voters.
Still, he warned of possible short-term losses in the 2010 Congressional races, since “that’s the historical trend.” He also cited an important wild card in the political fate of some Democrats: the moribund economy.
McAuliffe took time to argue for age and gender diversity in political organizations at every level; to encourage Democrats in traditional red states like South Carolina and Georgia; and to take a swing at negative campaigning. “People are going to vote for something,” he said, “not against something.”
McAuliffe — an entrepreneur who started 23 businesses, his first at age 14 — has nearly three decades of political experience. In 1980, at age 22, he took a leave from law school to become national finance director for President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 White House bid. That year, while hustling through 40 states, McAuliffe wrestled an 8-foot alligator to raise $15,000 for the campaign.
In the ensuing years, he has organized conventions, inaugurations, campaigns, and (there was some laughter here) “legal funds.” (He called the Clintons — Bill and Hillary — “the most expensive friends I have ever had.”)
McAuliffe was chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the early years of its rebuilding. During his 2001-05 term, the DNC overtook its Republican counterpart in fundraising, bringing in $535 million — still a record. The DNC also modernized outreach, expanding its official e-mail list from 70,000 to 3.8 million.
Earlier this year, McAuliffe entered the Democratic primary for governor of Virginia. (He lost to current nominee Creigh Deeds.) Instead of winning, McAuliffe told his near-capacity forum audience, “I’m here with you.”
The last 18 years have been spent as “a fulltime volunteer” for the Democratic Party, he said — since being unpaid “gives me the freedom to say exactly what I want.”
Last year, he was national chairman of the Hillary Clinton for President campaign, the occasion for a few arm-swinging stories.
McAuliffe rewound the tale of his party’s current strength to 2007-08, when the Democratic primary race was bound to make history either way — with the first woman nominee or the first black.
He defended the decision to fight to the bitter end in the Clinton-Obama race. “It’s good for the process,” said McAuliffe. “It’s up to the voters,” he said of the primary system. “It’s not up to these pundits on television.”
McAuliffe said the Bush presidency — with a 71 percent disapproval rating in the polls at the end — added fuel to a building Democratic fire. “I do want to thank George Bush. He energized a lot of voters.”
That energized voter base is the real legacy of the 2008 race, McAuliffe said — along with states that defied expectation or precedent by falling into the Democratic column, among them North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Virginia went Democratic in a presidential contest for the first time in 44 years.
He said that the Iowa caucuses spelled disaster for Hillary Clinton’s campaign — and missing the news cycle for Clinton’s Indiana primary win hurt too. But in the end, he said, “she ran a great campaign, she worked her heart out, she would have made a spectacular president.”
As for the final race, he polled the audience. Votes for Obama? A waving sea of hands shot up. For McCain? McAuliffe peered out at the crowd, then said, “Give these two souls a round of applause.”
With the Democrats now controlling both Congress and the White House, McAuliffe predicted that a national health care bill will pass, and that legislation for climate change and financial regulation will move onto the capital’s agenda.
He didn’t want to stop the discussion, even when the last question was answered. So McAuliffe ended by dispensing advice to the largely young audience: Get involved, have fun, do what you love, and take risks while you’re still young.
“Don’t get stuck,” he said. “Leave yourself open.”