Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe is remodeling and expanding a house and doing what every homeowner is warned against: He's paying upfront, down to the wallpaper and faucets, even before the first wall is torn down. The reason is not stupidity but an ingenious, greedy political calculation.
The "house" is a new Democratic Party headquarters and the funds are unregulated campaign contributions known as soft money, which become illegal Nov. 6, thanks to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this spring. McAuliffe, who has to spend the money before the deadline, is disbursing $28 million in frenziedly gathered soft money to create a spanking-new 51,000-square-foot Washington headquarters, complete with the latest in TV and radio studios and digital capability.
It's not that Republicans will be turning away soft money before Nov. 6. But when Democrats are attacking the Bush administration's big-money special interests, it is at least insensitive to, as Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 says, "suck up every $1-million soft-money contribution you can get your hands on." But McAuliffe, who was on record in favor of the soft-money ban, can't seem to help himself. During the Clinton years, no dollar was left unchased by the man Al Gore called "the greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe."
With the party headquarters, he's surpassed himself. Los Angeles moguls Haim Saban and Stephen L. Bing opened their wallets to the tune of $7 million and $5 million, respectively, while others like Houston lawyer John O'Quinn kicked in a mere $1 million.
McAuliffe is using what's about to become illegal to wage the next fund-raising-war--for "hard"-money contributions from individual donors who no longer can funnel unlimited sums through the parties in a short detour to candidates they favor.
As McAuliffe sees it, there is a kind of technology gap between the two parties, and he's determined to close it by building an "arsenal" of high-tech capability. The headquarters is supposed to allow Democrats to catch up to the Republicans in terms of electronic equipment and ability to contact potential donors on a massive scale. Because hard-money donations are restricted to much smaller amounts per candidate, this could substantially affect fund-raising.
The studios in the new Democratic headquarters also will be able to quickly turn out campaign ads and feed them by satellite to local stations.
The Democratic Party has every right to improve its fund-raising ability, but McAuliffe's frenzy to pull in soft money until the last moment is no credit to a party that is making much of corporate misdeeds.