What a day of all days for Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe to have a sit-down with reporters and editors of the Times. It occurred last Wednesday, and while this may not have made a speck of difference in your life, I promise you it did in Carl McCall's, because the McAuliffe encounter took place concurrently with the candidate's first and much-anticipated appearances on the stump with Bill Clinton.
So while McCall was trying to generate some badly needed heat, McAuliffe was telling the newspaper of record that electing McCall was not among his highest priorities. The Times front-paged the McAuliffe interview and folded the Clinton coverage into the body of the story -- on the jump, so deep in the B section that Chief Moose might've had trouble finding it.
Okay, McAuliffe didn't exactly have his thinking cap on tight when he decided to say this publicly. When will Democrats figure out that you keep these things private? Maybe they'll start now, since McAuliffe's frankness has cost him $260,000, which he agreed to hand over to McCall after the Times story hit. But Republicans almost never do this sort of thing. They live by what I call the Vince Dooley rule. Dooley was the coach of the University of Georgia football team when I was a kid. Dooley's rule coming into a game was: Always make it sound close. If he was playing Nebraska, he'd talk about how raring to go his dawgs were. If it was Northeast Georgia Teachers College for the Blind, he'd talk about how his boys looked overconfident in practice, and by God, they've got a punter over there who just scared the bejeezus out of him.
The Republicans are better Dooleys. If the Detroit Free Press asked Republican National Committee chair Marc Racicot how committed he was to the aptly named Dick Posthumus, the gubernatorial candidate in Michigan who's on his way to being terminated by Democrat Jennifer Granholm (they've dubbed him "Dead Man Walking"), Racicot would carry on about how wonderful Posthumus was and how you could just feel the excitement on the streets. He wouldn't give Posthumus a dime, of course. But this is how you do these things.
But: Can anyone honestly say that McAuliffe was wrong? No. McAuliffe has a country to think about, and all over that country right now, last-minute money is streaming into races from GOP corporate donors, mostly in close contests, to fund attack ads, most of which are nothing but lies. The Democrats can't match that. McAuliffe has to spend his last-minute money with special care.
The fact is that the governor's race in Illinois is closer -- also those in Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona, even Ohio, where the Democrat will not beat Republican incumbent Robert Taft but has shown a good deal more pluck, frankly, than McCall has. And then, of course, there's Florida, where taking out pudgy Jebby would prove the existence of a just God (or maybe a vengeful one, better still).
Another point about governorships: The Democrats need to think about 2004, and which governor's mansions it will be especially important for them to control in order to boost their presidential chances. New York is one state a Democratic presidential candidate ought to be able to win. Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania -- far less clear. Investments in those gubernatorial contests are investments in the presidency in a way that New York is just not.
And I haven't even mentioned the Senate, which is obviously Democratic priority Numero Uno -- Missouri, South Dakota, others. There is just no solid, objective reason why the McCall effort -- at best eleven points down when McAuliffe spoke to the Times, but more likely fourteen or fifteen -- should be on McAuliffe's top-ten list.
And anyway, it wasn't McAuliffe who made this fistfight a public one in the first place. For that distinction, we turn to a man who has shown a flair for taking private fights public. I'm not sure exactly what the New York State Democratic Party needs right now, but I am sure of one thing it doesn't need. It does not need any further moral instruction from Charlie Rangel.
Say this for Charlie, he's a man for all seasons. He spent last winter calumniating Andrew Cuomo for daring to challenge McCall in the Democratic primary. He passed the spring and summer threatening to support George Pataki if Cuomo won. And now, in this autumn of his discontent, he rises like the Great Pumpkin out of his patch to hint to McAuliffe that if McCall loses, the DNC will be blamed.
Why, I asked Rangel, should the DNC send this money to New York when so many other races were so much closer? "I think Carl is a special type of candidate, and New York is a special type of state," he answered. What's special about Carl? "Well, he's a minister, he was on the Board of Education, he's on the stock exchange, he's a former ambassador . . ."
I think we all know what he's saying there without actually saying it. Yes, it would be great if New York were to elect a black governor. But you have to be seeing this contest through a deeply paranoid set of eyes to think that McCall's problems are more a function of race than of his campaign's own lapses. Undoubtedly, race is a factor in everything; it's like molecules of oxygen, everywhere, unnoticed, yet experienced constantly by us all (some more than others, of course). But that does not mean that race is the reason McCall is behind.
Rangel is setting up a replay of last year's debacle after the mayoral contest: If McCall loses, the DNC explicitly -- and racism implicitly -- will be blamed. McAuliffe was scorched last year by Rangel, Roberto Ramirez, Al Sharpton, and Company. True to form, Sharpton called a press conference last Thursday to "put the Democratic National Committee on notice." Terry: How about the DNC putting Sharpton on notice for a change?
In Washington, they're losing patience. It's reached the point, says one Beltway Democratic strategist, that Rangel's "bad-mouthing of the DNC certainly doesn't bode well for New York's chances of getting the convention."
The Clintons and Chuck Schumer are making their last-minute push. It's conceivable McCall could still win. This is an election most folks are just waking up to, and in such situations, you never say never.
But the likelier result is that the Democrats will have some pieces to put back together. More than a dozen Democrats have endorsed Pataki. Another two dozen, including high-profile pols Jerry Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, and Anthony Wiener, are advising supporters to vote for McCall not on the Democratic line but on the Working Families Party line, Row H, so that party, the state's only meaningful progressive organization (please, Greens, no e-mails), can get 50,000 votes, because if it doesn't, it's kaputski. Democrats will need someone of stature to bring the party back to the position of strength it held two years ago, and to offer guidance that offsets Rangel's.