The Terry McAuliffe Syndrome BY DAN GERSTEIN. The Wall Street Journal Saturday, January 15, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST When John Kerry ripped defeat from the jaws of victory last November, losing to a wounded president with a failed record, a few of us Democratic outliers took some solace in thinking that his campaign's dismal performance might actually force the party to own up to its mortal electoral weaknesses. Turns out we grossly underestimated the national Democrats' capacity for self-delusion and self-defeat. Yes, it's only been two months, and it's not realistic to expect the party to remake itself even before Inauguration Day. But consider the head-scratching choices that Democrats have made so far since hitting close to political rock bottom. (That being defined loosely as losing in 81% of the nation's counties with a war hero running against a draft-avoider who has bungled both Iraq and our national finances). We chose as our House and Senate leaders (and thus the public face of the party) Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid--two honorable, decent people who nevertheless have done little to inspire confidence that they could successfully fight a parking ticket, let alone the war against terrorism. We chose (by abdicating responsibility to two extreme-ish members of Congress) to mount a formal, indignation-filled challenge to the results in Ohio--despite the fact that George Bush won by 100,000 votes, as compared to the 537 he (ostensibly) won by in Florida. And now we hear there's a move afoot to choose Terry McAuliffe--another decent, honorable man who nevertheless presided over two consecutive election cycles in which the number of elected Democrats at almost every level shrank, and who will never be mistaken for a base-expanding communicator--for another term as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The "Keep Mac" pack's rationale? He'll save us from Howard Dean, who most believe would have led the party to an even bigger catastrophe last fall had he gotten the nomination. Call me a curmudgeon, but that seems like an odd way to project strength at a moment an historic political realignment is taking place--at least the old guy won't humiliate us! Taken together, these developments indicate that, beyond our rural-state problem and Hispanic problem and our values problem and our security problem, we Democrats have a far more fundamental leadership problem. To put it crudely, right now we don't seem to know how to pick winners--or fire losers. Stop and think about it. The national party had back-to-back election seasons in 2002 and 2004 that were successively despairing and disastrous--the kind of record that if it were experienced by a pro sports team would have prompted the owner to clean house. And what are we doing? Mostly wringing our hands about changing the floor wax. Now, is Terry McAuliffe or any other single leader wholly responsible for our failures? Certainly not. In fact, Mr. McAuliffe did a lot of important work to modernize the party infrastructure and strengthen our long-term financial stability. But the fact is, politics provides clear, irrefutable ways to measure performance, and by most any standard our recent performance stinks. That begs a few questions. Such as, what does it take to hold someone accountable for losing? And more importantly, when do we stop beating our heads against the wall and try something--and someone--different? To many, saying that out loud (and going the next step to name names) may sound exceedingly impolitic and harsh--I know this because people were shocked when I had the gall to point out publicly that maybe we should not entrust our next big campaign to a strategist who is now 0-for-8 in the Presidential Super Bowl. But I am guessing these are many of the same folks who urged Mr. Kerry not to respond to the deeply damaging calumnies that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were slinging at his war record. God forbid we dignified those tactics by standing up for ourselves and actually fighting back (instead of robotically telling people we'll fight for them). The point is, to state the obvious (something our party often seems to have trouble grasping), that politics is a contact sport--particularly when you are competing against folks as cunning and ruthless as Karl Rove and company. So if we hope to win, we Democrats have to get over our predilection to preserve people's self-esteem at all costs, stop engaging in the politics of self-destruction, and start making some hardheaded calculations about what it takes to become a majority party again. Of course, upgrading the salesmen won't dramatically change the results if we don't also upgrade the product we're marketing. Right now the clear majority of voters--including large swaths of the country--don't trust us to keep them safe or share their values, and we have a long way to go to rethink our messages and policies and ultimately rehabilitate our credibility. But we have to remember that politics is the art of persuasion, and in this era of diminishing party identification, elections more and more are tough tests of individual leadership. This last presidential campaign proved that in spades. And our test now as Democrats is whether we can select and empower strong, savvy and compelling men and women to not only chart our course but change it. In this we cannot be satisfied right now with "means people"--those like Mr. McAuliffe who know how to raise money, compile databases, and get out the vote, all of which are necessary, but not sufficient, not when we need to pull millions of skeptics to our side. We desperately need "ends people"--those who are committed more to building winning coalitions than to feeling morally superior and placating pariahs like Michael Moore, and who have the vision to think ahead of the curve and the guts to run straight over people when necessary to get more votes than the other guy. A good place to start is in the DNC race. Of all the candidates in the mix, the only one I know of who can imagine a different kind of politics that transcends obsolete clichés of left and right, harness the power of new ideas to win over new voters, and be tough as hell when it's called for is New Democratic Network chairman Simon Rosenberg. He can do all those things in large part because he's already shown he knows how to win, having been an integral part of the take-no-prisoners Clinton war room in 1992. I'm not crazy about the fact that he has often worked closely with Mr. McAuliffe and the rest of the current Democratic leadership. But that may ultimately prove to be an asset in helping to bridge the differences in the party and build the broader coalition we need to win again. Maybe then we can really start thinking outside the Beltway box. For example, in this era of war and global insecurity, why are we not finding a new Ike to like, and recruiting well-respected, Democratic-leaning military leaders like former Joint Chiefs Chairmen William Crowe and John Shalikashvili to be public spokesmen for the party, or even better to run for office. No disrespect to Leader Pelosi, but I suspect a four-star hawk--especially one who can't be cast as a serial flip-flopper--will play better in Boulder than a Haight-Ashbury dove. The bottom line? We need more bottom-line thinking before we decamp to New Hampshire once again. Adapt or Die, I say. Mr. Gerstein, an independent consultant in New York, was communications director for Sen. Joe Lieberman and a senior strategist for the senator's presidential campaign.