Will the DNC Come Full Circle?

The Democratic National Committee will vote in February for a new chairman, but it has already held one national meeting on the subject. Eight contenders came to Orlando for a preliminary round in what promises to be a competitive and divisive competition.

The speeches in Orlando on Dec. 11 were filled with calls for greater party unity, organization and toughness — much like the speeches given 16 years ago, which was the last time the party found itself on the short end of the popular vote for president. That was also the last time the committee was called upon to choose a new chairman without direction from a Democrat in the White House.

In late 1988, Democrats were reeling from multiple presidential election losses, reanalyzing their core principles and searching for a new DNC chairman they hoped would reverse their losing trend.

The conventional wisdom then was the same as it is today: find a moderate-to-conservative red state Democrat to be chairman, someone to show the South and the Great Plains that the Democrats are not just the party of liberal Northeastern city dwellers.

In 1988, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Jones became the contender that represented that ideological view. Today, the red-state frontrunners are former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk and Donald Fowler, a political strategist from South Carolina who used his Orlando speech to chastise fellow party members for letting too much of the nation go red this year.

Back in 1988, the DNC chairmanship was won not by Jones but by Ron Brown, a lawyer-businessman who grew up in Harlem. Brown symbolized and appealed to the core constituency of the party, but many Democratic leaders were terrified at the notion of him. Aside from being an African American (Southern white males in 1988 had voted Republican two to one), Brown was seen by many as being too close to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. During his presidential run in 1988, Jackson had become a polarizing figure not only for his racial activism, but also for his outspoken support of Palestinian leaders and for referring to New York as "Hymietown."

This year, the man who has mainstream Democrats scared is Howard Dean. As a presidential candidate, Dean made himself a household name early in the Democratic primaries by taking an unabashed anti-war stance that resonated with the party's core, but alienated party moderates. He now has the stigma of being the standard bearer for liberals in a period when Republicans have successfully transformed that political term into a four-letter word.

It's arguable that the widely held perceptions of Dean are inaccurate, just as those of Brown were in 1988. Brown had actually only worked with Jesse Jackson for a few months during the 1988 campaign and was anything but a radical. By the same lights, Dean supporters can point to his more moderate history as governor of Vermont.

There are other parallels between the current chairmanship race and that of 16 years ago.

In the earlier case, the Democrats were replacing a man who had revolutionized fundraising for the party and restored a sense of parity with Republican money. In 1988, the departing chairman was Paul Kirk, who had restructured the financial apparatus even as he reduced the influence of special interest groups within the party.

In 2004, the departing chairman is Terry McAuliffe, who took fundraising for the party and its candidates not only to record highs but to levels most in the party thought impossible even a year ago.

Neither Kirk nor McAuliffe could leave office feeling satisfied after losing a presidential election they thought they should have won. But Kirk and McAuliffe have set the bar very high indeed when it comes to money, and no new party chairman can afford to fall short.

The next DNC chairman will also have to square off against a Republican who is tough, battle-tested and fully trusted by the man in the White House. Ron Brown's counterpart was Lee Atwater, a campaign manager for Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The first President Bush made Atwater chairman of the Republican National Committee late in 1988.

One of the big questions about the new DNC chairman in 2005 will be his ability to handle the top Republican operatives. For a new Republican National Committee chairman, George W. Bush has called upon Ken Mehlman, his always-on-message campaign manager. But right behind Mehlman, and close by the president's side, stands Karl Rove, the political guru who has masterminded every campaign George W. Bush has won. Rove, by the way, was a close associate of Atwater (who died of brain cancer in 1991).

Sixteen years ago, Ron Brown overcame party infighting and conventional wisdom to take the helm at the DNC. In his first year, the Democrats captured key governorships in New Jersey and Virginia. They did well in the 1990 midterm elections and in 1992 won the White House and both chambers of Congress. Bill Clinton's was the first two-term Democratic presidency since World War II, and Brown served as Commerce secretary until he died in a plane crash on a visit to the Balkans in 1996.

Brown's success in the chairmanship does not end the debate over what kind of chairman the DNC needs now. The arguments for someone reassuring to the red states are as valid as ever, but so are those for a vivid personality who appeals to core party voters. But the parallels between the DNC's choice and the one it faced 16 years ago are certainly a testament to the cyclical nature of American politics.

Morris Bracy is an intern at NPR News' Washington Desk. A recent graduate of Temple University, he is currently a student of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism.

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