The DNC's empty chair.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 13 2004 7:07 PM

Empty Chair

Stop pretending the DNC can change the party.

Give that man a chair?
Give that man a chair?

If establishment Democrats still fear Howard Dean, they ought to elect him chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Not because becoming DNC chair would make Dean, as a member of the establishment, moderate his criticisms of Washington Democrats—though that's certainly true—but because Dean would exert far less influence over the future of the Democratic Party as its titular head than he would as a 2008 presidential candidate. Ed Rendell was so frustrated with his job as DNC chairman during Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign that he complained to the New Republic, "I basically take orders from 27-year-old guys in Nashville who have virtually no real-life experience. All they've done is been political consultants living in an artificial world, and basically their opinion counts more than mine." That's the cry of the DNC chair, Washington's political eunuch.

For those looking to move the Democrats to the left or the right, it doesn't much matter who becomes DNC chair in February. The truth is that presidential candidates, not party chairmen, define the policy agendas of political parties. Steve Rosenthal, the CEO of the Democratic 527 group America Coming Together, told me the idea that the DNC chair can define the Democratic agenda was "a crock." In 2003 and 2004, Dean exerted more control over John Kerry's platform than Terry McAuliffe did. Likewise, the Democratic Leadership Council led a successful reinvention of the Democratic Party in the 1980s and early '90s without ever controlling the DNC apparatus. In the race for party chairman after the 1988 presidential election, DLC candidate Bruce Babbitt lost to Ron Brown, a conventional liberal. Yet Brown is considered a good-to-great party chairman because he helped his more conservative DLC comrades take over the party, by setting up the organizational machinery that helped carry President Clinton, the DLC's candidate, to victory four years later.

Paradoxically, the more successful the next DNC chairman is, the less powerful the DNC will be in the future. A DNC chair is pretty much judged by one metric: whether the party wins the White House. Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 and Clinton's election in 1992 explain why Bob Strauss, chairman from 1972 to 1977, and Brown, DNC chairman from 1989 to 1993, are cited most often as the best Democratic Party chairmen of the past 30 years. But as soon as a Democrat moves into the Oval Office, the DNC becomes nothing more than "an appendage of the White House political operation," as Don Fowler, national chairman of the DNC from 1995 to 1997 (and father of current DNC chair candidate Donnie Fowler), put it in an interview.

Although it has existed since 1848, the most memorable role the DNC played in the nation's political history was a passive one: It sat there while the Watergate burglars tried to break into its headquarters. A quick glance at the list of the people who have held the position gives an idea of how fleeting the chairman's influence can be. I called as many of those former chairmen (and one chairwoman) as I could in effort to learn what exactly the next party chairman is supposed to do. It's not clear, after all, what Dean, Fowler, Harold Ickes, Martin Frost, Simon Rosenberg, Jim Blanchard, Ron Kirk, Wellington Webb, the professor, and Mary Ann are running to do. "That's true, and it's probably not clear to them," said Charles Manatt, who held the job from 1981 to 1985. Kate Phillips, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (general chairman of the DNC from 1999 to 2001), had a good-natured retort: "They raise money, and they travel. See, you don't need the interview now."

Part of the mystery comes from the fact that the job description is changing. The DNC chairman will still be responsible for coordinating the party's daily message, for building the organization that handles the mechanics of electing presidential candidates, and for raising the money that funds that organization. But in the 1990s, one of the chief jobs of the party chairman was to "relate to a group of wealthy donors who financed literally a majority of the party's activities," former DNC national chairman Joe Andrew said. Now that six- and seven-figure party donations are prohibited, the importance of big donors has decreased. In 1996 and 2000, the DNC conducted the functional equivalent of the national TV campaign for the Democratic presidential nominee. The McCain-Feingold reforms put a stop to that, too.

Joe Andrew argues that the days of "chair as business leader, chair as fund-raiser" are coming to an end, and that future chairs will be more likely to play the role of political strategist. He may be right. But up to now, as Andrew put it, "There is no time, at least in the television era, where the national chair has really defined who the party is and what the party is all about."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.