As the cable channels keep their laserlike focus on Hillary Clinton today, one of the more delicate rituals of presidential politics is taking place over at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Veteran Democratic operative Paul Tewes, who was the state director of Barack Obama’s spectacularly successful Iowa operation, is being introduced to the staff there. This is a none-too-subtle statement of who is the leader of the party now. More Obama staffers are likely to be moving over to the DNC soon.
Once the Democrats have a de facto nominee, it is important that his campaign take control of the party machinery as quickly and as completely as possible. The McCain-Feingold law has put limits on how much direct financial coordination there can be, but the DNC and the state parties will be crucial in providing much of the ground organization for Obama’s general election push.
“It’s standard practice,” former DNC chairman Don Fowler says of this transition. “Sometimes it’s smooth, and sometimes it’s a little rough.”
The latter has often been the case. Fowler recalled that in 1984, Walter Mondale tried to kick out party Chairman Charles Manatt, even as the Democratic convention that was being held in San Francisco, Manatt’s home town. In 1988, when Michael Dukakis got the nomination, DNC Chairman Paul Kirk “just went home,” Fowler says, despite the fact that both men were from Massachusetts. On the other hand, the transition in 1992 was smooth, in large measure because Bill Clinton and DNC Chairman Ron Brown were personally close.
From all appearances, this will be another easy shift–not because Obama and DNC Chairman Howard Dean are personally close, but because they share the same political approach. Both believe the strategy for the fall should be focused on expanding the electoral map, rather than picking targets of opportunity. (If Clinton had gotten the nomination, she probably would have followed the opposite battle plan.) Obama has indicated that he intends for Dean to remain in the chairman’s post. “From our side and the Obama side, everybody wants to make this as seamless as possible,” says DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.
One early sign of how Obama’s philosophy has begun to permeate the party machinery was this morning’s announcement that the party will no longer accept contributions from lobbyists and political action committees. And the DNC’s home page now features Obama’s picture, pronouncing him as the party’s presidential nominee.