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From & Friends

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Al From

Al From

The New Democrats and the Return to Power
By Al From with Alice McKeon.
Foreword by Bill Clinton.
Buy this book

Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift from Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980. So read the headline of a New York Times article on the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, dated July 22, 1984.

Somehow, it always goes down the same way: Democrats move to the right and lose an election—and then pundits claim they lost it by running to the left. His platform, Walter Mondale boasted in his acceptance speech at the convention, included “no defense cuts that weaken our security; no business taxes that weaken our economy; no laundry lists that raid our Treasury.” He insisted that “government must be as well-managed as it is well-meaning” and that “a healthy, growing private economy is the key to the future.” Then he announced the supreme goal of a Mondale administration: deficit reduction. But he lost forty-nine states to Reagan. Therefore, he cannot be a “New Democrat.”

Why did Mondale lose, according to From? Working at the time as staff director of the House Democratic Caucus under Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, From wrote a memo for his boss to deliver at a meeting convened by Virginia’s Chuck Robb, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, to discuss the party’s future. It said in part: “Putting together a coalition of liberals and minorities is not the way to win national elections…. [W]e must develop a message with national appeal; we cannot write off large areas of the country—such as the South and the West—and continue as a viable national party.”

Considering the lengths Mondale went to convince Democratic constituency groups to buy into deficit reduction as the key to the party’s political future, this is nonsense. But it apparently made sense to some Democrats—and to affluent funders from both parties. Within months, From was moving forward with the group he hoped would soon “simply assume the role and authority” of policy-making for the Democrats. At a dinner with Harriet Zimmerman of Atlanta (who, as I learned from my own research, was vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a board member of the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies), Zimmerman dashed off a $10,000 check before the hors d’oeuvres were even ordered. “That was the biggest check I’d ever seen,” From boasts. “Without a pause, Robb wrote a $1,000 check. I now had seed money to get started”—in what the privatization fetishist notes would be his first nongovernment job. “I couldn’t just find furniture in the hall and move it into our office. And there was no federal deficit to cover the payroll.”

From somehow prevailed. His book’s acknowledgments list only sixteen politicians but identify twenty people “whose support and generosity…made the DLC story possible.” Among them are Jon Corzine, the disgraced financier and former New Jersey governor; Michael Steinhardt, a hedge fund manager, major Republican donor and founder of the defunct neoconservative New York Sun newspaper; and Rich Richman, who recently gave $10 million to Columbia University for a research center directed by R. Glenn Hubbard, former chair of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors. (A Newsweek investigation in 2000 turned up some DLC underwriters that From doesn’t mention: Du Pont, Philip Morris, Merck and the Koch brothers.)

On the subject of fundraising, the author proves defensive: “We did raise a lot of corporate money, but there were never any quid pro quos, implicit or explicit. When creating the structure of the DLC, I had purposely created a firewall between those who gave money and those who made organizational decisions.” But isn’t that precisely the evidence for the indictment? Steinhardt and others gave anyway, and kept giving, trusting that the return on investment would be worth it without any intervention on their part being necessary.

What were they buying? For one thing, a respectable front for the obsession that Jesse Jackson and those whose interests he represented must be destroyed. From was never as blunt as Harry McPherson, the old Democratic hand who complained to The Washington Post after Mondale’s defeat that “blacks own the Democratic Party…White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species.” From prefers the dog-whistle phrase “constituency groups.” He’s also prone to using unconsciously racially charged language, quoting himself being quoted in The Wall Street Journal at the 1988 convention: “We’ve erased the graffiti from the wall. Now we have to paint the mural.”

That convention, of course, ended up nominating Michael Dukakis. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote in his book on the 1988 election, “Dukakis’s very inability to offer any definition of liberalism was taken as perhaps his most encouraging trait” by Democrats that year. “It was seen as an enormous shrewdness, a form of wisdom. Dukakis’s politics of lowered expectations, his career of slashing budgets and tax cuts, made him seem a new kind of Democrat, a man of his time.” But he lost. Therefore, he cannot be a New Democrat: “Dukakis was clearly to the left of the DLC,” From writes.

Here Bill Galston enters the story. He is a curious figure. These days, Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in spraying “New Democrat” nostrums at Wall Street Journal readers with all the freshness of one of those Japanese soldiers in World War II who would emerge from a cave twenty years later not knowing that the war was over. Back in 1984, however, he was Walter Mondale’s issues director. Five years later, he sent From an analysis asserting that the Democrats had succumbed to “liberal fundamentalism.” And From fell in love: “I told Galston I would make him famous.”

I am keen to know Galston’s explanation for how he came to believe, as he argued in “The Politics of Evasion,” a famous 1989 DLC paper written with Elaine Kamarck, that by 1984 “the dynamic of the nominating process (coupled with the deep 1981-1982 recession, which rekindled the classic Democratic desire to rerun the campaign against Herbert Hoover) led Mondale to reaffirm most aspects of the [liberal] conventional wisdom.” How can he say that about a campaign that, under his design, made a Hoover-style fetish of deficit reduction? It’s hard to see how such confusion could have spread very far, beyond the initial pundit enthusiasm. “Over the next couple of months,” From writes of the founding, “we were virtually ignored in the national press.” Does he know that people can look these things up? The New York Times ran six articles about the DLC in its first three months of existence; The Washington Post ran seven in the same period—and another four before it was even officially announced.

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