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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.
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Al From makes two assertions in his new memoir. The first is announced in its title. The New Democrats and the Return to Power argues that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the group he founded in 1985 to push the Democratic Party to the right, has won: the party has been reformed, and there is no going back to the dark days when, according to From, Democratic presidential candidates suffered humiliation after humiliation at the ballot box for the party’s thralldom to protectionism, isolationism, “constituency groups” and the dread leviathan Jesse Leo Jackson.

The second point is that From and friends deserve all of the credit for the Democratic Party’s transformation. Again and again, our hero narrates his arrival, just in the nick of time, to save the day: “My interjection had stopped the headlong dash into social democracy…. Hillary came over to me and said she and Bill had discussed what I had said and had agreed I was right.” And again: “In a cab crossing the Triborough Bridge in New York, I flipped open my cell phone and called the President of the United States…. [W]hen Clinton and I finished our discussion, I was confident that he would sign the bill.” According to Al From, if you favor NAFTA, tougher laws on crime, welfare reform and, above all, an economic policy focused exclusively on “growth” instead of distributional fairness, you can thank Al From.

Yet this memoirist has an imposing problem on his hands. In each and every case, the triumphs he trumpets have made America a worse place—objectively, empirically and on their own terms. But From is among the small minority of people they haven’t hurt. No one in the crowded field of Washington insiders has ever failed upward with such skill and aplomb.

Alvin From was born in 1943 into a Jewish family in South Bend, Indiana. He studied journalism at Northwestern, where he edited the newspaper. But what truly interested him, he says, was fighting poverty. So when a journalistic mentor told him in 1966, “You can write about poverty or you can do something about it,” he joined Sargent Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity and was assigned to the War on Poverty’s Southern front. His job was posting dispatches to Washington that, as he recalls with his customary immodesty, “read more like in-depth articles in the New York Times Magazine or New Yorker than stodgy government reports.”

From writes: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom today, the War on Poverty was not a big welfare program. Just the opposite: it was an empowerment program.” He’s right. Consider the establishment of Head Start. In keeping with the War on Poverty nostrum of “maximum feasible participation of the poor,” Head Start programs were to be locally run. In Sunflower County, Mississippi, fellow travelers of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked with an organization called the Child Development Group of Mississippi. One of its founders, a white psychiatrist, insisted that CDGM’s board should be peopled by field hands and maids instead of “respectable” members of the local, complacent black middle class. His beliefs resembled those of Polly Greenberg, author of a 1969 book on the project, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes, who explains that “what happens in the classroom in a brief preschool program, regardless of how good the curriculum and comprehensive services are, has far less impact upon a child’s lifelong trajectory than does what happens in his spirit and sense of possibilities when he watches the enormously disempowered parents with whom he is profoundly identified become competent, confident, and active in bringing him happy days, and in initiating constructive and fundamental change to the community and greater society in which he is growing up.”

In the most racially totalitarian county in the most racially totalitarian state in the Union, this could not be allowed to stand. Governor Paul Johnson Jr. said that he would never sign off on any Head Start programs for “darkies” in the state. (At the time, there were no publicly funded kindergartens in Mississippi, let alone preschools.) After CDGM’s founders used a loophole to defy him, a local thug fired shots from a .45-caliber pistol into the organization’s building. Meanwhile, in Washington, Senators John Stennis and James Eastland—fresh from working to sabotage the federal investigation into the murder of Congress of Racial Equality activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi—launched a Fox News–style national campaign to frame CDGM as a commie-infiltrated fraud, convincing a frazzled and weak-willed Shriver to cut his political losses. From the top down, Shriver set up a replacement program run by local segregationists.

Now here’s From’s account of that episode: “Shriver sent me to Sunflower County to investigate a dispute between two Head Start programs, one run with federal funding by the white powers of the county—the Eastland forces—the other run on a volunteer basis by civil rights activists…. Ostensibly fighting over control of the funded Head Start program, in reality the two groups were fighting for an important prize in the political balance of power in the county.” The political balance of power in the county—sort of like Nelson Mandela and Hendrik Verwoerd were fighting over the political balance of power in South Africa. “As long as Eastland forces administered antipoverty program funds, the civil rights activists, a major threat to the established political leadership of the county, remained in check.” And so, From relates, “I recommended to Shriver that OEO try to bring Hamer’s group into the county program with the responsibility of running a number of Head Start centers. Eventually, the two sides reached an uneasy agreement. As a result, all poor children in the county were able to benefit from the higher quality, federally funded Head Start.”

From makes it sound here as though he was an ally of the civil rights forces, when he was actually maneuvering to sell them out. The one time I interviewed him, From volunteered an even more effulgent (and slippery) account of the dispute in Sunflower County. He praised Eastland’s skill in co-opting the integrationists by planting “his closest political people” to control the Sunflower County Head Start board. The education of the county’s black preschoolers had been placed in the hands of the same racist economic elites who had kept them in poverty in the first place. From’s transformation of this unpromising material into a warm parable of reconciliation and progress is a master class in shameless audacity.

* * *

In the 1970s, From moved on to a job with the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations under Senator Edmund Muskie. He characterizes Muskie as a lone truth-teller who “sowed the first intellectual seeds of the New Democrat movement.” Ground zero, in his telling, was a dinner of the New York Liberal Party in 1975, when Muskie proclaimed, “Our challenge this decade is to restore the faith of Americans in the basic competence and purposes of government.” (Muskie also asked, in a line the memoirist deploys as his epigraph: “What’s so damned liberal about wasting money?”) Ronald Reagan used to like to say that “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.” Let’s repurpose Reagan; it will spare the reviewer the incivility of accusing From of being either stupid or a liar. The notion that Democrats never thought to concern themselves with the basic competence of government before Al From started working for Ed Muskie is starkly absurd. John F. Kennedy was set to boast of his success at cutting government payrolls in the speech he never gave on November 22, 1963, at the Dallas Trade Mart. By 1975, such statements had become just about the hippest thing a Democrat could say.

There was Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, chair of the Joint Economic Committee and a former investment banker, who spoke of his fondness toward the founders of neoclassical economics in a 1972 profile in The New Republic, and who later singled out sixteen federal agencies that he wanted to eliminate, including the Interstate Commerce Commission (which “reduced competition” and protected “inefficient producers”). There were the “Watergate babies” swept into office in 1974 following Nixon’s resignation, many representing traditionally Republican suburbs. Their spiritual leader, Gary Hart, flayed “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats” who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality.” There was Michael Dukakis, who entered the Massachusetts State House in 1975 by running to the right of his Republican opponent and making a “lead-pipe guarantee” of no new taxes while also promising to evaluate programs “with the bottom line in mind—how much is it going to cost and can we get by without it?” United Press International reported that Dukakis was basically pledging to run the state “like a bank.” Ignoring this history serves From’s narrative purpose: that before the DLC, it was only Bolsheviks in the Democratic Party.

You would never know, reading From’s “history,” that Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 on turning welfare into workfare and slashing government bureaucracy; or that twenty years before Bill Clinton declared “the era of big government is over,” Carter proclaimed in his second State of the Union address that “government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.” You would never know that Carter started a wave of deregulation and a defense buildup that Reagan continued; that he reinstated registration for the draft; or even that he was a Southerner, swept to power by a party that From accuses of abandoning the South. Yet in just the way conservatives define the words “conservative” and “liberal” as operational synonyms for “good” and “bad,” Carter cannot be a New Democrat avant la lettre for the simple reason that Jimmy Carter lost. From writes: “In the 1970s, the Democrats…lost credibility on the economy…. The failed Carter administration was a major culprit. In 1979 and 1980, the inflation rate increased by a total of 25 percent and interest rates rose to 20 percent.”

Those statistics are correct. But to grasp their origins, one must turn from From to Allen J. Matusow’s Nixon’s Economy: Booms, Busts, Dollars, and Votes, which explains how Nixon’s cynically political wage and price controls mortgaged the country’s economic future for political gain. Other contributing factors were Lyndon Johnson’s cowardly refusal to raise taxes to pay for the Vietnam War and, of course, the Arab oil shock of 1973 and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. To lay primary responsibility for the Great Inflation of the late 1970s at Jimmy Carter’s feet borders on mendacity. In fact, Carter had more to do with ending inflation, by appointing Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chair in 1979 with a mandate to shock the economy into recession. Carter knew full well that he might be sacrificing his re-election chances with the appointment, and that the next president, not he, would reap the political credit. And the next president did: Reagan won re-election in 1984 with forty-nine states, excoriating his opponent as “Vice President Malaise.”

The “Volcker Shock” was a crucial episode in the cruel history of austerity that no progressive should cheer. And From might have interesting things to say about it, if he weren’t such a hack. After all, in the Carter White House he was deputy adviser to the president on inflation, but all he has to relate about the experience is a narcissistic anecdote about being the only person in the West Wing who cared about inflation. Unlike the others—“young, single, living in small apartments, and spending almost every waking hour working in the White House”—he was married, raising a family, paying a mortgage. “To me, our inflation policy wasn’t about memos or meetings or events to show we were working on the problem; it was about bringing down inflation. Nothing else mattered. But the Carter administration never understood that.”

From’s inaccuracy runs deep. He writes that “in the 1980 Democratic platform written by the Carter White House, every economic plank was a public jobs program.” Interested readers who can find the platform on the Internet will learn that the closest thing to a proposed public jobs program is a reference to “a $1 billion railroad renewal program which can employ 20,000 workers”—and that everything else on economics sounds downright Clintonian: an assertion that, in “regulated sectors of our economy, government serves too often to entrench high price levels and stifle competition”; promises of “new tax depreciation rules to stimulate selective capital investment”; five straight paragraphs on the necessity of tax cuts; and calls for “work incentives” for welfare recipients. Also this: “full funding of the counter-cyclical assistance program for the cities.” This is the very same proposal that From, on page twenty-seven of his own book, called “the quintessential New Democrat idea” when it was proposed by his boss, Edmund Muskie.

* * *

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.

* * *

Hard to see, that is, until a charming young teddy bear from Arkansas bursts onto these pages, takes From’s bland formulations and turns them into poetry. Clinton spent the eighteen months leading up to his fall 1991 presidential candidacy announcement as the DLC’s chair. But it would be wrong to say that his presidential campaign followed a DLC script. It was a mélange. Clinton promised to realize a 3 percent across-the-board savings in every federal agency and, yes, to “end welfare as we know it.” But he also pledged $50 billion more for education per year, $20 billion per year for infrastructure spending and “healthcare that’s always there.” That’s another story you won’t learn from From. Nor that Clinton promised to end corporate deductions for salaries over $1 million, telling a gathering of business leaders, “I want the jet-setters and feather-bedders to know that if you sell your companies and your workers and your country down the river—you will be called on the carpet.”

Once in office, though, Clinton largely let economic populism fall by the wayside. From doesn’t acknowledge one of the main reasons why: Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan told the new president that if he kept his populist promises, interest rates would rise and he would lose the confidence of investors. (“You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?” was Clinton’s famously incredulous response.) There is no acknowledgment, either, that the Clinton era’s prosperity was owed to an unrepeatable asset bubble in the tech industry, or of the roles played by a new class of huckster fundraisers—Tony Coelho, Terry McAuliffe, Rahm Emanuel—who made the Democratic Party safe for billionaires. No, for From it’s all “ideas”—his ideas.

Bill Clinton, in his foreword to From’s book, graciously lists some of them: “to expand opportunity, not government; to recognize that economic growth is a prerequisite for expanding opportunity; to invest in the skills and ingenuity of our people in order to build shared prosperity; to expand trade, not restrict it; and to reform welfare and reduce crime.”

But welfare reform has been a political and policy disaster. Rather than opening a political space for regaining the public’s trust to help the less fortunate, as New Democrats claimed it would do, the 1996 welfare reform law is now deployed by Republicans in order to argue against the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And the “reduction in welfare rolls” hailed as heroic in boom economic times has turned catastrophic now that the economy has gone south. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in 1995, Aid to Families With Dependent Children—the program that Clinton replaced—lifted 62 percent of the nation’s poorest children out of “deep poverty”; in 2005, under Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the same thing could be said for only 21 percent, raising the number of children living at half the poverty line or less from 1.4 million to 2.4 million. Meanwhile, between December 2007 and December 2009, the number of unemployed doubled—while the number of people receiving assistance from TANF increased by only 13 percent.

The New Democrat project of decoupling economic growth from redistribution has also been an utter failure by just about any measure. Inequality for All, Robert Reich’s new film, documents how 95 percent of the returns in our recovery have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners. As a TED Talk by Richard Wilkinson that has gone viral put it, “If Americans Want to Live the American Dream They Should Move to Denmark”: America’s “relative mobility” ranks below that of France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark—all countries that have increased “equality of opportunity” by stubbornly linking it to “equality of outcome.”

The benefits of investing in skills and education have also been paltry. Between 1975 and 2004, real earnings for college graduates have risen less than 1 percent a year. Insisting on logic rather than ideology, the Economic Policy Institute report The State of Working America concludes, “It is especially hard to attribute any of the growth of wage inequality since the mid-1990s to skill shortages or the education divide, as wage inequality rose rapidly but education-based wage gaps grew very modestly.”

From is especially ecstatic about his role in helping Clinton pass NAFTA: “Of all the opportunities you have this fall,” he wrote in a 1993 memo that he reproduces uncritically here, “NAFTA represents the greatest. Passing NAFTA can make your presidency.” On the contrary, NAFTA’s role in demobilizing the Democratic base (including the promise Republicans were able to extract from Clinton: that he would “personally repudiate” any campaign attacks on members of Congress for voting it through) is one of the reasons the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 1994. It then cost the United States a net loss of 1 million jobs (From: “A victory of NAFTA will both create real jobs and demonstrate that you have the vision to lead our country into the world economy at a defining historical moment”); turned America’s trade surplus with Mexico into a deficit; and was a cause of the very flood of undocumented immigrants that New Democrats customarily abhor.

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Another of From’s prideful boasts concerns helping Clinton pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which “changed the entire system of policing in America and resulted in a decade-long reduction in crime.” Virtually no expert attributes the decline in crime to the policy of mass incarceration that this law ushered in: the incarceration rate at the end of Clinton’s two terms was 476 per 100,000 citizens, compared with 247 at the end of the Reagan administration. Even the 2012 Republican platform admitted that the policy has been a moral and civic disaster: “Prisons should do more than punish: they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.” (One of the more striking cruelties of the 1994 crime law was ending Pell Grants for prison education.) Even Newt Gingrich now says, “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential.”

From, however, is not chagrined. The “core principles of the New Democrat movement…are as viable and useful for meeting today’s challenges as they were for meeting the challenges of the 1990s.” For instance: “we need to adopt and enforce a blueprint that will cut the deficit and build confidence in the private marketplace.” Does he care that, as President Obama constantly boasts, the rate of budget growth is now lower than at any time since the 1950s? Or that the stock market is higher than it has been since the 1990s? No, he does not. Nor, surely, have the jet-setters and feather-bedders who feted his new book at a party hosted by the powerful DC law and lobbying firm Akin Gump—for which From serves as a “consultant”—at the shimmering new Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. “As Bill Clinton would often remind me,” From writes, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.” Yet the formula has worked well enough for From: he’s been wrong in the same way over and over again, and for him, things have turned out just fine.

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