Ben Smith of the Politico reported yesterday that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the mainstay of the New Democrat movement for thirty years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and has decided to immediately “suspend operations,” likely for good.
I’ve followed the DLC closely over the past decade and wanted to share a few thoughts on its passing (it’s such a solemn funeral). The DLC, under the leadership of former Congressional aide Al From, grew quickly in the 1980s and early 1990s, as aspiring Democratic politicians—most notably, Bill Clinton—gravitated to the organization, which existed to break the power of liberal interest groups inside the Democratic Party and attract support from the business community. By associating themselves with the DLC, Clinton and other New Democrats were able to shed the “big government, tax and spend” stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years, raise big dollars from corporate America and pick up establishment support in the Washington media. Inside the White House, Clinton largely followed the DLC program of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, relying on DLC aides like Bruce Reed, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck to implement domestic policy. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the Clinton-era Democratic Party, “The DLC has taken it over.”
But the DLC’s influence began to wane in the Bush Administration as its accommodation instincts, an asset politically in the Clinton years, came to be viewed by many rank-and-file Democrats as doing more harm than good to the party. For example, at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the Congressional resolution to authorize the war in Iraq, current and former DLC chairman Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt flanked George W. Bush. New leaders like Howard Dean and new groups like MoveOn.org emerged to challenge the DLC, and the arrival of a fresh liberal power center posed a major threat to the organization. Even former New Democratic stalwarts, like Kamarck and New Democrat Network President Simon Rosenberg, began to distance themselves from the DLC’s harsh attacks on Dean supporters and liberal Democrats. I wrote about the DLC’s loss of power in a feature article in The Nation in 2005 entitled “Going Nowhere: The DLC Sputters To a Halt.” I think it holds up pretty well today.
Here’s a short excerpt:
After dominating the party in the 1990s, the DLC is struggling to maintain its identity and influence in a party beset by losses and determined to oppose George W. Bush. Prominent New Democrats no longer refer to themselves as such. The New Democratic movement of pro-free market moderates, which helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992, has splintered, transformed by a reinvigoration of grassroots energy. A host of new donors, groups and tactics has forged a new direction for Democrats inside and outside the party, bringing together vital parts of the old centrist establishment and the traditional Democratic base. The ideological independence of the DLC, which pushed the party to the right, has come to be viewed as a threat rather than a virtue, forcing the DLC to adapt accordingly. Corporate fundraisers and DC connections–the lifeblood of the DLC–matter less and less: Witness the ascent of MoveOn.org and Howard Dean’s election as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “It’s not that the DLC changed,” says Kenneth Baer, who wrote a history of the organization. “It’s that the world changed around the DLC.”