In May 2003 the centrist Democratic Leadership Council published its yearly list of "100 New Democrats to Watch." The DLC frequently puts out these lists as a way to publicly solidify its identification with the New Democratic movement within the Democratic Party. The 2003 list, however, contained a number of questionable additions, including then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama. As a state senator, Obama had continually passed progressive legislation--a record that he vowed to add to when he began his run for the US Senate on a platform of clear opposition to the Patriot Act, the Iraq War and NAFTA, all positions anathema to the DLC. The puzzling addition caused The Black Commentator magazine to wonder, a month after the DLC list came out, whether Obama had been "corrupted" by the centrist group. Obama's reply to the Commentator was indicative of how the DLC plays the "New Democrat" card.
"Neither my staff nor I have had any direct contact with anybody at the DLC since I began this campaign a year ago," Obama wrote. "I don't know who nominated me for the DLC list of 100 rising stars, nor did I expend any effort to be included on the list.... I certainly did not view such inclusion as an endorsement on my part of the DLC platform." After realizing that his name appeared in the DLC's database, Obama asked to have it removed. The message was clear: The DLC needed Obama a lot more than Obama needed the DLC.
Today, the same is true for many politicians. 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."
Today's DLC is a far cry from the anti-establishment organization created by New Democrats who captured power within the party in the Clinton era by distancing themselves from the party's traditional base and liberal candidates. After co-founding the DLC in 1985, former Congressional aide Al From aggressively expanded what had been an informal caucus of Southern and Western Congressmen into a $7-million-a-year operation at its peak in 2000. By that time it had 5,000 members, who paid $50 a pop to join; and politicians, policy wonks and lobbyists flocked to its annual conferences. The DLC's tough free-market positions, connections to big business and early media savvy enticed Clinton into becoming chair in 1990. Although the organization always took more credit than it deserved for his 1992 victory, downplaying Ross Perot's impact and Clinton's own charisma, that election nevertheless institutionalized the DLC's rising status. DLC strategists William Galston, Elaine Kamarck and Bruce Reed became top domestic policy aides in the Clinton White House. After the Republican Revolution of 1994, From told the Democrats to "get with the [DLC] program." The DLC quickly became the new Washington establishment, launching state chapters, creating a New Democratic Coalition in Congress and expanding its Progressive Policy Institute think tank. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the post-Clinton Democratic Party, "The DLC has taken it over."
But the DLC's great hopes in 2000 of becoming a permanent power center in Washington never materialized. Al Gore's promising New Democratic candidacy turned sour for the DLC when Gore, a DLC founder, switched to a populist strategy after trailing in the polls. No one but the DLC believes that strategy cost Gore the election. "Gore's defeat didn't reinvigorate the DLC as the defeat of Dukakis did, nor did it vindicate their strategy like the election of 1992," says Baer, a Gore speechwriter in 2000. In George W. Bush's first term, the DLC emerged as an important backer of "compassionate conservatism" and convinced the Democratic leadership to back Bush's war with Iraq. Current and former DLC chairmen Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt flanked Bush at a ceremony announcing the war resolution. Still enthralled by centrist orthodoxy, prowar candidates emerged as early frontrunners in the Democratic primary.
No candidate embodied the New Democrat ethos better than Lieberman, whose moral purity, hawkish views and name recognition earned him early Beltway supporters. Thus, when Howard Dean came into view, the DLC was quick to underestimate Dean's potential resonance with Democratic voters, misjudge the transformative nature of his campaign and mischaracterize the ideological bent of many of his supporters. After supporting a losing candidate in Lieberman, the unpopular war in Iraq and an outdated platform, attacking Dean was the only way the DLC could shift the Democratic debate.
"What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration; the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," From and Reed wrote in a fiery memo titled "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party" on May 15, 2003. Four days later, after Dean won the endorsement of the 1.5 million-member public employees union AFSCME, the DLC denounced the union as "fringe activists." But others were having second thoughts--about strategy and the DLC. As Dean surged ahead, DNC chairman and Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe told From to quiet the attacks. All nine Democratic contenders skipped the DLC's annual convention in Philadelphia.