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Going Nowhere | The Nation

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Going Nowhere

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For his part, Dean became the first serious presidential candidate to challenge the DLC openly since Jesse Jackson. But along with his clear antiwar stance, Dean frequently invoked his record of balancing budgets and his A rating from the NRA. (In fact, in 1996 the DLC had praised re-election of "the centrist Gov. Howard Dean" as indicative of a blossoming "New Democratic leadership.") This led many analysts to wonder whether the DLC's animosity was more about power than ideology. "Mr. From fancies himself a kingmaker," wrote then-Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, "and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his table."

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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Major fissures emerged within the New Democratic movement as the DLC lost longstanding ideological and organizational support. Elaine Kamarck repudiated her "Politics of Evasion" argument--which laid out the policy blueprint for Clintonism--in a series of Newsday columns, arguing that the Dean campaign rendered the DC establishment "pretty much irrelevant." After Kamarck endorsed Dean in early January 2004, the DLC-friendly New Republic wrote: "Al From's Head Explodes." "The Democrats are not where we were fifteen years ago," Kamarck now says. "I think it's great that there's been a resurgence in grassroots activism on the left side of the party."

A public feud also emerged between From and the New Democratic Network (NDN), which the DLC founded as its own political action committee to elect New Democrats to Congress. The NDN had been run by loyal DLC protégé Simon Rosenberg since 1996. Rosenberg eschewed the DLC's high-profile attacks and ideological rigidity, viewing Dean as the most innovative leader since Clinton. "I didn't support Dean's candidacy or agree with him on many issues," Rosenberg told Time's Joe Klein. "But I appreciated how he did what he did. I also thought it was time for New Democrats to declare victory in the intellectual wars and make peace with the party infrastructure." To that end, Rosenberg kept the NDN centrist in orientation but competed with the DLC for members and money, launching an expensive media campaign targeting Hispanic voters and forming alliances with blogs like DailyKos and MyDD and organizations like MoveOn.org. After ending his bid for DNC chairman, Rosenberg endorsed Dean. "NDN pluralized the concept of a New Democrat," says political analyst Ruy Teixeira. "You can now say you're a New Democrat and have very different views from Al From."

The media coverage of its attacks, plus Dean's own implosion, breathed temporary life into the DLC, as it assumed a large role in John Kerry's policy shop. As the Anybody But Bush movement mobilized, the DLC quietly pushed Kerry rightward, dubbing him "a pragmatic centrist in the Clinton mode."

After Kerry's defeat, the DLC promised to "avoid the circular firing squad" mentality but then quickly broke the promise, reverting to its favorite target: the Democratic base. Instead of labor unions and feminists, the DLC fixated on MoveOn.org and Michael Moore. "We need to be the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, not Michael Moore," the DLC wrote on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, of all places. "What leftist elites smugly imagine is a sophisticated view of their country's flaws strikes much of America as a false and malicious cartoon," the DLC's Will Marshall wrote in Blueprint, the group's magazine, in a rant worthy of The Weekly Standard. "Democrats should have no truck with the rancid anti-Americanism of the conspiracy-mongering left." The DLC continued this vitriol into March.

Such attacks put the DLC back on the front page--a fact that speaks to one of its ongoing sources of strength. For Washington journalists, the DLC is an ideal organization, frequently critical and readily accessible. Privately, DLC staffers complain that only controversy will bring coverage. A fat Rolodex, the product of years spent mingling with journalists, gives the DLC an illusion of real power. The New York Times and Washington Post mentioned or quoted the DLC 200 times during the electoral season, forty more mentions than the Club for Growth, a leading player in the right-wing movement.

The DLC's media savvy has helped it build a wealth of connections. The organization now claims hundreds of state elected officials in the New Democratic directory published on its website. Some, like Bayh or Lieberman, are true believers. Others are happy for the free publicity gained from attending a conference or being named "New Democrat of the Week." And for politicians in red states, joining the DLC offers political cover. "It's the easiest, cheapest way for a politician who wants to be equated with a 'different kind of Democrat,'" says former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who endorsed Rosenberg for DNC chair. "It doesn't mean anything anymore."

For example, fourteen members of the House New Democratic Coalition earned perfect ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 2002 or 2003. "The mothership idea of a New Democrat was never shared by the DLC's rank and file, and it's less so today," says Teixeira. The House Coalition lost thirty-six members over the past two years. "Their universe of federal elected officials is relatively small," adds Baer. Of course, the fact that a New Democratic Coalition even exists is testament to the DLC's past success in creating, identifying and marketing a New Democratic brand.

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