Going Nowhere | The Nation


Going Nowhere

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Centrist elected officials have prospered with the DLC's institutional backing, a luxury never afforded to alternative groups like the House Progressive Caucus, which has failed to translate its sizable membership into lasting influence. (Its website hasn't been updated since the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action in June 2003.) In the Senate, progressives are even less organized. The fact that conservative Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln speak through the New Democratic Coalition while center-left Dems like Patrick Leahy and Byron Dorgan lack institutional support is one way the DLC survives.

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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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The shooting of a civil rights activist by an Alabama state trooper led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Conservative Democrats also subsist on "warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust," as The Washington Monthly wrote recently, or what DLC fellow (and former Christian Coalition staffer) Marshall Whitman boasts of as the "tried and tested formula for the Democratic Party's resurgence." But today, emerging wisdom holds that Clintonism without Clinton is not a winning strategy. When Clinton entered office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Democrats now have their smallest minority presence in decades. All eight candidates for whom Clinton campaigned in 2004 lost. Nevertheless, the DLC has adopted Clinton's triangulation tactics on national security, economic policies and family values for the "Heartland Strategy" it's developing to help Democrats win in the red states. What Daily Show comedian Lewis Black said recently of Democrats in general is true in spades for the DLC: "Sometimes the devil you know is better than winning."

The "Third Way" of Clinton has now largely given way to opposing George W. Bush. Upon entering the new Congress in January, the House Democratic leadership berated lawmakers for voting with the GOP and warned Democrats that loyalty would become a prerequisite for assuming a committee chair. Senate minority leader Harry Reid has virtually united Democrats against Social Security privatization, opened a "war room" to counteract the Republican message and promised future fights against conservative judges. Such attitudes illustrate how times appear to be changing in one-party Washington, especially for New Democrats. "The New and Old labels aren't relevant at this point," says former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, past chairman of Pennsylvania's state DLC chapter. "Now that we're in the minority, we need unity to win elections." In the race for DNC chair, the only candidate to embrace a New Democratic platform actively, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, ran far behind, mainly because of his antichoice record. Simon Rosenberg downplayed his past ties to the DLC, emphasizing his work modernizing the NDN. Dean rode to victory on an anti-establishment, reform message. DNC members this year responded favorably to the "outsider" candidate. Now the DLC's archnemesis is in charge of rebuilding the Democratic Party.

Dean won't be alone. The progressive infrastructure that helped keep Kerry alive and began crafting a sharper Democratic message--America Votes, Progressive Majority, Camp Wellstone, Democracy for America, Center for American Progress, Air America Radio, Media Matters, the blogosphere--now exerts a greater degree of influence, bankrolled by new, wealthy outsiders and small donors who share similar goals. George Soros and Peter Lewis have pledged $100 million over the next fifteen years to support a permanent idea factory rivaling right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the mushy centrism of the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute. "We've come to represent a way of doing politics that is dangerous to people in DC who have a nice little niche," says MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser. "Bringing in the grassroots will mean a loss of influence for some of the establishment folks."

The DLC finally seems to be getting the message, revising some of its past positions to accommodate a new desire for party unity and a more progressive, grassroots focus. In 2002 the DLC supported privatizing Social Security. Now it's opposed. Evan Bayh, a likely presidential contender in 2008, bucked his fellow New Democrats and voted against the nominations of Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State and Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General. "We're not trying to impose litmus tests," says DLC policy director Ed Kilgore, a more conciliatory figure than From or Marshall. "It's a little daunting to always be called Republican-lite." Younger DLC members privately say they'll become more involved only when From retires. Quietly, the DLC has been offering "value-based" training for Democratic officials for the past seven years. "Our main focus is now outside the Beltway," Kilgore adds, though he admits that the DLC "has never pretended, nor tried, to be a true grassroots organization." The effort sounds promising, but time will tell whether the DLC can sufficiently reinvent itself; the DLC eliminated its state chapters after they became too independent of Washington.

"Let Republicans be the party of Washington," From wrote recently. "We should take up the reform mantle." To that end, the DLC is even borrowing traditional liberal passions like electoral reform. But before it tries to reform the Democratic Party, the old dinosaur of the Democratic establishment may first have to reform itself.

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