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Going Nowhere | The Nation

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Going Nowhere

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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.

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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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"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.

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."

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.

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.

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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