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The DLC Is Dead

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."

The group’s support for Joe Lieberman in the 2004 Democratic primary and fierce opposition to Dean, in particular, backfired rather spectacularly. As I wrote:

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."

There were more recent problems for the DLC. The group suffered additional credibility blows during Joe Lieberman’s independent Senate candidacy in 2006 and DLC chairman Harold Ford Jr.’s quixotic and short-lived bid for the Senate in New York. What was left of the New Democrat base gravitated toward the new group, Third Way, which boasts close ties to centrist members of Congress and the Washington press corps. When From retired in 2009, the DLC’s state and local chapters began to disappear. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Washington office closed as well.

To be fair, the DLC was also a victim of its own success. Former DLC CEO Bruce Reed ran the Obama Administration’s deficit commission and is now Vice President Biden’s chief of staff. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was a devotee of the organization, as are many members of the administration’s economic team. Obama, though never close to the DLC, nonetheless appears to share the group’s pro-corporate inclinations and philosophy of compromise. “DLC is not out of business,” blogger Max Sawicky tweeted to me yesterday. “HQ has moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

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