In December the leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council, Al From and Bruce Reed, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about what the Democrats had to do to attract heartland voters (“We need to be the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, not Michael Moore”; help “parents protect their children from a coarsening culture”; “expand opportunity for all who are willing to work for it”). Angry letter writers to the Journal just saw two more crypto-Bolsheviks who “cannot resist the impulse to engage in a bit of class warfare,” in thrall like all the rest to “special-interest constituenc[ies] such as extreme environmentalists.”
On the one hand, it’s a sign of the ripening strangeness of the right-wing imagination. On the other, the letters reveal a grain of truth. The DLC is made up of centrists, not conservatives, just as it claims, and that’s why the Journal‘s readers hate it. Let’s be generous in one regard: It’s fought the Administration on more than a few issues in the past year, from climate change to Social Security reform, honestly and in the open.
Would that it were so honest and in the open when it came to fighting Democrats. The main problem with the DLC is not that its ideology mirrors the Republicans’. It is that its tactics do. At the DLC’s annual convention this year, From (“his voice intense with emotion,” according to the New York Times) said, “The DLC has saved the Democratic Party once, and we’re bound to do it again.” As the battle heats up between party centrists and progressives for the February 12 election for Democratic Party chair, a glance at the DLC’s history shows that From’s definition of “saving” looks a whole lot like that of the field commanders who thought they’d rescue Vietnamese villages by sanctioning their destruction.
Consider what happened in 1995, when the DLC’s Progressive Foundation, angry that so few DLC-ers were nominated to high positions in the Clinton Administration and at Clinton’s full-on push for universal healthcare, inaugurated something called the “Third Way” project. The DLC’s historian, Kenneth Baer, in his book Reinventing Democrats, says, “There is some evidence that this project was to be the beginning of a third party movement.” DLC funder Michael Steinhardt even approached a senator to run against Clinton in the 1996 primaries.
It might seem strange that the DLC would cut itself loose from Bill Clinton, the very figure around which it now defines its identity. Par for the course, actually. The DLC claims politicians as its own when it suits it, jettisoning them when it doesn’t, all the time and without remorse–just look what happened to Howard Dean.
In fact, the DLC was born in contempt for the decisions of the Democratic Party. In 1984 Walter Mondale’s defeat looked inevitable. So Al From chose to exploit the party’s moment of maximum vulnerability to maneuver a takeover of the Democratic National Committee. It was only when From and his allies’ candidate for DNC chair lost the next year that they took their Trojan horse out into the open. They gave their tendency a name (one sounding close enough to “DNC” to make it seem all but an official party organ) and a public mission: It would serve as the party’s vehicle for “ideas, not constituency groups.” The idealism was vouchsafed by a $1,000 membership fee, with private retreats with business-friendly pols like Virginia Governor Chuck Robb available for those willing to pay extra cash on the barrelhead.
Behavior like this soon started to smell to other Democrats. So From effected an image makeover. By 1986 the DLC was calling itself a “philosophically diverse group” with no particular ideological interests whatsoever, successfully seducing liberals like Representative Sander Levin of Michigan into membership. That, at least, was the popular front. The other part of its war was pushing for a Southern regional primary explicitly designed to produce an anti-liberal presidential nominee.
Al From cynically told his loyalists to endorse both Al Gore, whom he actually preferred, and Dick Gephardt, because he looked like the favorite. When that failed–Jesse Jackson won Super Tuesday in 1988–things got really creepy. From threatened a sort of nuclear option if the party platform didn’t suit him: He’d force a brokered convention–that favorite tactic of the old political bosses in which no one candidate wins enough delegates and backroom deals are needed to break the logjam. He buttered up the potential candidates with oily flattery–writing to Sam Nunn in one secret memo, “We’re at the point where the revolution we’ve started requires a leader to take it over the top.”
Leninism for losers. Once the organization raised enough corporate cash to be financially sound, it was rebranded as a “political movement.” Potemkin Village “conventions” were held; the 1991 event, where lobbyist “delegates” from all fifty states voted on a premasticated “progressive agenda for the Democratic Party,” was partially funded by the Republican CEO of Nestlé. Simultaneously, that same two-step hustle, the popular front and the work in the shadows: When the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s new think tank, was founded, its president, Will Marshall, described it as an “analytic guerrilla group.” It was built on the model of the Heritage Foundation (From and Marshall consulted Heritage’s director, Ed Feulner, for advice)–not as an honest brokerage for research but as a factory for marketing policy positions arrived at in advance (and disseminated in a magazine then called the Mainstream Democrat). Then, in preparation to influence the 1992 presidential race, the DLC formed chapters in every state with a major primary, in order, said Reed, to “create the illusion of a national movement.” Lovely, no?
This year, before pushing its line that the Democratic Party had to reform itself in the DLC’s image to recover from a failed presidential campaign–its message after every failed presidential campaign–it got word out in the press that Democrats thankfully no longer sniped among themselves after elections. That put it in position to label liberals as divisive when they criticized Kerry’s objectively centrist presidential campaign. Thus the DLC’s divisiveness could be framed as a bid to end all the divisiveness.
It’s clever stuff. But it also plays into George W. Bush’s hands. Splitting the difference with Republicans to neutralize attack from Republicans never works; the response to From and Reed’s op-ed in the Journal shows that. Clinton’s entire second term shows that, too, in spades–even a policy agenda so devoid of liberalism it warmed the cockles of every DLC heart was frozen in its tracks by “scandals” drummed up by Republicans convinced Clinton was the liberal devil incarnate.
In fact, everything DLC-like that Clinton did served to boost his own popularity at the expense of the party’s strength. The idea that the safest way to win an election is with 50 percent-plus-one of the votes, by taking your base for granted and nosing yourself over the line by appealing to some notional “center” is not a “safe” strategy for the Democrats. Indeed, the more this game is repeated, the less safe it becomes, because the very ideological timidity it requires erodes the base. It just isn’t a convincing story to take to the electorate. Which may be why the DLC has to promote it by hook and by crook.