Al From and the Founding of Today’s Majority Democratic Party

This column appears originally in The Washington Times of Monday, June 29.

Sometimes a private citizen — someone who has never run for office but has a vision and a political idea, someone who is both stubborn and insightful — can change the course of political history.

Thomas Paine is an example of one such person. His words and ideas literally helped change the course of U.S. history. In 1776, his first two of four pamphlets, "Common Sense" and "The Crisis" — the latter beginning with the famous opening line, "These are the times that try men's souls" — have been credited with mobilizing public opinion to help motivate American colonists to fight the British in what was deemed to be an unwinnable war. They reportedly were read by a greater percentage of the population of the American colonies than the percentage that watches the Super Bowl today.

If Paine is given some credit for helping to start and win a military war, then Al From is given well-deserved credit for winning a political one — and as his legacy, proving that Democratic, progressive government could win national elections and govern effectively.

"It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From," said President Clinton in a speech in 2000 at Hyde Park, N.Y., the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Last week, at a dinner honoring Al From, numerous members of the Obama White House, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Cabinet secretaries, governors, congressional leaders, and virtually everybody who is anybody in the world of ideas and politics in Washington turned out to honor Mr. From. Mr. Clinton, the guest of honor, turned to Mr. From and said: "I would never have become president if it wasn't for you."

Think about the significance of that statement. Try, if you are a Democrat, to remember what life was like for the Democratic Party before Mr. Clinton's election in 1992.

Remember that up to that year, Democrats had lost five out of the past six elections, meaning Jimmy Carter's one term, from 1977 to 1981, was the only Democratic administration in 24 years. Many Democrats, after Ronald Reagan won a 49-state landslide in 1984 over former Vice President Walter Mondale, felt utterly hopeless about their chances of ever realistically competing for the presidency.

One man was not ready to give up, a stubborn man, a visionary man. In 1985, Mr. From began the Democratic Leadership Council. He described any Democrat willing to join the group — and thus, willing to challenge the then-prevailing liberal orthodoxy and to explore new ideas, including those that might use conservative-market-based principles — a "New Democrat."

In 1991 in Cleveland, he and his new DLC chairman, a young and charismatic Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, unveiled three words that formed the core of the DLC's principles and, as it turned out, Bill Clinton's two presidential campaigns and two terms as president:

• Opportunity: The promise of America is equal opportunity, and the purpose of the Democratic Party is to expand opportunity, not government, and that economic growth in the private sector is the prerequisite for opportunity for all.

• Responsibility: But with opportunity comes responsibility — American citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights.

• Community: All citizens have an obligation to give something back to their communities, such as public service and community activities and, most importantly, focusing on programs that are for the public good and in the national interest, not for particular groups and special interests.

With these three words came an understanding that the Democrats had turned a corner — toward ideas that were relevant to the broad center of the country, and not just to specialized interest groups. The rest is history.

Mr. Clinton won in 1992 and would become the Democrats' first elected two-term president since FDR. The two Clinton presidencies, especially the second term, with few exceptions kept the faith with these three DLC words and principles, such as fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets and surpluses, welfare reform, national service, charter schools, a strong national defense, free but fair trade, and reliance on government — but a lean, "reinvented government" — to address the average person's problems.

Mr. From wasn't disturbed when the 2008 presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, virtually ignored the DLC as they chased the left-liberal voters in the early primary and caucus states.

"Once the general election comes and it's time to win the presidency as opposed to the primaries," he assured me over lunch one day, "the nominee will come back to DLC ideas."

History has proven him right — at least in the eyes of many political observers of the first six months of the Obama presidency.

As David Paul Kuhn wrote in RealClearPolitics on June 16, the day of the evening event honoring Mr. From's retirement, Mr. Obama reportedly said, "I am a New Democrat" in a private meeting with moderate House Democrats in March 2008, just two months into his presidency.

Mr. Obama also was willing to defy the harangues of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and others on the left by inviting Joe Lieberman, who had supported his Republican opponent, John McCain, to remain in the Senate Democratic caucus. And he has stood up to his political base on the left on several other critical issues.

Mr. Kuhn concluded his piece by citing a recent article on the vitriolic anti-DLC blog site, the Daily Kos, which featured an article headlined, "Did the DLC win after all?"

Mr. Kuhn's answer: "It appears so."

There is one easy way to explain Mr. From's success in restoring a successful center-left Democratic Party now led by Mr. Obama: sheer will and stubbornness, hearkening back to my opening reference to Tom Paine.

I am reminded of the words of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of New York about his friend, Allard K. Lowenstein, the great anti-Vietnam War liberal leader of the 1960s:

"For Al, who knew the lesson of Emerson and taught it to the rest of us: 'They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful, now crowding to the barriers of their careers, did not yet seek, if a single man plant himself on his convictions and then abide, the huge world will come round to him.' "

That's Al From, all right.