The DLC’s demise, but ideas live on

From 1968 through 1992, we liberal Democrats had largely given up hope that we could maintain our liberal principles and still be competitive in presidential elections. It was the Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC, created by a young congressional staffer from Indiana named Al From, that again gave us hope of winning back the presidency. The result: two terms of Bill Clinton and, hopefully, two terms of Barack Obama. 

This week, the DLC appeared ready to close its doors — but its “New Democrat” ideas will be with us and benefit the nation for years to come. 

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Between 1968 and the Clinton victory in 1992, we Democrats had lost five out of six presidential elections with liberal Democratic presidential nominees, all of them by huge landslides (with the exception of a narrow victory by Georgian Jimmy Carter, who would never have won but for Watergate). 

Then came From, who was executive director of the House Democratic Caucus in the early 1980s. From and the DLC defined a New Democrat formula — a “third way” that was not a compromise between liberalism and conservatism, but the modernization of liberalism, a formula that reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and grandest traditions by offering new and innovative ways to further them. 

And so through the 1980s, the DLC and its idea-machine think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, rolled out new approaches to achieve liberal goals — such as national service (now known as Americorps), welfare reform combined with new job training, charter schools, community policing and “re-inventing government,” which proved that government can be leaner and more effective — the solution, not the “problem.”

And it was Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, chairman of the DLC in 1990 and 1991, who won back the presidency in 1992 and then again in 1996, based on his DLC/New Democrat approach to governing. 

What distinguished the New Democrat formula was that it differed fundamentally from the Democratic Party platforms of the previous quarter-century in five ways:

First, its centerpiece was economic growth, not redistribution. It declared that the party’s first imperative was to expand opportunity by fostering broad-based economic growth, led by a robust private sector generating high-skill, high-wage jobs.

Second, the policies it proposed were grounded in mainstream American values — personal responsibility, individual liberty, faith, tolerance, family and hard work. 

Third, it emphasized a new spirit of reciprocity, calling both for activist government and for those who benefit from government to give something back to their country and community. 

Fourth, it rejected calls for a new isolationism from both political extremes and committed Democrats to an internationalist foreign policy that defends American interests and promotes democratic values in the world. 

Finally, it called for a revolution in government to make it more decentralized, more flexible and more accountable, and by offering more choices in public services. 

That formula reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and grandest traditions. 

Running as a New Democrat, Clinton reset the electoral map for the Democratic Party, winning states in the South, border states, Sun Belt and mountain states that we had long given up hope on. Barack Obama’s winning electoral map in 2008 was a continuation of what Clinton had achieved in the 1990s. 

In May 2003, the DLC published a list of the 100 most important Democrats to watch in future years in public service. Immediately after the name Martin O’Malley, then the mayor of Baltimore and now in his second term as governor of Maryland, came “Barack Obama, state senator, Illinois.”

Obama’s appearance on that DLC future star list shouldn’t surprise anyone — other than, perhaps, the strident sanctimonious voices on the blogosphere and on nightly cable TV, those who regard any deviation from their own dogmatic definition of liberalism as heresy. 

It may be sad that the DLC won’t continue as the precious new idea machine that created the new Democratic Party. But not to worry: President Obama and the other 99 DLC political stars listed in 2003 are mostly still in public service, many of them in Congress … and Al From and Bill Clinton are a just a phone call away.

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.


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