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Davis: From, Clinton, and the power of ideas

A lot of people credit Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) with making a significant contribution to saving the Democratic Party from virtual political extinction at the end of the 1980s — at least in competing for the presidency. From reminds us in his recently published memoir, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, that in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 presidential elections, “the Republican [presidential] candidate won ... 54.1% of the popular vote and nearly 90% of the Electoral College votes.” 

And it was in that context, in the mid-1980s, that From, then a senior staffer for a powerful House Democrat Rep. Gillis Long, went to liberal and moderate members of Congress with the idea for a new think tank — the Democratic Leadership Council — to come up with new, post-FDR, post-New Deal ideas. 

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Liberal critics of From and the DLC to this day tend to focus too much on politics and labels, like “repositioning” and “centrist.” They forget the core concept that drove From and these elected officials to establish the DLC. To borrow a phrase made famous by James Carville in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s about ideas, stupid.” 

As it turned out, From and Clinton were the perfect match — the former, a classic Hill staffer driven by ideas, the latter, a charismatic border state governor overflowing with new ideas to solve people’s problems. And both saw the Democratic Party’s need to find new ideas as representing a “third way” — neither left nor right, but focused on facts and solutions.

Few of us realized at the time that this magical From-Clinton-DLC alchemy was creating a new ideological hybrid. Social liberalism expanded opportunity for the poor and the middle class but with limited government and primary reliance on free markets. Cultural moderation allowed pro-life and pro-choice and pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun control Democrats to co-exist, linked by the values of individual liberty and tolerance. Fiscal responsibility taught many liberals (including myself) that using credit cards to pay for today’s spending, however meritorious, and leaving our kids and grandkids to pay the tab is not at all “liberal”; rather, it is immoral and wrong.

At the end of this page-turning and important history, From proudly writes that during Clinton’s two terms, “all five cornerstones of the Clinton revolution” — i.e., DLC-inspired programs — were actually enacted into law. He wrote:

“AmeriCorps was already bigger than the Peace Corps at its height. A vigorous effort to reinvent government was underway, reinforced by [Clinton’s] declaration that the era of big government was over. He had passed a tough crime bill, more cities were turning to community policing, and the deployment of the 100,000 new cops was well underway. Youth apprenticeship and charter schools were now the law of the land. Welfare reform had replaced the broken system that encouraged dependency with a new system to promote work.” 

As we know, at the end of his two terms, Clinton had turned a $300 million inherited deficit in 1992 into nearly a trillion dollar surplus in 2000; had created 23 million new jobs; had reduced the total size of the federal government; and, on his last day in office, had enjoyed an historically unprecedented 65 percent job approval rating. To this day, and in his foreword to From’s book, Clinton credits the DLC and From for many of these successes. 

In February 2011, the DLC closed its doors. But its place in history was secure. The electoral map expanded by Clinton was further expanded by Barack Obama and seems to have achieved an enduring future.

Surely the Democratic Party faces further challenges in 2014 and beyond, not the least of which is fixing ObamaCare’s problems. But continuing to follow the three core principles of the DLC — opportunity, responsibility and community — remains the Democratic Party’s best hope for maintaining and expanding upon the Clinton-Obama middle-class-based winning coalition in the months and years ahead.  

 

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is the author of Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.