February 27, 2006
Waking the Democrats

By Al From

The New Democrat philosophy is the modernization of liberalism. It is a modern-day formula for activist government: progressive policies that create opportunity for all, not just an entitled few; mainstream values like work, family, responsibility, and community; and practical, non-bureaucratic solutions to governing. It reconnects the Democratic Party with its first principles and its grandest traditions by offering new and innovative ways to further them.

It is not an effort to move the party to the right, not a compromise between liberalism and conservatism, not triangulation.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers -- with new ideas to fit their times -- modernized the Democratic Party for the Industrial Era, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats modernized their party for today. In the same Democratic tradition of innovation, the New Dealers brought America back from economic depression, and the New Democrats led an economic resurgence in the 1990s. By tempering the excesses of capitalism, Roosevelt saved capitalism. By modernizing progressive governance, Clinton saved progressive governance.

The New Democrat movement began as an effort to revitalize the Democratic Party as the New Deal coalition broke apart.

For three-quarters of a century before 1932, Democrats were, in a sense, the remainder party in American politics. They were largely a confederation of disgruntled constituencies that seldom won the White House and had little sense of national purpose.

Roosevelt changed that. Under FDR, Democrats offered a broad agenda for economic and social progress. Policies begun under the New Deal -- and boosted by the war effort -- rebuilt the American economy, created the great American middle class, conquered fascism, and saved the free world. The New Deal message was crystal clear: economic progress and upward mobility for the greatest number of Americans and anti-totalitarianism on the global scene.

As the 1960s passed into the 1970s, the liberal agenda -- largely because of its success -- ran out of steam, and the intellectual coherence of the New Deal began to dissipate. The Democratic coalition split apart over civil rights, Vietnam, economic change, and culture and values, and the great cause of liberal government that had animated the Democratic Party for three decades degenerated into a collection of special pleaders. Not surprisingly, Democrats began losing presidential elections again -- five out of the six between Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964 and Clinton's in 1992.

The first seeds of a New Democrat movement were sown by Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine in the mid-1970s. In two groundbreaking speeches -- to the Liberal Party of New York in October 1975 and to the Democratic Party platform committee in May 1976 -- Muskie delivered a blunt message to his fellow liberals: To preserve progressive governance, we had to reform liberalism.

"Why can't liberals start raising hell about a government so big, so complex, so expansive, and so unresponsive that it's dragging down every good program we've worked for?" Muskie asked. "Our challenge is to restore the faith of Americans in the basic competence and purposes of government. ... Well-managed, cost-effective, equitable, and responsible government is in itself a social good. ... Efficient government is not a retreat from social goals, ... simply a realization that without it, those goals are meaningless."

The first organized effort that led to the New Democrat movement began in the House Democratic Caucus after the 1980 Republican landslide. Faced with a Republican president, a GOP Senate, and a sharply diminished Democratic majority in the House, a group of young House members -- including Al Gore of Tennessee, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, Tim Wirth of Colorado, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin -- gathered weekly in a windowless room on the top floor of the Longworth House Office Building to discuss policies and strategies to revitalize their sagging party. First in April 1981, and again in September 1982 and in January 1984, they issued policy manifestos aimed at modernizing their party.

Their themes were strikingly New Democrat -- to expand opportunity for all, to rekindle private enterprise, to regenerate our sense of community and mutual commitment, and to reaffirm our commitment to a stronger America. "Our program amounts to a clean break with the recent rhetoric -- but not the traditional values -- of the Democratic Party," Caucus Chairman Gillis Long of Louisiana wrote in the introduction to the 1984 effort.

In early 1985, many of these House members joined with about a dozen senators and another group of reformers -- innovative Democratic governors, including Arkansas' Governor Clinton -- to form the Democratic Leadership Council. New-age governors, particularly in the South, were reforming their state governments -- and Clinton was a leader among them.

To understand the impetus behind the DLC and the New Democrats, it is important to understand the plight of the Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Democrats had run out of ideas -- and liberalism was in great need of resuscitation. Liberals confused expanding government with expanding opportunity. They forgot what John Kennedy had taught -- that opportunity and responsibility must go hand in hand. They worried more about police power than public safety at home and more about American power than America's enemies in the world.

In the minds of too many Americans, government, once an engine of opportunity, had become an obstacle to opportunity. And, still reeling from the aftermath of the party's split over Vietnam, Democrats in the 1980s stood for weakness abroad and for equal outcomes, entitlements for favored constituencies, and big government at home.

The American people said, "No, thanks." Democrats lost at least 40 states in each of the three presidential elections during the decade. In 1984, the party hit bedrock -- losing 49 states for the second time in four national elections. Many experts said the Republicans had a lock on the presidency. Politically and intellectually, the Democratic Party was in a state of near-collapse.

Writing in The New Republic after the 1984 vote, analyst Bill Schneider described the Democrats' plight: "Beginning in the mid-1960s, two streams of voters began leaving the Democratic Party -- white Southerners and Catholic 'ethnic' voters in the North. The first stage of this realignment occurred in 1968 and 1972, when race and foreign policy were the major issues of contention. ... The second stage, 1980-84, has been much more devastating because the party has lost its credibility on economic issues."

The harsh consequences of both stages of realignment were evident again in 1988, when Democrats lost a presidential election that they thought they would win.

"Democrats must come face to face with reality," wrote William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck in their landmark 1989 study The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency. "Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security."

The Democrats' dilemma after 1988, according to Schneider, was that there was no alternative between "those who want to reaffirm the party's old-time religion and those who want to turn to the right." But by moving to the left, Democrats would make things worse for themselves, he said, and, because they were a liberal party, it was unlikely they would nominate a candidate unacceptable to liberals.

What the Democrats needed, Schneider wrote, was a "tough liberal" in the mold of Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson -- tough guys who "couldn't be pushed around by the Russians or the special interests in Washington."

Into that breach stepped Clinton and the New Democrats.

By the end of the 1980s, it was evident that conservatism, like liberalism, was bankrupt of ideas, creating what Clinton and the New Democrats saw as a false choice between two tired, old approaches that no longer worked.

Forging a Third Way was the challenge facing Democrats when Clinton assumed the DLC chairmanship in New Orleans in March 1990. His first act as DLC chairman was to issue The New Orleans Declaration, a seminal document that laid out the core New Democrat beliefs and served as the philosophical foundation for the Third Way approach and the Clinton presidency.

Here are those core beliefs:

We believe the promise of America is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes; that the Democratic Party's fundamental mission is to expand opportunity, not government; and in the politics of inclusion.

We believe that America must remain energetically engaged in the worldwide struggle for individual liberty, human rights, and prosperity, not retreat from the world, and that the United States must maintain a strong and capable defense that reflects dramatic changes in the world, but recognizes that the collapse of communism does not mean the end of danger.

We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone; that the right way to rebuild America's economic security is to invest in the skills and ingenuity of our people and to expand trade, not restrict it; that all claims on government are not equal; that our leaders must reject demands that are less worthy, and hold to clear governing priorities; and, that a progressive tax system is the only fair way to pay for government.

We believe in preventing crime and punishing criminals, not in explaining away their behavior; that the purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the nation's economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence; in the protection of civil rights and the broad movement of minorities into America's economic and cultural mainstream, not racial, gender or ethnic separatism; and that government should respect individual liberty and stay out of our private lives and personal decisions.

We believe in the moral and cultural values that most Americans share: liberty of conscience, individual responsibility, tolerance of difference, the imperative of work, the need for faith, and the importance of family.

Finally, we believe that American citizenship entails responsibility as well as rights, and we mean to ask our citizens to give something back to their communities and their country.

During the next 14 months -- with time out to get re-elected as governor of Arkansas in 1990 and for a legislative session in early 1991 -- Clinton traveled across the country meeting with elected, party, business, labor, and civic leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, to discuss those beliefs and innovative ideas for furthering them. During that period, Clinton shaped much of the agenda on which he was to run in 1992 -- the first New Democrat agenda.

He called that agenda "The New Choice" and presented it for ratification to the DLC's Convention in Cleveland in May 1991. That Cleveland meeting turned out to be a pivotal event for the New Democrat movement. The New Choice resolutions broke new ground, advocating ideas like national service, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, welfare reform, charter schools, community policing, expanding trade, and reinventing government.

Those ideas may not seem radical or even particularly bold today, but in 1991 they provoked plenty of controversy. Jesse Jackson protested outside the convention hall. So did other Democratic interest groups. A rival group of liberals called the Coalition for Democratic Values, led by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, met in Des Moines, Iowa, that same weekend, arguing that Democrats should reject Clinton, the DLC, and the New Democrat approach.

The highlight of the Cleveland convention was Clinton's keynote address. In it, he coined the three words -- opportunity, responsibility, community -- that became the mantra of the New Democrats and their center-left allies all over the world. "This is the New Choice we offer: opportunity, responsibility, choice -- a government that works and a belief in community," Clinton said. "Our New Choice plainly rejects the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn't liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans' attack on our party, and the Democrats' previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives.

"People don't care about the idle rhetoric that has paralyzed American politics. They want a new choice, and they deserve a new choice, and we ought to give it to them," he continued. "I want my child to grow up in the America I did. I don't want her to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents did. I don't want her to be part of a country that's coming apart instead of coming together. That is what the New Choice is all about. That is what we are here to do. We're not out to save the Democratic Party. We're out to save the United States of America."

In his book, My Life, Clinton called the Cleveland speech "one of the most effective and important" he ever gave. He wrote: "It captured the essence of what I had learned in 17 years of politics and what millions of Americans were thinking. It became the blueprint for my campaign message. ... By embracing ideas and values that were both liberal and conservative, it made voters who had not supported Democratic presidential candidates in years listen to our message."

When he announced his presidential candidacy on Oct. 3, 1991, in Little Rock, Ark., the New Choice became the New Covenant, but the themes -- opportunity, responsibility, and community -- remained the same.

The 1992 Democratic Party platform incorporated Clinton's New Democrat message. It called for a Third Way -- a New Covenant "that will expand opportunity, insist upon greater individual responsibility in return, restore community, and ensure national security in a new era."

In five ways, this New Democrat platform was fundamentally different from Democratic Party platforms of the previous quarter-century.

First, its centerpiece was economic growth, not redistribution.

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

Third, it emphasized a new spirit of reciprocity. It called 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. And it declared in unequivocal language: "The United States must be prepared to use military force decisively when necessary to defend our vital interests."

Finally, it called for a revolution in government to take power away from entrenched bureaucracies and narrow interests in Washington and put it back in the hands of ordinary people by making government more decentralized, more flexible, and more accountable, and by offering more choices in public services.

The choices Clinton made in his New Democrat message and the 1992 platform reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and grandest traditions.

By choosing to emphasize growth over redistribution, Clinton reconnected the Democratic Party with Andrew Jackson's credo of opportunity for all, special privileges for none. By choosing reciprocity over entitlement, he reconnected his party with Kennedy's ethic of mutual responsibility. By choosing tough-minded internationalism over isolationism, he reconnected Democrats to the progressive internationalism of Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. And, by choosing empowering government over bureaucracy, he reconnected his party with Roosevelt's tradition of innovation and reform.

Every one of those choices was difficult for a Democrat in 1992. But the toughness to go against party orthodoxy and the political tide distinguished Clinton from three straight losing Democratic candidates. It made it credible for him to run as a "different kind of Democrat."

In essence, Clinton's New Democrat formula offered what Schneider said Democrats needed after their 1988 defeat -- a candidate who couldn't be pushed around by special interests in Washington and who offered an alternative to the unacceptable choice between those who wanted the party to reaffirm its "old-time religion" and those who wanted to turn it to the right.

Put into place, Clinton's New Democrat policies were extraordinarily successful for our country. When he left office, Americans were enjoying the best economy in our lifetime and the longest period of sustained economic growth in American history. Twenty two and a half million jobs were created; employment was at an all-time high; and unemployment at a three-decade low. Inflation remained under control, and the budget was in surplus. Incomes and wages were going up, child poverty was down, and the welfare rolls had been cut by 60 percent.

Minorities and women achieved record gains. The violent crime rate was the lowest in a quarter-century, and the federal government was the smallest since the Kennedy administration. Clinton had the best environmental record of any president since Theodore Roosevelt and moved 100 times more people out of poverty than Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Because his ideas worked, Clinton not only redefined progressivism in this country, but served as the model for the resurgence of center-left political parties, from Europe and Latin America to Asia and Africa. That is his true legacy.

Clinton will be remembered as the modernizer of progressive politics -- for his insistence on new means to achieve progressive ideals.

That is his living legacy, because for decades to come, Democratic elected officials across our country and leaders around the world will emulate his approach to governing.

Al From is founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Blueprint Magazine

Blueprint Magazine

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