February 27, 2006
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
the impetus behind the DLC and the New Democrats, it is important
to understand the plight of the Democratic Party in the 1980s.
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.
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.
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."
consequences of both stages of realignment were evident again
in 1988, when Democrats lost a presidential election that they
thought they would win.
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
those core beliefs:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
centerpiece was economic growth, not redistribution.
policies it proposed were grounded in the mainstream American
values -- personal responsibility, individual liberty, faith,
tolerance, family, and hard work.
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.
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."
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.
Clinton made in his New Democrat message and the 1992 platform
reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From is founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.