Al From Won

Al From Won

By David Paul Kuhn - June 16, 2009

This past March, in a private meeting with moderate House Democrats, Barack Obama aligned himself with centrists.

"I am a New Democrat," he reportedly said, choosing a term synonymous with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

It appeared liberals had lost their man.

Tonight, Bill Clinton headlines a Washington gala honoring the retirement of the DLC founder, a New Democrat leader who helped bring Clinton to the White House and Democrats out of the wilderness.

Al From established the DLC after Ronald Reagan carried 49 states. Walter Mondale and Democrats were decimated. A young congressional aide, From sought to steer Democrats from its liberal wing, first galvanized by George McGovern, to the electoral mainstream. And liberal activists detested him for it.

Now, after the long progressive slog from McGovern to Obama, it's From's side that has won.

Democrats are today as powerful as they have been in nearly a half-century. But more than a generation ago, it was conservatives who watched with schadenfreude as Democrats lay defeated and divided.

Edmund Muskie began asking liberals to "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."

A decade later, Democrats retreated to a West Virginia resort. They hoped to sort out why 1984 seemed like 1972, the sequel. Richard Gephardt, an early DLCer, told reporters: "We're not soul-searching and we're not in the wilderness and we're not without ideas." But of course, Gephardt protested too much. Not long after the retreat, even liberal lion Edward Kennedy gave a speech urging Democrats to moderate.

The urgency was palpable. From McGovern to Mondale to Michael Dukakis, Republicans had pushed Democrats out of power. But the Democratic Party's own left flank had also pulled them out. Democrats had lost four out of five presidential elections before a former DLC chairman, Clinton, sprung to the presidency. Later DLCers, like Al Gore, followed Clinton's lead.

Clinton's election was a great triumph for the DLC. From the mid-1980s on, the DLC recruited Democrats from the West and South. It began an ideas shop, the Progressive Policy Institute, modeled on the conservative Heritage Foundation. But Clinton was also a Democrat caught in a conservative era, at times governing domestically to the right of Richard Nixon.

The DLC moderates became a bête noir of liberals. Jesse Jackson famously criticized it as "Democrats for the Leisure Class." Howard Dean later called the DLC the "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party." And in 2008, Democratic activist and Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas sounded a similar charge on "Meet the Press." The DLC, Moulitsas complained, advocates that "Democrats must blur the distinctions" between parties.

But Moulitsas' "netroots" shared more with the DLCers than they realized. Both movements were, at least in some statewide races in the case of Kos, pragmatic. There was a desire to win and sort out the intra-party differences later.

Early on, Jackson bristled at From's attack on interest groups. "Liberalism has gone from a philosophy which aimed at improving individual opportunity and welfare to promoting the interests of interest groups," From told one reporter at the close of the 1988 campaign.

Ironically Moulitsas' own book, nearly two decades later, in some ways echoed From. It summarized Democrats as "hostage to a collection of single-issue interest groups." And so, as is often the case, the new political renegades went after the old.

Obama compounded the sense that the DLC was now being slighted. The DLC's 2008 annual convention was held a block from Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters. Still Obama skipped it. The previous year, every Democratic candidate had skipped the DLC meeting as well. Instead they notably attended the liberal YearlyKos convention headed by Moulitsas. It was seen as symbolic of Democrats' turn leftward.

By 2008, the Kos "netroots"—generally liberal, well-educated, mostly white and urbane Democrats—seemed the demographic and political heirs to McGovern. The common frame, liberal "netroots" versus moderate DLC, was a continuation of the old battle.

The Kos bloggers rose during the decline of the GOP majority. It explained their emboldened tone. Republicans' electoral blowouts in recent decades, the DLC's formative environment, were foreign to the "netroots." And without the humility of great defeats, Kos became an arena of liberal purists as well. The bloggers particularly emulated the antiwar left of McGovern's day.

This friction came to a head in the "netroots" biggest battle and failure, its attempt to force Connecticut's Joe Lieberman out of the Senate or the party. Lieberman's social liberalism was forgotten. His vocal support for the GOP national security agenda was a bridge too far to the hard left. There were echoes of McGovernites attacks on Hubert Humphrey over Vietnam, when Humphrey's role as a civil rights pioneer was also forgotten.

Like Lieberman, the DLC’s support for the war severed it still more from the "netroots." But Obama did not pick up that fight. He asked Lieberman to continue caucusing with Democrats and folded the DLC world into his own.

Obama's defining characteristic is his eye for the middle ground. His is a presidency made possible by that middle ground. Obama's gains with moderates, compared to John Kerry, were three times larger than his gains with liberals.

The DLC made its name challenging the balkanized blocs of FDR's splintering coalition. Obama has adopted the same view. There is widespread discontent today, from the liberal-antiwar crowd to gay rights groups to Latinos, over Obama's unwillingness to pick up each cause.

DLC leaders now surround Obama, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, top economic adviser Lawrence Summers, CIA chief Leon Panetta as well as others, like health secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Obama's proximity to New Democrats was visible during the last months of the campaign. Even after the stock market crash, he shied away from the economic populism of John Edwards and the muscular liberalism of Dean.

Today, Obama pushes big government measures antithetical to the DLC's effort to undercut the "tax and spend liberal" frame. But Obama adds a DLC-esque caveat. He says he is expanding government out of the urgency of the economic crisis, "not because I believe in bigger government, I don't."

Obama does inherit some of the failings of Clinton and the DLC. The DLC's pro-business model seemed at times inured to the impact of outsourcing, which hit the Reagan Democrats hardest. Clinton also failed to stall or reverse rising income inequality.

But on the big battle for moderation, the DLC has won. In 2009, it's easy to forget how controversial those early DLC years were. The 1990 DLC New Orleans Declaration of principles argued for: "equal opportunity, not equal outcomes;" strong defense and "not retreat from the world;" to "expand opportunity" rather than focusing on old inequalities; "moral and cultural values that most American's share" and the "need for faith."

That DLC message broke sharply with the Democratic platform, that only two years earlier had no mention of words like faith, religion or culture, and upheld affirmative action while altogether avoiding talk of welfare reform.

By 1991, Clinton led the DLC to ratify "The New Choice" agenda, advocating issues from charter schools to welfare reform. Meanwhile, Jackson was outside protesting.

But by the 2008 campaign, even Obama—who once said he "probably would not have supported" welfare reform—was running ads celebrating the reduction in welfare roles. Just as Clinton went from working for McGovern to leading the pushback against McGovernites, Obama has also moved to From's side of the debate.

And even the DLC's adversaries have noticed. One Daily Kos headline asked in May: "Did the DLC win after all?"

It appears so.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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