What Republicans Can Learn from the DLC
By Dan Balz
In a town of short memories, Al From vividly remembers when Democrats, not Republicans, were the party in the wilderness. As he steps down from the presidency of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he has some advice for the besieged GOP -- and, not surprisingly, for his party as well.
From and the DLC helped change American politics, with a mighty assist from his most important partner, Bill Clinton, and other Democratic politicians. The DLC, founded after the Democrats landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan, pushed and prodded the party to rethink, reinvent and find a way to reach back to the center.
At the time, the DLC became a source of both ideas and controversy for the Democrats. From believes the Republicans could benefit from some of the same kind of friction today -- even though there's been no movement to create a GOP think tank whose mission would mimic that of the DLC during the Democrats wilderness years.
"We challenged orthodoxy," he said. "It was not always fun. We got attacked. We got hammered. [Former Louisiana congressman] Gillis Long, who was sort of the godfather of this, always used to tell me, 'If you're not willing to spill a little blood between elections, you're going to spill it on election day, and it's going to be yours.'"
From sees Republicans driven even more by their most conservative wing that he believes Democrats were dominated by their liberal wing two decades ago. However unified the base may be, he said, the party can't easily win national elections.
"The heart of the Republican problem is the same as the heart of our problem in the 1980s," he said, "which is if you want to win national elections, you've got to have a clear sense of national purpose and you've got to stand for values and principles and ideas that the American people want to support."
Many Republicans believe the country still tilts more center-right than center-left and from that they take hope for an eventual reversal of fortunes. From sees a party that hasn't yet confronted the reasons their market share has declined so rapidly in the past few years.
"One of the important things we had to do in 1992 was remove the obstacles that kept people from voting Democratic in the first place," he said.
That included addressing issues of welfare, fiscal discipline and crime. "As long as people thought we were going to take money form people who worked and give it to people who didn't work, they didn't want to listen to anything else," he added. "The Republicans have to make people understand that they're not just a right-wing, southern party."
During its formative years, the DLC was seen as an organization dominated by southern Democrats who were disaffected from the direction of the national party. The group was sharply criticized by liberal Democrats. Jesse Jackson, who took the DLC's critique of the party personally, dubbed them "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
Critics believed the DLC catered too much to the business community, was overly hostile to organized labor (though there was a later thawing in that relationship) and for what they claimed was an effort to force the party to turn its back on minorities in favor of the white middle class.
But Clinton, who was an early chairman of the group, argued that without the middle class, Democrats could not win national elections. He became the leading public advocate and the most important synthesizer of the New Democrat mantra, which led him to a pair of election victories that showed his party how to win national elections.
Whether the Republican Party is open enough to generate the kind of debate Democrats went through in that period isn't clear. From argued that voices of dissent with the GOP family, even mild dissent, do not feel emboldened enough to make their case. Some leading Republicans disagree with that, but so far there's no sign of the kind of robust give-and-take that marked the Democrats in the late 1980s.
From steps down at a time when the role of centrist organizations like his have come into question within the Democratic Party. During George W. Bush's second term as president, the energy in the Democratic Party shifted to the left, to organizations like MoveOn.org and to liberal grassroots activists opposed to the Iraq War who prodded the party to take on the Bush White House more aggressively.
President Obama has no history or connection with the organization. The DLC also has competition from other, newer centrist organizations. But From will be succeeded at the DLC by Bruce Reed, who was domestic policy adviser in Clinton's White House and who worked with anD later co-authored a book on centrist policy ideas with current White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. So the group will have a pipeline into the Obama White House.
"Everyone in Washington does what Rahm wants and I've been doing it the longest," Reed joked.
Obama has pushed an agenda that, in scope and ambition, seems more a return to the big government days of the past than an embrace of centrist principles, although he is clearly mindful of the dangers for Democrats if they are perceived as proponents of free spending, more taxes and are indifferent to deficits.
So as From leaves the helm at the DLC, he offered some warnings to his own party. He believes Americans want Obama to succeed. But he said Democrats should recognize that, while many people may be willing to accept extraordinary measures to fix the current problems, they have limited appetite over the long run for a significant expansion of the federal government.
"This country has always been skeptical of too much government," he said.
That is why he believes it's important for the White House, even as it uses the power of government to deal with banks, the auto industry and even health care that they have "a game plan to extricate the government from things we may not want it to do forever."
The other advice he offered was for Obama to make good on the campaign promise to create a post-partisan politics. Swing voters are especially important in this era of polarized politics, he argued, and Democrats should do nothing to cede the center to the Republicans. Because nothing in politics is permanent.
"Post-partisanship is not going to be a compromise between the two old orthodoxies. It's sort of creating a new politics," From said. "I think we're pretty early to make a judgment as to how the administration's going to go, but I also do think it's important for Democrats to remember that if we aren't careful, it's possible to get pulled back into some of the bad habits that got us in trouble two decades ago."
Web Politics Editor
June 16, 2009; 3:24 PM ET
Categories: B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take
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