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Requiem for the DLC

A personal memoir of the much maligned centrist group.

After a good quarter-century run, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) has announced it will close its doors this month. Its original mission has long been accomplished: This small but famous—or, depending on your orientation, infamous—organization was founded in the wake of the 1984 Walter Mondale debacle by two House Democratic Caucus staffers named Al From and Will Marshall, who enlisted an assortment of elected officials with names like Clinton, Gore, Gephardt, Nunn, Babbitt, and Robb. Its goal was to lay the “message” and policy groundwork for a successful Democratic presidential run, at a time when Republicans were said to have an “Electoral College lock.” With an eight-year Clinton presidency on the books and Obama looking pretty well positioned for reelection, it’s past time to conclude that the lock has been picked.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that the DLC’s immediate raison d’etre was fulfilled in 1992, when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush. At that point, the council had already evolved from a clubhouse for elected officials disgruntled with the ineptitude of the national party to an idea factory for its prize pupil and tutor (Clinton). Having decided to sojourn on, it became a well-established political fixture that managed a distinctive ideological brand while occasionally engaging in high-profile factional battles with “the Left,” a term it often applied to orthodox liberals, as well as antiwar activists and various interest and identity groups. Sometimes, the DLC even disagreed with Clinton, as it did on HillaryCare (supporting, instead, an approach to health care reform close to what Barack Obama offered upon becoming president).

After Bill Clinton left office, however, they—perhaps I should say “we,” since I served as a policy director there for about a decade before I left in 2006, and I’m still a part-time fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), originally the DLC’s think tank—clearly experienced something of an identity crisis. Beginning in 2000, the DLC determined to rebuild its bench and recapture its original role as a home for non-Washington Democrats left behind by the national party. It engaged in an immensely useful, but not very visible, effort to build a network of state and local elected officials, focused on training and fostering policy cross-pollination among state legislators, mayors, county officials, and sub-gubernatorial statewide officeholders. That network has a pretty impressive alumni list, ranging from Obama cabinet members Tom Vilsack, Kathleen Sebelius, and Janet Napolitano to new Senator Chris Coons and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Yet, with “New Democratic” ideas permeating almost the entire Democratic Party, it was clear that the DLC was searching for new ways to be useful, if not a new rationale.

Strangely, just as the DLC was reorienting itself away from Washington, the myth that the DLC served as a shadowy and very powerful link between corporate lobbyists and Beltway Democrats began to grow and grow—fueled by a series of noisy verbal joists between DLC leaders and Howard Dean during the 2004 presidential cycle, followed by extended cold warfare with progressive bloggers in the aftermath of that election. None of this had much to do with what the DLC was doing every day, but it sure got a lot of attention, most of it negative, and preempted any progressive appreciation for the DLC’s policy work or its regular savaging of Bush-era Republicans.

In truth, the DLC was never the ideological or political monolith that its enemies—or even its friends—sometimes imagined. Yes, it was partially financed by corporate money (mainly because corporations wanted to hedge their partisan bets, and because the DLC was at least friendly to them), and it undoubtedly went far over the top in celebrating the “New Economy,” along with the deregulatory demands of the tech industry and its financial allies. But it also pioneered attacks on “corporate welfare” in the federal budget and tax code, opposed state-level tax giveaways as an economic-development tool, and opposed most of corporate America’s legislative priorities (other than on trade policy), most notably the Bush tax cuts and the health care industry’s cherished Medicare prescription drug benefit. Yes, the DLC fought with the labor movement over trade policy, but it also supported the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which could not have pleased corporate donors, and, on one occasion, PPI’s Will Marshall co-authored an economic policy manifesto with American Prospect editor Bob Kuttner. And yes, the DLC often scourged Democrats for appearing to be weak on defense, and it became too closely associated with the Iraq war (though it quickly split with George W. Bush's policies on Iraq after the invasion). But DLC founder Sam Nunn led the Democratic opposition to Operation Desert Storm, and many elected officials associated with the DLC opposed the 2003 war from the get-go. The DLC’s reputation for “Republican Lite” policy ideas was never that well-merited: At a time when these ideas were outside even the Democratic mainstream, the group came out for public financing of congressional elections and GLBT rights.

Nor was the DLC all that monolithic in its political allegiances. When five-term DLC chairman Joe Lieberman ran for president in 2004, his circle of close advisers included his friend Al From. But other top DLC/PPI staff were at the same time advising John Kerry and John Edwards, and the standing joke was that the DLC was pursuing a “portfolio strategy.” When Lieberman lost his 2006 Senate primary to Netroots hero Ned Lamont, From again supported his friend’s decision to run as an Independent, just as DLC chairman Tom Vilsack promptly endorsed Lamont. Even the perception that the DLC was locked in a perpetual war with the “dirty hippies” of the progressive blogosphere was more myth than reality. One of my odder assignments for the DLC was to squire Markos Moulitsas—a famously obsessive DLC-hater who predictably celebrated the DLC’s death in a post yesterday—around a DLC annual meeting, which he attended as part of a reciprocal agreement with DLC Chairman Harold Ford. In one session, Markos called Joe Lieberman an “asshole” and drew robust applause. This naturally delighted him but, unfortunately, didn’t make him think twice about his understanding of the DLC itself.

Meanwhile, on the right, it’s laughable to read the reactions from conservatives like the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, arguing that the DLC’s demise proves there’s no room in Obama’s Democratic Party for “centrists.” The most immediate cause of the DLC’s closure was, of course, the departure of From’s successor Bruce Reed—who headed out to become Joe Biden’s chief of staff, joining a large group of his Clinton administration colleagues in prominent White House positions. When you take stock, it’s clear that Obama has campaigned and governed using policies and political strategies derived, at least in part, from the DLC’s “New Democratic” playbook.

In any event, the DLC is about to become history now, and the passions it aroused, positive and negative, have largely faded. It doesn’t leave a big vacuum, since it’s not as though no one else is toiling in the same vineyard. PPI is alive and well, and proud of its decades-long championship of Obama administration policy staples like cap-and-trade and the managed-competition approach to universal health care. A group named Third Way—never formally associated with DLC but self-consciously drawing on the same heritage—has taken over the care-and-feeding-of-congressmen function that the DLC largely withdrew from during the last decade. A lot of the political perspectives that “New Democrats” (or as PPI likes to call them now, “pragmatic progressives”) offered have been fully internalized by Democrats of every stripe, to the point they need little tutoring. So, whether you loved it, hated it, or were indifferent to it, the DLC made its mark—and it awaits the judgments of political historians, who will probably give it a chapter in the narratives of the last 25 years.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.