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The New New Democrats

Why Al From is still running scared.

On a recent October afternoon, Al From, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, held a press briefing on his new strategy to promote President Clinton's proposal for fast-track trade negotiation authority. The box-lunch meeting took place in the DLC's basement, and the air was thick with martial metaphors. "The fight goes on," From declared, warning that "parts of our party are trying to undermine" the economic prosperity created by the Clinton administration. "The battle is never over," said Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the DLC's chairman seated at From's side. The DLC is locked in "a continuing struggle for power," said Will Marshall, president of the group's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute.

It was the prelude to yet another fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. But then fighting for the party's soul is the DLC's perennial preoccupation. Founded by a group of mostly Southern and conservative Democrats in the wake of Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential debacle, the DLC's mission was to wrest the Democratic Party away from its left-wing establishment—particularly minority interest groups and labor unions—in order to transform it into a party that championed middle-class values. The old Democrats called for minimum wage increases, antipoverty programs, protectionism, and school busing; the DLC's self-described new Democrats sought balanced budgets, welfare reform, free trade agreements, and charter schools.

But now we have a balanced budget agreement (and a virtually balanced budget), a successful welfare reform experiment, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a real effort at charter schools. President Clinton, a founding member of the DLC, has himself reembraced DLC ideology after straying early in his first term, and he has appointed several former DLC officials to the administration. New Democrat thinking is media gospel. The organization remains—as it always has—flush with money from its well-heeled corporate donors. So why do Al From and the DLC still feel embattled?

Perhaps the DLC can't take yes for an answer. The Democratic Party has already adopted the DLC formula of claiming the center, especially hot-button social issues. Even most traditional liberals concede that Democrats need to woo middle-class voters, and that the old cultural policies senselessly antagonized key constituencies. But to hear the DLC tell it, these constituencies still pose a potent threat. Like Cold Warriors who pine for the Soviet menace, the DLC types seem flummoxed by the absence of a powerful liberal establishment.

In one way, though, the DLC does remain an insurgency. The DLC is a head without a body—a Beltway operation with little presence in grassroots America. The DLC may have a foothold in the White House, but its presence on Capitol Hill is minimal; ubiquitous on the op-ed pages, the movement lacks a cadre of dedicated volunteers. In recent years, the Beltway focus has been an effective strategy for reframing public discussion, but it has meant that the group's fortunes are hostage to the Clinton administration's.

Of particular concern is the 2000 presidential race, which will most likely pit a DLC disciple, Vice President Al Gore, against an apostate DLC founder, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. From and his allies fear that, should Gephardt or some other old-style Democrat triumph, the DLC would be isolated and ostracized—that it would be, once more, just a marginalized minority. In short, a threat to Clinton is now a threat to the DLC itself.

AT THE OMNI Shoreham Hotel, a week after From's luncheon, the DLCers clung to Clinton. "There were years when there was tension in the corridors that you could feel," Chuck Alston, executive director of the DLC, explained. No longer. The meeting became one long lovefest centering on the accomplishments of Clinton and Gore. The title of the conference was "New Democrats, New Economy: Expanding the Winner's Circle." The ballroom was packed with over a thousand supporters of the DLC, many of them financial backers, who listened intently as Secretary of Education Richard Riley droned on about a new social compact and Congressman Jim Moran of suburban Virginia expounded on "Governing in the Vital Center."

William Galston, a former Clinton White House domestic policy maven, could scarcely contain his excitement as he sketched out a political program that would ensure Democratic domination well into the next century. If Democrats could only combine a social compact that helps workers, while integrating the U.S. into the world economy, they would cripple the Republicans: "If it works out politically with ... answers that work, we deserve to win," he said. Pro-business types attending the conference seemed to agree. Wayne Gantt, an economist from Atlanta, told me that Democrats need to hold on to "business-oriented and socially progressive" voters: "the message of the DLC could help return the South to the Democrats."

In a sense, the DLC has come full circle since 1993. Clinton was supposed to be the DLC's meal ticket, but as he lurched left on issue after issue, From and company grew increasingly disenchanted with their creation. Writing in a 1994 issue of The New Democrat, From observed, "Carter and Clinton both tried to accommodate the advocacy groups, bringing many of the groups' supporters into their administrations. Carter's accommodation strategy failed miserably." Separately, From said that his organization was an independent think tank, "not an adjunct of the Clinton administration."

Today, it is precisely that. Robert Shapiro, an economist at the Progressive Policy Institute and a Clinton adviser in 1992, has been nominated to be undersecretary for economic affairs at Commerce. Bruce Reed, a former member of the DLC, has been promoted to White House domestic policy adviser—and he is widely seen as an architect of last year's welfare reform plan. Other DLC policy types, like Galston and Elaine Kamarck, have come and gone from the administration, but White House political adviser Rahm Emmanuel is still lunching with From.

The turnaround came after the 1994 congressional elections, a drubbing that jolted Clinton back to his New Democrat roots. "Our greatest ally was objective reality," says DLC policy director Ed Kilgore, adding with a grin, "Dick Morris is pretty objective." And so, advisers like Morris, speechwriter Don Baer, and pollster Mark Penn were in contact with the DLC and pushing its agenda at the White House. The Clinton emphasis on cultural issues such as school uniforms can be traced tithe DLC, which has made them a key part of its program. Lately, the DLC has even begun to make some inroads in the House of Representatives, where a 37-member New Democrat coalition has been founded by Moran, Cal Dooley of California, and Tim Roemer of Indiana. They may extract concessions from the Republicans by becoming a key swing bloc of votes against liberal Democrats, just as "Blue Dog" conservative Democrats were courted by Republicans during the Reagan years.

BUT THE FLARE-UP over fast-track—and the emboldened opposition to Clintonism by the non-DLC Democrats in Congress—clearly has From worried. At the convention, From ordered his flock to "stand squarely" with Clinton: "His fight is our fight." "[I]t is astonishing to me," thundered From, "that organized interest groups who dominated the Democratic Party during our many years in the political wilderness have chosen this moment to launch a high-profile, lavishly financed effort to derail a Democratic president's successful economic strategy."

So hostile is the DLC to the Gephardt-led Democratic minority in the House that it seems to have adopted Clinton's own Dick Morris-devised approach to the Hill: "triangulation," that is, positioning yourself somewhat to the left of the Hill Republicans, and somewhat to the right of the Hill Democrats. After the defeat in 1994, Will Marshall says, Clinton was "liberated to pursue reform and a modernization course." But a defeat on fast-track, he warns, could lead to a return of the bad, old Democratic party. "This is not just about a narrow technical issue," said Marshall, but "a struggle to reverse economic policies."

The assumption behind Marshall's description of the stakes is, as always, that paleoliberal special interest groups are trying to pull the Democratic Party away from its natural base. This was the message that Mark Penn, a pollster for Clinton, delivered at the conference. Penn has produced a 54-page survey showing that most Democrats are, in fact, New Democrats. The poll shows that the party has once again become a middle-class organization, 51 percent of whose supporters make over $35,000 (compared to 55 percent of the nation as a whole). Democrats, Penn argues, are more educated, more female, more middle class, more suburban, and less unionized than in 1980 when Ronald Reagan swept to victory.

But the surprisingly strong popular resistance to fast-track suggests Penn's analysis is wishful thinking. The opposition consists in large part of traditionally Democratic blue-collar workers who feel victimized by the global economy and resent the internationalist economic vision championed by big business, touted by the DLC, and implemented by Clinton. The electorate may be more suburban than it was 20 years ago, but these blue-collar workers still account for a big part of the socially conservative Democratic constituency the DLC has worked so hard to court.

Here is the flaw in the DLC's strategy: it has always sought to take over the Democratic party from the top. In ignoring the grass roots, though, the DLC is attempting to dismiss a populist rage that politicians such as Gephardt and, on the Republican side, Pat Buchanan, are exploiting. In reinventing the Democratic party, the DLC has antagonized key constituencies.

For now, at least, such problems are not acute—at least not acute enough to detract from the DLC's gloating over the GOP's current problems. At a gala dinner following the conference, Gore credited the DLC with helping transform the Democrats into a mainstream party, then tweaked the Republicans: in the GOP, he quipped, "the right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing." The guests chuckled, sipped their wine, and reached for the shrimp. At least for an instant, the Democratic Party's soul seemed intact.

This article originally ran in the November 17, 1997 issue of the magazine.