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A Victim of Its Own Success

The Democratic Leadership Council’s influence ranges far and wide.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative.(GETTY IMAGES)

photo of Reid Wilson
February 10, 2011

The Democratic Leadership Council’s decision to shutter this week after 25 years of operation brings to a close an organization that, perhaps more than any other, shaped the Democratic Party as we know it today. But, like many political organizations, the DLC ultimately could not survive the revolution it started.

Founded by Democratic operative Al From as a response to President Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984, the DLC set out to change the party’s language. Mired as they were in the vocabulary of the New Deal and the Great Society, Democrats insisted that government was the solution, a stark contrast to Reagan’s central ideological theme.

The DLC was instrumental in changing that, creating a party that appealed to a wider swath. See, for example, the Progressive Caucus, no fan of the DLC’s. But still, the DLC was crucial to bringing the word “progressive” back into fashion.


It helped, in no small measure, that the DLC’s approach had a champion in one of its earliest chairmen, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. As a candidate for president and then in the White House, Clinton was the first Democrat to create a serious break from old-line liberalism on his way to the presidency.

His tenure was marked by DLC-backed initiatives, from welfare reform to the North American Free Trade Agreement to education reforms, all of which established the group as a central clearinghouse for Democratic policy prescriptions.

“When the story of the DLC is written, it will be seen as the most influential think tank in American politics in the last 25 years,” said Simon Rosenberg, a former DLC employee who then founded the New Democrat Network.

But its influence ultimately became its downfall. Clinton’s signature accomplishments were achieved over loud objections from liberals in his own party, and once he left office, liberals agitated to take the party back.

Regardless of his success, Clinton’s centrism had about as much sticking power as George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

“They put on some interesting stuff, and they have some interesting ideas, but it’s a problem because it begins sounding like what they’re doing is that they’re not in it for the intellectualism but in it for how do we compromise with the Far Right, and you can’t compromise with the Far Right,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said. “Their politics [wasn’t] very exciting to the base.”

By the 2004 presidential primaries, the DLC was left without a major contender among the top candidates. Clinton was hardly the hero he is for Democrats today. Two former DLC chairmen, former Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., never caught fire. Instead, the primary was dominated by two pragmatists with no strong DLC ties, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and by Dean, a one-time fan of DLC policies but not its politics. From specifically criticized Dean, the only candidate who was squarely against the war in Iraq.

The DLC played “a pretty destructive role” in Democratic politics, Dean said. “Their policies became, ‘If you don’t agree with us, you’re a bad Democrat, or you’re on the left.’ So they started off with interesting ideas, some of which have come to fruition, but ended up sort of political. That’s when they began to go downhill.”

Four more years of Bush gave rise to the liberal netroots, the base of the Democratic Party. And by the time the 2008 primary season rolled around, few were interested in DLC policies. Presidential candidates followed activists to the left. In 2007, seven Democratic presidential contenders—including then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton—attended the YearlyKos convention in Chicago. Just days earlier, not a single Democratic candidate showed up at the DLC convention in Nashville, Tenn.

“Institutions have life cycles and life spans. This institution made a huge contribution and then had a hard time adjusting as politics changed,” Rosenberg said. “And while the politics it represented has moved on, and mutated, and migrated into other institutions, it has changed, and that’s the most important thing. Just like conservatism has changed since the time of Reagan, political parties change.”

Yet the group’s demise in no way signals the end of the centrist Democrat. In fact, many DLC alumni hold top positions in the party. Bruce Reed left his position as CEO of the DLC to take over as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, has close ties to the DLC, as do dozens of top administration officials. The DLC’s influence is evident in the groups that followed it, helping fill out the center-left coalition: Rosenberg’s NDN, the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Policy Institute, Third Way, and half a dozen others. (Ironically, those groups have the side consequence of squeezing the DLC out of money.)

What’s more, Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel—another key party figure with DLC connections—spent years actively recruiting conservative Democrats as candidates. Making sure those members have a place in the party, strategists say, is a key to future success.

“To bring Democrats back into the majority, we will need to nurture centrists in conservative districts again,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said in an e-mail. “Call them whatever you like—DLCers, centrists, moderates, Blue Dogs—they are part of the equation and coalition that make a majority for Democrats.”

So the death of the DLC doesn’t indicate the death of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. It demonstrates the scope of the Democratic revolution that the DLC launched, and how success can come at the cost of one’s own health.

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