The Democratic Leadership Council ended with a whimper, but it launched with a bang. The announcement this week that it is suspending operations says as much about changes in American politics as about the group itself.
The DLC, which incubated the “New Democrat” agenda and message that Bill Clinton carried into the White House, was formed in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide over Walter Mondale in 1984. Amid the rubble, a Democratic congressional aide named Al From launched the group by recruiting about 75 of the party’s legislators and governors, most of them Sun Belt moderates. Born fighting, the DLC immediately mounted a sustained (and pugnacious) challenge to the dominance of traditional interest-group liberalism in the party.
Even many Democrats have forgotten how deep an electoral hole the party faced as the DLC emerged. The party lost five of six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988, averaging only 43 percent of the vote. In the three elections from 1980 through 1988, Democrats won a smaller share of the available Electoral College votes than in any three-election sequence since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Commentators spoke about a “Republican lock” on the Electoral College that would perpetually deny Democrats the White House.
The DLC’s first important contribution was to compel Democrats to acknowledge that their political problems ran deeper than uncharismatic candidates (see: Mondale, Walter), bad ads, or misguided tactics. “There was a litany of excuses and alibis, and the New Democrats were the only ones willing to say that … the Democratic Party’s agenda had become threadbare and unconvincing, particularly to working middle-class voters,” said Will Marshall, who served as a principal theorist for the DLC and later founded the Progressive Policy Institute, its associated think tank.
Instead, the DLC pressed Democrats to modernize their agenda and reconnect with white middle-class voters who had abandoned them. On policy, the DLC’s constant mantra was that the party needed new means to advance its traditional priorities, such as expanding opportunity; in politics, its message was that Democrats could not win solely by turning out more of its traditional base.
In its first years, the group broke important intellectual ground (particularly in a seminal 1989 paper on the Democrats’ electoral predicament, written by Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck) and banged heads, sometimes too enthusiastically, with liberal forces led by Jesse Jackson. (In return, Jacksonites derided the preponderantly white DLC as Democrats for the Leisure Class.) But it achieved its greatest influence under Clinton, who chaired the group just before his 1992 presidential campaign. Clinton blended the DLC’s centrist reformism with his own Southern populism to produce a distinctive governing philosophy that lastingly shifted the political debate within his party—and the nation.
Drawing heavily on DLC thinking, Clinton argued that economic policy should prioritize growth over redistribution; that social policy should link opportunity and personal responsibility (most notably by requiring welfare recipients to work but providing them education and child care); and that fiscal discipline was compatible with government activism. Challenging his party’s retreat from global engagement since Vietnam, Clinton embraced both free trade and a robust U.S. international role. Rejecting “false choices” of the Left and Right, he insisted on a “third way” between them. The DLC “made a major contribution to breaking out of the old Right-Left debate and formulating the debate the way it should be—as tomorrow versus yesterday,” Clinton said in an interview.
As president, Clinton sometimes strayed from these DLC-influenced ideas (especially during his chaotic first two years). But overall, he repositioned his party and restored its capacity to compete for the presidency. “From a political perspective, the most important thing we did was deal with the obstacles that for two decades kept people from voting Democratic,” From says.
After Clinton left office, the DLC struggled. Much of its influence depended on finding unexplored points of potential agreement between the parties. But as Washington grew more polarized under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, the audience for such bridge-building diminished. The DLC hit its tipping point when it backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq and attacked liberal leaders who denounced the war. At a time when the party felt besieged by Bush, many Democrats viewed those criticisms as a battlefield desertion. The DLC never fully recovered, and by the time it closed this week, Third Way and other Democratic idea factories had eclipsed it.
As the party revived after the 1980s, the Democratic coalition didn’t evolve as the DLC anticipated: Democrats recovered more by recapturing upscale coastal voters rather than the heartland and Southern working-class whites the DLC had targeted. Yet the group’s legacy is undeniable. The DLC’s insistence that Democrats needed not just new tactics but also a new agenda was indispensable in breaking the Republican lock on the White House. Much of that agenda is now embedded in the Democratic DNA. In its final years, the DLC seemed irrelevant to many young Democrats. The truth is that the party they have inherited ineradicably bears its imprint.
This article appears in the Feb. 12, 2011, edition of National Journal.