Al From is still saying things many Democrats don't want to hear—but probably should.
After Walter Mondale lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, From led a group of centrist elected officials who created the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization dedicated to recasting the Democrats' agenda and restoring its flickering political competitiveness. For the next quarter-century, the DLC grappled with defenders of traditional liberalism in hand-to-hand combat over the party's direction.
The group's influence peaked when Bill Clinton, who had chaired it as Arkansas's governor, embraced its "New Democrat" agenda during his presidency. After he left office in early 2001, the group faded, and finally closed in 2011, when the unrestrained political warfare of a relentlessly polarizing Washington undermined its strategy of seeking solutions that bridged liberal and conservative thinking. But as the DLC expired, it could legitimately claim to have influenced the Democrats' course as much as any private group in decades.
Determined and pugnacious, From was central to it all. Now he's released a brisk, insightful memoir of the group's rise, The New Democrats and the Return to Power. From, 70, was quick to acknowledge in an interview that the political world has changed enormously—and the Democratic Party's political position has strengthened in key respects—from what it was when the DLC launched. But he sees some ominously familiar clouds building on the party's horizon.
When From organized an alliance of mostly Southern and Western center-right Democrats (such as then-Govs. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Chuck Robb of Virginia) that became the DLC, Republicans were completing a quarter-century run of dominance during which they took five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988. In the three presidential elections of the 1980s, Democrats won a smaller share of the available Electoral College votes than in any three-election sequence since the modern party system formed in 1828. Democrats still controlled the House during this period, but From exaggerates only slightly when he concludes in his memoir, "Politically, and intellectually, the Democratic Party was in a state of near-collapse."
From had watched this decline as a young foot soldier in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty (traveling the South to study the effectiveness of antipoverty programs), as a top Senate aide, and then as staff director of the House Democratic Caucus. At the DLC, his cornerstone political belief was that Democrats could not recapture the White House solely by mobilizing their core supporters and instead needed an agenda that would advance their historic goal of expanding opportunity while recapturing swing voters who had abandoned the party. From that conviction flowed policies such as welfare reform, free trade, and reinventing government (all of which Clinton adopted) and a political strategy of picking fights with liberal leaders meant to convince doubting voters that the party was truly changing course. That approach generated a succession of high- octane collisions, most memorably with Jesse Jackson, who famously derided the group as "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
As formulated by the DLC, and refined by Clinton, the New Democrat agenda was aimed at reversing the party's four biggest vulnerabilities in those years: skepticism that it could deliver economic growth, run government efficiently, safeguard the nation's security, and uphold mainstream cultural values. The audience for that message was primarily right-of-center working-class whites, who had stampeded away from Democrats since the 1960s and still represented more than three-fifths of all voters in the mid-1980s.
From recognizes that much has changed since. The backlash against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has erased the GOP's advantage on security, he notes, and shifting social mores have allowed Democrats to move left and still win most debates on cultural issues. Above all, working-class whites have shrunk to only about one-third of voters, while the burgeoning minority population and socially liberal upscale whites have provided Democrats "a very strong demographic advantage" in presidential races.
But From fears that advantage is making Democrats complacent. Without criticizing President Obama directly, he worries that Democrats are relying too much on "identity politics and class warfare" to bind their coalition. That glue, he says, could quickly dissolve if Republicans "open their door to Hispanics and women a little bit." A more inclusive GOP, he says, would force Democrats to convince voters they can deliver economic growth and operate government efficiently. And on those fronts, especially if Obama can't stabilize his health care plan, From says, the party is now facing "challenges that could be as great as they were [in] the 1980s."
From's warnings face even bigger hurdles now than in his heyday, because the Democratic coalition has grown more liberal as working-class whites have left it. He also recognizes that Democrats can't just dust off the DLC policy blueprint. But he says the party can still profitably apply the group's underlying beliefs that public policy must promote economic growth, not just redistribution; link opportunity and personal responsibility; and fuse government activism with government reform. With economic frustration and doubt about government's effectiveness both resurgent, another Clinton might find those themes intriguing, if not indispensable, in 2016.
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This article appears in the December 7, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Truth to Power.