Democrats’ Advantage With Women and Minorities Isn’t Enough

Strategist Al From worries that his party’s successes so far have made it complacent.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 01: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on stage at the Pennsylvania Conference For Women 2013 at Philadelphia Convention Center on November 1, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Dec. 5, 2013, 4 p.m.

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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