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The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was a nonprofit corporation that for nearly three decades worked to push the Democratic Party to adopt more conservative domestic policies and remain supportive of hawkish, Israel-centric Mideast policies. Founded in 1985, the DLC closed shop in early 2011 after years of gradual decline in its operations. At one point, the DLC comprised a group of more than 400 national, state, and local legislators and officials, including a wide range of centrist and conservative Democrats such as former Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and “Independent Democrat” Sen. Joe Lieberman.
In reporting its impending closing, Politico’s Ben Smith wrote in February 2011: “The DLC, a network of Democratic elected officials and policy intellectuals had long been fading from its mid-'90s political relevance, tarred by the left as a symbol of ‘triangulation’ at a moment when there's little appetite for intra-party warfare on the center-right. The group tried—but has failed—to remake itself in the summer of 2009, when its founder, Al From, stepped down as president. Its new leader, former Clinton aide Bruce Reed, sought to remake the group as a think tank, and the DLC split from its associated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. But Reed left the DLC last year himself to serve as Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, leaving Ed Gresser, a trade expert, to lead the group in the interim. Since then the board ‘hasn't been able to find someone who wanted to come on in a permanent capacity,’ a person familiar with the group's woes said, with the central problem the difficulty of raising money for a Democratic group that isn't seen as an ally of the White House.”
A statement issued by DLC’s board of directors stated: "The issues the DLC has championed continue to be vital to our country and the DLC will continue to impact them in its next phase. The Democratic Leadership Council has had an historic impact on American politics over the past 25 years. We’re convinced that it will continue to have that impact in the future."
Champions of the so-called third way, the DLC sought “to define and galvanize popular support for a new public philosophy built on progressive ideals, mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions." DLC pushed this agenda in its in-house magazine Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century and an online newsletter called New Dem Dispatch, as well as through the work of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), an affiliated think tank sponsored by the Third Way Foundation.
The DLC's "New Democrat Credo" declared: "In keeping with our party's grand tradition, we reaffirm Jefferson's belief in individual liberty and capacity for self-government. We endorse Jackson's credo of equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none. We embrace Roosevelt's thirst for innovation and Kennedy's summons to civic duty. And we intend to carry on Clinton's insistence upon new means to achieve progressive ideals."
DLC leaders were notorious for their support for the war in Iraq and other core aspects of the George W. Bush administration's “war on terror.” Its relationship to these policies became a growing nuisance as Democrats debated the future direction of the party during President Bush’s second term. In 2006, the DLC held a three-day retreat in Colorado, where a new policy manifesto aimed at recapturing the White House and Congress was unveiled. According to the Los Angeles Times: "[Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton wielded a red-white-and-blue bound copy of the group's initiative and used a measured tone to paint a grim portrait of the last five years under President [George W.] Bush. 'Americans are earning less while the costs of a middle-class life have soared,' she said. 'College costs, up 50% in the five years. Healthcare, 73%. Gasoline, more than 100%.'" Although the conference—which was attended by several aspiring Democratic Party presidential candidates—covered everything from college tuition to healthcare, the Iraq War "was scarcely mentioned."
Instead of addressing the war head on, Clinton argued that the party "will not let [President Bush] and the Republicans off the hook for the mistakes they've made and the disastrous policies they have followed abroad. We'll hold them accountable every bit as much for national security and homeland security as for their failure to provide Americans with economic security." About Iraq, Clinton managed to say that a Democratic-led Congress "would investigate no-bid contracts, the role oil companies are playing in Iraq, and supply problems that have plagued U.S. combat troops."
Al From was the DLC’s founder and former chief executive officer, a post he turned over to Bruce Reed in 2009. From and Reed, together with Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, were among the main architects of the DLC's center-right political agenda, frequently dubbed “New Democrat.”
In 2000, Sens. Bayh, Graham, Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln founded the Senate New Democrat Coalition (SNDC) in order "to provide a unified voice in the U.S. Senate for progressive ideas, mainstream values, and innovative, market-based policy solutions.” Other members of the SNDC—which the DLC once characterized as "the strongest and most unified Democratic group in the Senate"—have included Tom Carper, Bill Nelson, and Debbie Stabenow.
Origins and Trajectory
The DLC was established in the wake of President Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide victory, in which he won 49 states, over Democrat Walter Mondale. During the Democratic convention in San Francisco, Mondale had successfully beaten back a challenge from Gary Hart, who predicted that unless the Democratic Party adopted a new image it would be decisively defeated. Mondale proved unable to respond effectively to charges from the Republican right and neoconservative Democrats that the Democratic Party was the party of progressives—who Jeane Kirkpatrick variously labeled as the "San Francisco Democrats" and the "blame America first" Democrats—who were out of touch with mainstream America. As Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein concluded in their book Storming the Gates, "Mondale's landslide defeat exposed as a dead end the vision of regaining the White House by mobilizing an army of the disaffected with a message of unreconstructed liberalism."
Pondering the Mondale defeat, a gathering of southern Democrats and northern neoliberals expressed concerns that the Democratic Party faced extinction, particularly in the South and West, if the party continued to rely on its New Deal message of government intervention and kept catering to traditional constituencies of labor, minorities, and anti-war progressives. In 1985, Al From, then an aide to Rep. Gillis Long (D-LA), took the lead in formulating a new messaging strategy for the party's centrists, neoliberals, and conservatives. Will Marshall, at that time Long's policy analyst and speechwriter, worked closely with From to establish the DLC.
In his "Saving the Democratic Party" memo of January 1985, From advocated the formation of a "governing council" that would draft a "blueprint" for reforming the party. According to From, the new leadership should aim to create distance from "the new bosses"—organized labor, feminists, and other progressive constituency groups—that were keeping the party from modernizing. From's memo sparked the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in early 1985. According to Balz and Brownstein, "Within a few weeks, it counted 75 members, primarily governors and members of Congress, most of them from the Sunbelt, and almost all of them white; liberal critics instantly dubbed the group 'the white male caucus.'"
Although DLC members shared, for the most part, the neoliberal perspective of centrist Democrats such as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and Michael Dukakis, they took a much harsher, conservative stance on social justice and foreign policy issues. Regarding foreign policy, the DLC attempted to resurrect the hardline anticommunism of Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson but rejected the New Deal politics that Jackson and other traditional "New Deal liberals" embraced. In the late 1980s, DLC Democrats supported aid to the Contras, applauded Reagan's "Evil Empire" rhetoric, and offered their support to those militarists calling for missile defense and rejecting arms control negotiations.
In a 1986 conference on the legacy of the Johnson administration’s "Great Society" initiatives, DLC chairman Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia took up the neoconservative critique of liberalism first articulated in the early 1970s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, and other neoconservatives. According to Robb, "While racial discrimination has by no means vanished from our society, it's time to shift the primary focus from racism – the traditional enemy without – to self-defeating patterns of behavior – the enemy within." This speech signaled the end of the "New Politics" of the 1960s and 1970s in the Democratic Party and the rise of a new social conservatism in the party. Robb's speech opened room for Democratic Party stalwarts to back away from political agendas that proposed government initiatives to address poverty, discrimination, and crime, and to join the traditional conservatives and neoconservatives in opposing affirmative action, social safety-net programs, and job-creation initiatives. Thus, the New Democrats of the DLC added their voices to the chorus of those calling for stiffer prison sentences, an end to affirmative action, reduced welfare benefits, and less progressive tax policies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Dukakis opened up new political room for the DLC and validated its claim that a conservative agenda was the only hope for reviving the Democratic Party. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who accepted From's request to become DLC chairman in 1990, helped synthesize the various currents driving the Democratic Party to leave both "New Deal" nostalgia and "New Politics" of the 1960s progressives behind. Clinton successfully redefined the Democratic Party, molding it into an organization led by New Democrats who seized hold of the political center by targeting swing votes of the middle class and advocating the politics of growth rather than redistribution and safety nets. Clinton leaned heavily on the polling of Yale University political scientist Stanley Greenberg and on the policy framework outlined by two analysts from the PPI in their 1989 paper, "The Politics of Evasion."
In many ways, it was Bill Clinton—not the DLC—who succeeded in giving a human face and viable political program to the New Democrats. Although Clinton adopted most of the DLC platform as his own, he softened its hard ideological edge through compromise and inclusion, drawing in the party's center-left and center-right.
Despite Clinton’s influence, DLC figures like to take at least partial credit for the former president’s successes. Wrote Ed Kilgore, former policy director for the DLC, in a homage for DLC after its announced closing: “There’s a case to be made that the DLC’s immediate raison d’etre was fulfilled in 1992, when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush. At that point, the council had already evolved from a clubhouse for elected officials disgruntled with the ineptitude of the national party to an idea factory for its prize pupil and tutor (Clinton). Having decided to sojourn on, it became a well-established political fixture that managed a distinctive ideological brand while occasionally engaging in high-profile factional battles with ‘the Left,’ a term it often applied to orthodox liberals, as well as antiwar activists and various interest and identity groups. Sometimes, the DLC even disagreed with Clinton, as it did on HillaryCare (supporting, instead, an approach to health care reform close to what Barack Obama offered upon becoming president). After Bill Clinton left office, however, they … clearly experienced something of an identity crisis.”
Writing shortly before the November 2000 presidential election, John Nichols observed that the DLC had been founded "with essentially the same purpose as the Christian Coalition," namely, "to pull a broad political party dramatically to the right." According to Nichols, "The DLC has been far more successful than its headline-grabbing Republican counterpart."
Although the DLC can rightly claim to have pushed the Democratic Party to the right, it repeatedly failed to sideline what PPI president Marshall disparaging labeled "the party traditionalists." Since its founding, the DLC aimed to subsume all Democrats under its ideological umbrella. But persistent (and resurgent) resistance to neoliberal prescriptions, neoconservative foreign policy, and social conservative domestic policies curtailed DLC ambitions and obliged it to operate more as a powerful agenda-setting and lobbying group within the party. In effect, the DLC focused on controlling the party's platform and leadership rather than on selling "big tent" politics to all Democratic Party constituencies.
As Kenneth Baer observed in his book Reinventing Democrats, the DLC, after several clashes with the leadership of the party's progressives and traditional liberals, refined its mission to function as "an elite organization funded by elite-corporate and private-donors." However, leading DLC voices such as Al From continued to harbor hopes that the DLC and its think tank would one day constitute the core of the Democratic Party.
When Al Gore, a DLC member since its first years, chose DLC chairman Joseph Lieberman to be his presidential running mate, the DLC staff felt triumphant. From predicted that soon "We'll finally be able to proclaim that all Democrats are, indeed, New Democrats."
However, many high profile Democrats, including former presidential candidate Howard Dean, publicly disavowed the organization. Dean once criticized the DLC’s "New Democratic agenda" as "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party." Dean had been roundly criticized for dividing the Democratic Party when unity was needed to defeat George W. Bush. Lieberman lambasted Dean, claiming that his rival "essentially pushes Bill Clinton out of the Democratic Party" along with "hundreds of governors and local officials" who consider themselves part of the New Democrat movement. Throughout his campaign, Dean characterized his candidacy as representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
In May 2003, From and Bruce Reed sent a memo to party leaders arguing that Dean's efforts to energize traditional party constituencies around a populist, anti-war, and liberal message would doom the party to the fates suffered by George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Then, at the July 2003 DLC annual conference, the DLC leadership blasted Dean and other presidential hopefuls for flirting with a "far-left" critique of the Bush administration and pointed out the political folly of attacking Bush's tax cuts and his national security leadership. Commenting on the "Democratic Weaselship Council" in Salon.com, Joan Walsh observed that the DLC was "in danger of adopting a political terror strategy [that] involves doing the enemy's work for them: damaging your own party's candidates by declaring them ideologically flawed and unelectable."
Critics and Legacy
From its inception, the DLC was at loggerheads with progressive Democrats and other liberal leaders. One of the most outspoken DLC critics was Jesse Jackson, who once said that DLC stands for "Democrats for the Leadership Class." Ralph Nader also challenged the DLC's attempt to define itself as centrist: "So right-wing is the DLC, mounted imperiously on their sagging party, that even opposing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, that cause huge federal deficits and program cuts in necessities such as health, education, environmental protection, and children's well-being, is considered ultra-liberal and contrary to winning campaigns.” Nader continued: "If there were a superlative to the word 'hubris,' it would come close to describing Al From and his DLC cohorts. With unseemly regularity, they take credit for all Democratic victories as having been rooted in their philosophy of turn-your-back-on-organized labor and open-your-pockets-to-corporations (who fund the DLC, incidentally). All Democratic defeats are explained as owing to losing candidates being too 'left' or too 'populist.'"
Clinton's personal charisma and political smarts were the main factors in the success and corresponding re-imaging of the Democratic Party. However, the DLC leadership could claim partial credit in moving the core Democratic Party platform closer to the DLC's agenda, which stressed market-based solutions, an alignment with the military-industrial complex, and a distancing from the identity politics and bothersome demands of the "New Politics" constituencies that emerged in the late 1960s. To their credit, the DLC and PPI helped the Democratic Party redefine itself as a party that not only represented the mainstream as well as minorities and the disenfranchised. But New Democrat ideologues failed to acknowledge fell in line with the neoliberals, neoconservatives, militarists, and social conservatives who have transformed the Republican Party over the past three decades. Such rightward leanings prompted the America Prospect's Robert Kuttner to call the DLC the "Republicans' Favorite Democrats."
Regarding foreign policy, the DLC proposed a "third way-between the neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left." The DLC labeled its stance on foreign policy "progressive internationalism," which it defined as "the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy." Following this logic, the group proclaimed: "We therefore support the bold exercise of American power, not to dominate but to shape alliances and international institutions that share a common commitment to liberal values. The way to keep America safe and strong is not to impose our will on others or pursue a narrow, selfish nationalism that betrays our best values, but to lead the world toward political and economic freedom." According to the PPI, "We aim to rebuild the moral foundation of U.S. global leadership by harnessing America's awesome power to universal values of liberal democracy."
According to tax records, DLC’s budget declined rapidly after 2004, from $2.6 million to $1.5 million in 2008. Much of the DLC’s budget, as well as that of PPI, was at one point made up of grants from Fortune 500 companies and various conservative foundations. According to the a 2002 study by the Capital Research Center, corporate contributors to the PPI included the AT&T Foundation, Eastman Kodak Charitable Trust, Prudential Foundation, Georgia-Pacific Foundation, Chevron, and Amoco Foundation. The Third Way Foundation, an umbrella group of the New Democrats in the DLC, received funding from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, Ameritech Foundation, and General Mills Foundation. According to John Nichols in the Progressive, the DLC had funding from Bank One, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, Health Insurance Corporation, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Occidental Petroleum, and Raytheon.