From 1968 through 1992, we liberal Democrats had largely given up hope that we could maintain our liberal principles and still be competitive in presidential elections. It was the Democratic Leadership Council or DLC, created by a young congressional staffer from Indiana named Al From, who gave us hope of winning back the presidency. The result: two terms of Bill Clinton, and hopefully, two terms of Barack Obama.
This week, the DLC appeared ready to close its doors — but its “New Democrat” ideas will be with us and benefit the nation for years to come.
Between 1968 and 1992, we Democrats lost five out of six presidential elections with liberal Democratic presidential nominees, all of them by huge landslides (with the exception of a narrow victory by Georgian Jimmy Carter, who would never have won but for Watergate).
So was it possible, we asked, for liberals to win back the presidency without compromising our basic liberal principles?
Then came along Al From, a young congressional staffer who was executive director of the House Democratic Caucus in the early 1980s. From and the DLC taught us there was such a thing as “the Third Way” which was not, as Prime Minister Tony Blair said many years later, a centrist compromise between left and right, but rather, a redefinition of liberal ideas and programs to adapt to modern culture and societal needs.
And so through the 1980s, the DLC and its idea-machine think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, rolled out new approaches to achieving liberal goals — such as national service, welfare reform combined with new job training, charter schools, community policing, and “re-inventing government,” which proved that government can be leaner and more effective without accepting Ronald Reagan’s conservative mantra that government was the problem, not the solution.
And it was Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, then chairman of the DLC, who won back the presidency in 1992 and then again in 1996, based on his DLC “New Democrat” ideas approach to government. Clinton re-set the electoral map for the Democratic Party, winning states in the South, in the Sun Belt and in the Mountain West that we had long given up hope on. Barack Obama’s winning electoral map in 2008 was a continuation of what Clinton achieved in the 1990s.
Al From summarized the Clinton presidency and the DLC legacy in a must-read speech delivered at the 11th annual presidential conference at Hofstra University in November 2005:
“By tempering the excesses of capitalism, Roosevelt saved capitalism. By modernizing progressive governance, Clinton saved progressive governance.”
In 2000, President Bill Clinton summarized From’s impact on his country in a speech at Franklin Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York: “It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had more positive impact on the progress of American life in the past 25 years than Al From.”
In May 2003, the DLC published a list of the 100 most important Democrats to watch in future years in public service. Immediately after the name Martin O’Malley, then the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, and now in his second term as governor, came the name “Barack Obama, State Senator, Illinois.”
Obama’s appearance on that DLC future star list shouldn’t surprise anyone — other than, perhaps, the strident sanctimonious voices on the blogosphere and on nightly cable TV, those who regard any deviation from their own dogmatic definition of liberalism as heresy. In fact, Obama’s approach to issues and government, and especially, his rejection of the simplistic “red” vs. “blue” state, left vs. right divisions, are a direct line from Al From, the DLC’s “Third Way,” and Bill Clinton’s remarkable winning combination of social liberalism, cultural moderation, and fiscal responsibility.
It may be sad that the DLC won’t continue as the precious new idea machine that created the new Democratic Party. But not to worry: President Obama and the other 99 DLC political stars listed in 2003 are mostly still in public service, many of them in Congress . . . and Al From and Bill Clinton are just a phone call away.
Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).