The centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) has been missing in action, a virtual no-show in the media during the run-up to the election. And with the lingering suspicion that the DLC is on the outs with Obama, many are predicting its demise or, at the very least, organizational irrelevance.
The post-Clinton years have not been kind to the DLC. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, both DLCers, went down in defeat. Had Gore heeded the DLC platform rather than resorted to a populist appeal down the stretch, he could have won, or so the DLC likes to say. And the organization suffered another blow when, in the wake of 9/11, it aggressively supported Bush on national security.
In May 2003, early front-runner and Iraq war critic Howard Dean was targeted by DLC founder and CEO Al From, who wrote that Dean represented the “McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Democratic Party, whose “weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home” had crippled the party. In 2006, as Democrats swept to victory based largely on their opposition to the war, the DLC was relegated to the sidelines. The DLC was right to support a war, given that it was trying to rebrand the Democratic Party; they just chose the wrong war. And it hurt them, perhaps irreparably. No longer, it seemed, was there much of a market for the DLC. Why try to emulate Republicans when their product isn’t exactly moving off the shelves?
A near-knockout punch was leveled with the nomination of Barack Obama. In his post-partisan rhetoric, Obama could have easily been mistaken for a DLC poster child, but he had mixed feelings about being in the organization’s corner — concerned, perhaps, that it would hurt his standing with key liberal constituencies whose support he needed to earn the nomination. When Obama didn’t attend the DLC national convention in Chicago — which was widely viewed as a snub — and later moved into the White House, the DLC was put on life support.
Obama has generally kept his distance from the DLC. As far back as 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator, Obama was reluctant to be seen as a DLCer. That year, he was mentioned in a DLC list of 100 rising stars, prompting the liberal Black Commentator to remark that Al From and the DLC leadership had claimed Barak Obama as one of their own. “A black activist/intellectual/politician with previously stellar progressive credentials,” it said, “has joined the main mechanism of corporate, right wing influence in the Democratic Party.” With a flair for finesse, Obama responded that he didn’t object to inclusion on the list but that it didn’t indicate his endorsement of the DLC platform. Elsewhere, he was reported to have said that his positions on the Iraq war, NAFTA, and health care made him “an unlikely candidate for membership in the DLC.”
I recently asked a journalist friend what had happened to the DLC. He was equally baffled by its low profile. When he got back to the office, an email was sitting in his inbox. It was from the DLC announcing Al From’s retirement as the group’s CEO; his protégé, Bruce Reed, would take the helm. Meanwhile, the Progressive Policy Institute, which served as the DLC’s think tank, also severed ties. The press release also said the DLC was changing its mission from getting mainstream Democrats elected to — gasp! — helping advance a reform agenda. After all those hours of strategic planning, all those consultants sequestered in board rooms with crappy coffee and flip charts, “reform” is the best they could come up with; a trendy buzzword that is so vague as to be rendered meaningless.
The DLC grew out of the butt kicking that Walter Mondale took in 1984 at the hands of Ronald Reagan when he managed to win only one state. Democratic candidates, the DLC argued, were ignoring the concerns of the vast middle class. The DLC would focus on attracting swing voters to the Democratic Party. A new, “progressive” agenda was needed, a term the DLC sought to brand. But according to Bruce A. Dixon, the DLC was anything but progressive. Writing for Black Commentator, Dixon argued that the DLC was a mainly southern white response to minority and union influence in the Democratic Party: “The DLC’s mission is to erase the last vestiges of social democracy from the Democratic Party, so that the corporate consensus will never again be challenged in the United States.” Others, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, have critiqued the DLC on similar grounds.
The DLC recently proclaimed that the “Democrats have made their way out of the political wilderness” with a “pragmatic, post-partisan appeal” that — or so they would like us to believe — has its origins in the DLC. Taking credit is something at which the DLC seems to excel. Does the DLC have a rightful claim to the intellectual or rhetorical fuel that drove the Obama campaign? While Obama’s campaign rhetoric may have been reminiscent of the DLC, his positions on a host of issues ranging from tax policy to the war in Iraq were strikingly at odds with the organization. Granted, Obama parroted the “opportunity and responsibility” theme throughout the campaign and tried to occupy the adult middle ground between feuding factions. But whether the DLC has ownership of these ideas is debatable. It may be more plausible that Clinton made the DLC rather than the other way around and that it is Clinton who deserves credit for repositioning the Democratic Party.
Is the DLC still relevant today? It may not be visible, but its members argue that behind the scenes they are influencing the policy debate with “post-partisan” ideas, another nice-sounding buzzword that at the end of the day really doesn’t mean very much at all. On the other hand, they seem well positioned given that new DLC President Bruce Reed is a longtime friend of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Others in the administration with DLC ties include Hillary Clinton, White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Summers, and Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano.
Whatever one thinks of the DLC, it seems to have prematurely ejected itself from the political sphere, denying the party an essential check just as a few lone voices — in both parties — struggle to hold the center. As both parties cater to their bases and become ideologically dug in, there is a need for moderate and moderating voices. In their absence, a serious third party challenge in both parties seems increasingly likely.