Comment: Republicans' Favorite Democrats

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was organized by
southern governors, business Democrats, defense hawks, and social conservatives
to push the party to the center. The theory was that this repositioning would win
presidential elections (and also raise a ton of corporate money). Bill Clinton
was taken as the DLC's vindication. But how is the DLC doing now that the
Democrats are in opposition?

Mostly, the DLC is up to its old habits of splitting the difference
with a Republican administration. This is not exactly useful either in energizing
the party base or in helping congressional Democrats resist the Bush onslaught.
For instance, the 1996 welfare-reform program is now up for renewal. Welfare
reform worked better than expected, partly because a strong economy provided
plenty of jobs; the ensuing surplus could then be spent on job training, wage
subsidies, and child care so that former welfare recipients could succeed in the
workplace.

The Republicans and their DLC allies are stuck in a 1996 time warp, in which
the issue is who can be tougher on the poor. The Republican House bill increases
the percentage of welfare recipients who must work 40 hours a week (some
short-term education and training also counts) to qualify for government help. As
Mark Greenberg demonstrates in our forthcoming special supplement on reforming
welfare reform, this screw-tightening will make it harder for welfare recipients
to succeed at work; and more families with serious problems will just be dumped. (For a preview, click here.)

The DLC bill sponsored by New Democrat Senators Bayh and Carper basically
accepts the harsher Republican work formula and adds more child care money. It's
actually to the right of a "tripartisan" plan co-sponsored by Senators Breaux,
Hatch, and Jeffords. The Senate bill, of course, must ultimately go to conference
with the Republican House. One could imagine a final deal that reluctantly traded
draconian work requirements for better child care. But why give away your final
compromise as the opening gambit? You can understand the White House using salami
tactics on the Democrats. But why are New Dems doing it to their own party?
Aren't we macho enough on the poor?

Or take the DLC on trade. Senate Democrats, long a pushover for the corporate
version of free trade, recently showed some moxie by passing the Dayton-Craig
amendment, making any trade deal that guts antidumping protections subject to
floor amendment. The Democrats' skepticism about Bush's plan to extend the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire continent was deepened by
abominations such as NAFTA's Chapter 11, which allows corporations to challenge
states' health, safety, and environmental regulations as inconsistent with free
commerce.

The DLC was outraged. The New Democrats want their Republican president to
have an absolutely free hand to negotiate this pro-corporate hemispheric trade
deal. Said the DLC statement of the Dayton-Craig amendment: "It is critical that
this 'gutting' provision be dropped in the House-Senate conference committee."

New Democrats are also trying to reposition Senator Lieberman as a champion of
corporate accountability. "The Enron scandal cries out for governmental action,"
Lieberman writes in the DLC's magazine, Blueprint, quickly adding: "But we
must acknowledge before we act that there are twin dangers of doing too little
and doing too much." Ah yes, how very DLC. Before the Enron scandal broke,
Lieberman was the leading Democrat working to rein in the Securities and Exchange
Commission.

The DLC's New Dem Daily Web feature even counsels Democrats to avoid pushing
popular liberal issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs. "This is
the same bad advice President Clinton rejected in the 1990s," declares the
anonymous DLC commentator, urging Democrats instead to demonstrate toughness on
national security. But are these two postures mutually exclusive? I recently
debated Bill Kristol before an audience of prominent conservatives. Several
expressed real worry that Democrats will eat the Republicans' lunch on Social
Security in this fall's midterm elections. If they do, it will be no thanks to
New Democrats.

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