In Defense of the DLC

There's been a lot of talk about the DLC's increasing marginalization lately. From Digby's terrific post on what drove him from their side to Kenneth Baer's article on how they can revive themselves (become reformers and modernizers), the 20th anniversary of From's organization is garnering the same sort of props that the founders of New Coke must enjoy yearly. But while the DLC's brand of split-the-difference, find-the-middle politics might be archaic in the era of DeLay and Rove, we still need them there trying.

Alright -- deep breath -- this is going to bring me in for a lot of criticism, but I disagree with Matt's much-lauded post on the excessive factionalization of the Democratic party. Democratic rhetoric is overly factionalized, but our politics are not. We're in a tough spot here. Republicans are strong among majority blocs -- white males, Christians, etc. Democrats find their support among minority groups, be they ethnic, economic, or religious. This has a habit of coming out in our rhetoric, particularly when the speaker is unable to effectively deliver an address and unwilling to dictate what his campaign's philosophy will be.

But that's the fault of squishy candidatrs, not African-Americans. It's not our interest groups who are leaving the party deficient on national security. Indeed, without them, our preexisting perception failures in that area would have doomed our party, not left it a shade away from 50%+1. So clamping down on factionalism is not, in my eyes, the correct prescription. Indeed, we're not half as factionally motivated as the Republicans. It just so happens that their interest groups are bigger, and, somehow, more accepted. There's no doubt that 15-20% of this administration's policies are pander-bills for the Christian Right. Similarly, the NeoCons gets their foreign policy adventures, the fiscal hawks get their budget rhetoric, the rich get their tax breaks, the anti-New Dealers get their Social Security privatization, the majority-builders get their Medicare and NCLB bills, and so forth. Republicans are better at painting this as part of a coherent philosophy, but even a cursory look into the innards of these policies shows the total lack of internal coherency, it's really just a messaging thing.

How does this relate to the DLC? Settle down, I'm getting there. The reason factional politics are important is that they give disparate interest groups a community within the larger party. That allows the party's leaders to cross their agendas, as the interest groups are connected to a smaller, like-minded structure able to keep them loyal even when the folks at the top ignore their demands. That's how the Christian Right deals with Bush's heresy -- by being comforted by Ralph Reed and Karl Rove. And that's how the budget hawks and Goldwaterites deal with his profligacy, through reassurances from Grover Norquist and Stephen Moore. Their doomed fight for the soul of the party proceeds, their investment in the party increases, and their loyalty, when the chips are down, continues. They might step out of line now and again, providing quotes for a New York Times article on the President's precarious position with homo-haters or the increasing anxiety over his deficit-spending, but when the votes need counting, they know which lever to pull.

For conservative Democrats, the DLC acts as that structure. Lieberman, Carper, Landrieu and others can strut about pontificating on centrism and bipartisanship and market-based solutions and the perils of liberalism, but at the end of most days, they still vote like Democrats. That's because they see themselves as engaged with the Democratic party. Maybe not dominant in it, but definitely engaged. Whether or not they've already lost the fight for the soul of the party, it's important that they still feel invested in the struggle. Al From's base-baiting is annoying, but it's not really dangerous -- indeed, it shows he and his are still involved in the party. It's when he shuts up and gives up that we've got a problem.

So I wouldn't be too quick to attack the DLC. We need it, or something like it, functioning as a platform for conservative Democrats often uncomfortable with the party's direction. And not just elected officials from red states, but portions of our base that find themselves on the rightmost edge of our party should be able to claim an affiliation that doesn't leave them stammering to explain the contradictions. If that label is to be "New Democrat", then so be it. Because so long as we lack a comfortable, impenetrable majority, anybody willing to place a "D" after their name is engaged in basically the same fight. And though the squabbling and backbiting is a problem, it's also an outlet for antiparty energies that leaves the participants more invested in the Democratic party's future, not less. So it's fine to consider the DLC's role reduced and their chairman irritating, but I wouldn't wish them out of the party, particularly not when we're out of the majority. They need to have a place at the table so their ideological soulmates feel that they've got a role in the talks and a stake in the outcome. If we kick them out of the room, it's all the easier for them walk across the aisle.

Edited because my prose sucked. Considering the massive sleep deficit I'm on, it probably still sucks. But hopefully not as much.