From's Last Stand

Al From is quivering with rage. It's the end of a long day in late July at the Wyndham Philadelphia, and with a sheen of sweat coating his face, he gleams with emotion as he launches into the closing speech of the day at the DLC's annual conference. It's a grim speech, delivered in rousing, impassioned tones more vehement than any other speech that day. "We cannot allow our party to be hijacked!" thunders From, railing against the leftists who have been his bête noire since he founded the DLC in 1985. "The future of our party and more importantly the future of our country is at stake."

Surrounded by supportive state senators and fresh-faced New Democratic governors, From, CEO of the DLC, is in his element. His anger has been foreshadowed by other discouraging conference speakers, whom The New York Times found "glum," "combative" and tending toward "pessimism" and The Washington Post dubbed "defensive" and "gloomy." "What we're fighting for is the definition of the party," From later told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "And this is probably the most bitter fighting -- or maybe intense is a better word -- in nearly 20 years. But it's because the left wants to go back to the way things used to be."

Whether the left is truly trying to drag the party back in time is a matter of heated dispute in Washington. What's clear is that after two decades at the pinnacle of the Washington power hierarchy, From's ideas have triumphed beyond his wildest dreams, and the central role he's played as a policy entrepreneur in the 1990s is unquestioned. But by publicly involving the DLC in an increasingly nasty battle with Howard Dean, From is causing some of his erstwhile allies to wonder if he's finally lost his touch.

Chatter among presidential campaign staffers in the weeks since the DLC conference suggests that From's grip on the younger generation of his ideological compatriots is weakening. "I don't think anyone thinks of From as a leader," says one senior aide to a presidential candidate regularly praised by DLC heavyweights. "People don't like Al From," remarks a campaign operative with a different DLC-backed presidential candidate. "People like [DLC President] Bruce [Reed]." Adds an aide to a third DLC-supported candidate, "I think they've gone out of their way to pick a fight with Dean to satisfy their need to stay relevant."

Those are surprising words from people whose candidates' might be expected to benefit from From's harsh talk and the DLC's now 4-month-old "Stop Dean" campaign. But an increasing number of Democratic elected officials, consultants and campaign operatives are beginning to suggest that the DLC's campaign against Dean involves a fundamental misreading of today's political environment. In Newsweek, James Carville advised Democrats to "give [Dean] a chance" and challenged the DLC take that an anti-war candidate is unelectable. "It's not if you're against the war that matters," he said. "It's how and why you're against the war." At the DLC forum, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell cautioned against "name calling." Washington state Rep. Laura Ruderman, a John Kerry supporter, rose with dismay at the conference to decry the "rat hole" into which the DLC-Dean conflict was dragging the party. "Quite frankly, it's the kind of eating each other alive that drove Jim Jeffords out of the Republican Party," she said. Perhaps the most unexpected salvo came in early August during Al Gore's speech to the online activist group Simply speaking to the anti-Iraq War group was an affront to the DLC, and in his remarks, Gore called for Democrats to respect dissent and questioning of the war, a position From and Reed have decried as "weakness abroad."

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is not confined to the DLC versus Dean contest. An apparent schism between different generations of New Democrats -- between those whose defining political experiences occurred in the 1970s and those shaped by the battles of the '90s -- has been developing for some time. And that leaves some strategists coming to some very non-DLCish conclusions about the current political environment.

"If there is an appetite for change in the country in 2004, that appetite is going to be satisfied by people who draw sharp distinctions and offer a fundamentally different vision of the direction of the country," says Michael Feldman, a principal with the Glover Park Group and former Gore adviser who acted as the former veep's spokesman for the speech. Kenneth Baer, a Gore presidential-campaign speechwriter and author of Reinventing Democrats, a history of the DLC, observes that "someone who wouldn't want to be charitable to Al From would say he hasn't changed with the times."

The ability to change with the times is especially important to the younger generation, whose leaders regularly remind party regulars that the future is more important than the past. "We're looking forward and we're not trying to fight old battles," says Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network, a political action committee founded in 1996 to elect centrist Democrats. "Saying, 'This is like '68, like '72' -- all of that is irrelevant. We are in a different era. We are in a post-9-11 era, a post-Reagan era. ... We're in an unsettled time, which is good, because I think it's a time of regeneration. What's not going to happen is a restoration of the old order."

"Al From is somebody who has done a huge amount of good and changed the face of American politics as much as anybody outside of elected office over the course of the last 25 years," says another longtime DLCer. "You can't walk away from his accomplishments." But "at this point, he and the DLC are more trying to re-create the past in terms of battles and achievements rather than look at the landscape as it is now."