When the Democratic Leadership Council Mattered

In the eyes of its critics, the Democratic Leadership Council, which announced Monday that it was closing shop, represented the "corporatist" wing of the Democratic Party. Ben Smith in Politico summarized the criticism as "a religion of compromise, lack of principle, and a willingness to sell out the poor and African-American voters at the party's base."

"I wasn't at war with the DLC," Smith quotes DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas as saying, "but with the corporatists who are ruining my party." To The Washington Post's more temperate Ezra Klein (also a Prospect alum), the DLC stood for a formula of "liberal ends through market means," exemplified by the Affordable Care Act. To Klein and others, the DLC's end could be seen as simply the achievement of its policy goals.

This DLC, seen as merely corporatist, market-oriented, and unprincipled in any larger sense, is just a symbol, a foil. Used to represent whatever one loathes, loves, or tolerates in the current Democratic Party, it gets both more credit than it deserves for ideas and tendencies that were very much in the party mainstream and less recognition than it should as an evolving, deeply flawed organization -- one that was once necessary but has long since been left grasping for relevance. The real DLC was far more complicated -- though not necessarily more benign -- than its caricature in the 2000s, when it became best known for blind support of the Iraq War and for founder Al From's simmering anger at Howard Dean and Ned Lamont. Much like Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) -- formed in 1947 to hold the standard of liberalism against the perceived centrism of the Truman administration on the one hand and the communist-influenced left on the other -- the DLC really only makes sense in terms of the conflicts and paradoxes of its earlier years.

To understand the real DLC, it's useful to know the name Gillis Long. A cousin of the populist governor and senator Huey Long, Gillis Long was a congressman from Louisiana and chair of the House Democratic Caucus after the election of Ronald Reagan. Both DLC co-founder Will Marshall -- who now runs the thriving and independent think tank the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) -- and From had worked for Long and remained devoted to him after his death, on the day of Reagan's second inauguration. Long was a Southern Democrat but not at all a conservative one: He had an 85 percent vote score from the ADA in his last year and was liberal on both race and economic issues. Long was also very close to R. Sargent Shriver, for whom he had worked in President Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity. (My own understanding of the early DLC history is informed by Ken Baer's excellent book, Reinventing Democrats, and by some personal acquaintance with those around the DLC in the 1990s.)

Between the first Reagan victory and the second, Long and From organized a project involving younger Democratic members of the House, across a wide ideological range, to rethink the party's agenda. They were hardly alone in fixating on the reforms of the late 1960s, particularly the changes to the presidential nomination process that balkanized the party into dozens of identity-based caucuses, paving the way for "New Politics" -- the reformist liberalism that split the party from organized labor and the white working class. Former Sen. George McGovern became the symbol of that hapless party, not just because he failed epically as the party's nominee in 1972 but because as chair of the committee that instituted New Politics reforms, he was held responsible for subsequent Republican victories, particularly those of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, with the support of union members and working-class voters.

The critique of New Politics did not necessarily come from the right. Indeed, three recent books about the 1970s that I reviewed in the Prospect's October issue, all written from a generally liberal perspective, heap scorn on the effete liberal politics that separated the party from the working class and unions during that decade. The DLC was born out of an effort to repair the breach.

Transfixed by Long's legacy, From and Marshall were particularly focused on re-creating the kind of coalitions that could elect moderately liberal Democrats in the South, like North Carolina's four-term governor, Jim Hunt, Florida senator and governor Lawton Chiles, or Arkansas' Bill Clinton -- all early DLC allies. Some, like Chiles, had a populist streak, others, like Hunt, were more focused on education and economic development, but they were hardly conservatives. But chasing the chimera of a South that was going to elect more than the occasional Long or Chiles led the DLC into a cul-de-sac, in which the pursuit of white Southern votes became an end in itself, and so the fight to eliminate affirmative action and reform welfare (neither of which would much affect the economic well-being of the working middle class that was already losing ground) became the organization's touchstone issues in the mid-1990s. Racial politics, not "corporatism," was the more controversial aspect of the DLC at the time Jesse Jackson called it "Democrats for the Leisure Class."

But at least the organization was thinking about how to construct a working majority with progressive ideas at the heart of it. My own awareness of the DLC began with what remains its most vital and challenging document, "The Politics of Evasion," published in 1989 by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. There's a lot in the essay that I disagreed with at the time, and other ideas that have been proved wrong since (Galston and Kamarck's argument in a nutshell, was, "If you think you can win a national election using Barack Obama's strategy, you're nuts"), but without getting into the details, the point is that no one at the time was engaged in the kind of debate that bridged policy and politics. There was no Center for American Progress or Campaign for America's Future, no American Prospect until 1990. There were technical and policy-focused think tanks and political hacks but not much between the two. So as the DLC and PPI emerged, they began to take ideas that could be characterized as "liberal ends through market means" and put them in a political context. You didn't have to like all the ideas to find the DLC, PPI, and its Blueprint magazine a useful resource.

All that was some time ago. In the years since, plenty of alternative sources of ideas have emerged, leaving the DLC grasping to claim ownership of ideas it merely popularized. The business of raising money from political donors, particularly corporate political donors, inevitably compromised the organization, as it has many organizations, including some on the left before and since. The focus on restoring Democrats' credibility on national security was hard to separate from the corporate support from the defense industry, or from the fact that their elected leaders depended on spending in their districts. But after the Balkan interventions of the late 1990s, and the Iraq War, in which liberals developed a far more sophisticated theory of when and when not to use force, the DLC's "always seem tough" philosophy became a caricature. The organization's focus on the South, meanwhile, became irrelevant when the white South announced, notably in 1994 but more loudly in each subsequent election, that it wasn't much interested in Democrats of any stripe. Finally, the passion that drove the DLC at its founding turned into divisive anger, as From saw the chimera of "McGovernism" everywhere he turned, even in the emergence of a strong party in which the fights and errors of the 1970s were long forgotten.

But I have to give the DLC some credit -- it was built on a passionate engagement with the vision of a Democratic Party that could address the economic and personal concerns of a broad majority of Americans. Of more recent "centrist" organizations, such as Third Way, which anointed itself the DLC's successor before the body was cold, and which exists transparently to connect lobbyists, donors, and elected officials, the same cannot be said.

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