Book Review of Al From’s Reflections on the Creation and Rise of the DLC

We here at FixGov are pleased to note the publication of Al From’s new political memoir, The New Democrats and the Return to Power (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).  From shares his unique perspective on the rise in the late 1980s of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), of which From was the leader from its founding in 1985 until 2009.  The book contains a wealth of historical material, including From’s time working in the Clinton transition team from 1992-1993 and his efforts to spread a progressive Third Way abroad during the late 1990s.  Not surprisingly, however, most of the book is about the mechanics of the DLC’s creation and development, and From’s perspective on how a political movement actually gets built over many years is invaluable.

With historical hindsight, it is easy to see that From (and his many allies in shaping the “New Democrats,” including Brookings’ own Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston) were true political visionaries.  The vision From championed, with remarkable consistency, was to recreate the Democrats as the party of the middle class, committed first and foremost to America’s national interests rather than the party’s traditional interest groups.  This transformation was about policy and politics in equal parts: Democrats needed to update their policy agenda to match the changes in America over the preceding half century, and doing so was the best way to restore the party’s broad appeal and national competitiveness.  A remarkable number of long-time DLC priorities were realized under President Clinton, including national service (AmeriCorps), expanded crime prevention (100,000 cops), reinventing government (led by fellow-DLCer, VP Al Gore), and fiscal responsibility (culminating in the surpluses of the late 1990s). 

From’s book is required reading for those of us thinking about how today’s Republican Party might transcend the demands of its ideological base and recommit itself to serving the broader national interest, and there are many lessons to learn. 

One lesson in particular stands out: institutional change is a long slog, requiring a combination of fertile political conditions and reformers well prepared to seize their moment.  For the Democratic Party, the political conditions were a long time in the making, and included McGovern’s 1972 shellacking, resounding losses to Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and finally its failure to even come close to beating the far-less-charismatic George H.W. Bush in 1988.  From characterizes the Democrats as gradually coming to terms with its national political decline over the 1970s and 1980s, with members of the old guard vehemently insisting that anyone calling for new directions was a traitor to the party’s true principles throughout. 

Reformers thus had to labor for many years before they were in a position to offer a winning alternative.  They had to cultivate a real intellectual alternative to the party’s traditional platform, an enterprise which involved many people over two decades.  It also involved creating a parallel power structure within the party separate from the official apparatus at the Democratic National Committee.  This was not the work of thinkers out in the political wilderness: From began building a congressional base for his movement as the staff director of the House Democratic Caucus under Gillis Long (D-LA) beginning in December 1980, and over many years built a coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats looking to differentiate themselves from the left wing of the party.  Once the DLC was created in 1985, it was vital that From had buy-in from established legislators (especially Dick Gephardt and Sam Nunn) and governors (especially Chuck Robb and Bruce Babbitt) who would sustain the organization even after the DNC became annoyed by its existence.  And then the DLC had to do a whole lot of leg work to establish itself, relentlessly touring the country and enduring a hard loss in the Democratic primaries of 1988.  Its alliance with Bill Clinton (who provides a Foreword to the book) was also carefully cultivated and managed over the course of years.  From and Clinton were clearly lucky to find each other in the wake of 1988—but From especially can feel that he made his own luck by laying groundwork for many years before that, preparing him to ally the DLC with the most promising suitable candidate available.

From believes a DLC-like turnaround will be harder for Republicans to accomplish today than it was for the Democrats because today’s Republicans are more homogenous and less inclusive than the Democrats of the 1980s.  Though From, ever a committed Democrat, is an admittedly interested observer, his assessment seems fair: the group of center-leaning Republican legislators today available to form an “RLC” is historically small (and indeed, the real-life RLC is currently defunct).  Moderate Republicanism’s eclipse has been very nearly complete (as Geoffrey Kabaservice’s excellent recent book chronicles).

And yet—the equilibrating forces in American politics are extremely strong.  No matter how ideologically devoted some partisans may be, each party’s appetite for losing national elections is sure to be limited.  That means the political moment for a Republican reorientation is bound to happen, especially if the Democrats retain the White House in 2016.  Potential reformers who want a Republican Party capable of governing must ready themselves for their chance, and in doing so they have much to learn from Al From.