A Moderate to Severe Problem
This week’s revelation that the Democratic Leadership Council is shutting down is a good example of how politics operates in circles. The DLC was established in the aftermath of Walter Mondale’s 49-state loss at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, the purpose being to steer the national party on a more centrist course (translation more competitive in the South and the Sunbelt).
Nearly three decades later, two Democrats did indeed find their way to the White House. One, Bill Clinton, did it by using the DLC to his full advantage. Clinton chaired the group in the period leading up to his presidential run. That gave the Arkansas governor ready access to a national network of activists and donors. It also made Clinton the beneficiary of a very public feud between the DLC and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who described the mostly white and white-collar band of moderates as the “Democratic Leisure Class.” And he tapped into the DLC intellectual capital: welfare reform, free trade, a strong military.
As for Barack Obama, he didn’t go the Clinton route (“a different kind of Democrat”). But he did buy into the DLC vision of competing in states earlier Democratic nominees had ceded, or bitterly lost, to the GOP. Obama scored a breakthrough — and threatened to realign the presidential electoral map — by carrying Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico. Obama turned 8 “red” states “blue” in 2008.
But as last November’s election showed, those “new blue” states aren’t necessarily true blue. Florida, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico each elected a Republican governor. As for Virginia, it’s likely to surrender a Democratic Senate seat in 2012, with Jim Webb’s announcement that he won’t seek a second term.
Here’s my take on Webb’s departure. Democrats will try to spin it that he was a bull in a china shop — too active, too aggressive for a deliberate body like the U.S. Senate. Here’s another way to explain it: Webb was swept into office on the coattails of slow progress in Iraq and frustration with Republican control of the federal government. That Republican grip is now gone, and so too is Iraq as a wedge issue. That leaves Webb in an awkward spot: he has fewer centrist Democrats to work with after “blue dog” Democrats took it on the chin last November; he has to hug the middle to right-of-center to stay viable in the Old Dominion. So maybe it’s better to quit while still ahead . . .
Moderate Democrats will argue that the DLC’s efforts were not in vain. Both Clinton and now Obama learned the hard way that their party needs a balanced approach to governing. And they’ll cite the hiring of the group’s leader, Bruce Reed, as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff as evidence of some moderate influence in the White House.
But here’s the problem with the argument — it’s like a stock farm bragging about a great groomsman, while masking the hard truth that it has precious few horses in the stable.
Back in the 1980’s, the DLC didn’t lack for presidential wannabes: Clinton, Al Gore, former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (like Webb, also retiring from the Senate next year). Today, the centrist congressional Democrat is an endangered species. And perhaps a rarer bird if two of them — Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester — fail in their relection bids next year.
Years ago, back when I was a journalist working in the nation’s capital, I asked Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute (a spinoff DLC think tank), why the DLC existed. Her response: “[T]he DLC originated as a place for Southern and Western Democrats to hide from the image of the national party. Now, there’s a whole of people who are not Southern or Western who need to hide from that image because the image hasn’t gotten much better.”
Remember that quote come November 2016, when a Democratic Party lacking a centrist core may be looking at th the same image problem that dogged it 30 years before.