Book Reviews

From the Frame-Maker

Al From helped create the symbolic politics and policies of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Are they still relevant?

By Paul Starr

Tagged Democrats

The New Democrats and the Return to Power By Al From • Palgrave • 2013 • 266 pages • $28

We are all supposed to dislike partisanship these days, but partisans do much of the work that democracy requires. And when parties lose one election after another, people dedicated to rebuilding them are indispensable. By the mid-1980s, the Democrats were in deep trouble: Walter Mondale lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984, and in 1988 the party would lose its fifth out of six presidential elections in two decades. The only Democrat to break that losing streak, Jimmy Carter, left his party as divided and dispirited as he left the country. If the Democrats were to regain their dominant position in national politics, they would need new leadership and new ideas about building a majority.

Reagan’s thumping of Mondale was the immediate stimulus for one such effort. In 1985, Al From, a veteran aide to Democratic lawmakers, brought together members of Congress, governors, and others in the centrist-to-conservative band of the party spectrum to create the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was not the only group in the Reagan years that tried to renew Democratic thinking, but it proved to be singularly important primarily because its leaders included Bill Clinton, who used the organization as a springboard to the presidency in 1992.

With Clinton’s victory, Democrats began a streak of their own, winning the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections. According to From—now retired after a quarter century leading the DLC—the Democrats’ turnaround has vindicated the ideals and strategy that his organization championed. And while acknowledging that circumstances have changed since the early 1990s, he says that the same basic ideas should continue to guide the Democratic Party and the country.

From invites us to consider these claims in The New Democrats and the Return to Power, a personal memoir and self-congratulatory history of the DLC. There is something rather cheeky about the DLC’s founder taking credit for the Democrats’ success from Presidents Clinton through Obama. After all, the white Southerners who were the core of the DLC have become marginal to the party, and the organization itself shut down in 2011. In recent years, Democrats have taken more liberal positions on social issues such as gay marriage without suffering the consequences that the DLC feared. But with another Clinton in position to become the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, the saga of the New Democrats may not be over. Moreover, the historical role of the DLC continues to be relevant in assessing how Democrats can best respond to the sway of conservative ideology, especially in the red states that have the potential to turn blue as a result of demographic change.

The DLC was never a grassroots operation. It was a leadership organization that formulated ideas and policy proposals and linked together centrist Democrats in what From saw as a battle against a sclerotic party too closely tied to liberal interest groups. During the late 1980s and ’90s, some New Democrats and liberals elevated their conflict into a struggle for the soul of the party. In the DLC worldview, its ideas were brave departures from party orthodoxy, while critics in the liberal wing did the DLC a favor by returning fire as if those self-representations were accurate.

My view has long been different. In the debates on the center-left in that period (and among those who worked for Clinton), I was on the opposite side from the DLC, though perhaps not all that far on the other side. I never saw the division between liberal Democrats and New Democrats as a deep philosophical rift. The areas of agreement were wide; the differences primarily had to do with strategy and framing, only secondarily with substance, and not in any relevant way with philosophical principles. On the whole, the DLC played a necessary, valuable, and irritating role. It helped to exorcise the demons of the 1960s still haunting the Democrats and to keep the party tuned to the sensibilities of moderates in Southern and border states at a time when it could not have succeeded nationally without them. But, ever mindful of centrist opinion, the DLC could see only the risks of major liberal initiatives, and some of what From and others said carried the invidious implication that liberals disagreed with DLC positions only because they were too hidebound to change or were in the grip of interest groups (which mainly meant labor).

One reason that the DLC-liberal divide didn’t go that deep is that most of the policies distinctively associated with the DLC were of limited consequence. They were significant as symbols at the time, but not by longer-term and more objective criteria. According to From, for example, in December 1992 he sent a memo to Clinton urging the President-elect to “make five ideas the cornerstones of his administration: national service; reinventing government (including campaign finance and lobbying reform); welfare reform; youth apprenticeship; and community policing.”

Two things are striking about this list. Leaving aside welfare reform for the moment, these were not policies to which liberals were opposed, and they were also not the big questions of domestic or foreign policy. They were worthy ideas, but they weren’t transformative. The various efforts to dress up DLC policies—the New Paradigm, the New Choice, and finally, the New Covenant, which Clinton tried to make his own catchphrase—fell flat for good reason. The New Deal was a big deal; the New Covenant was not. It was too confused a concept and too small in its dimensions to make a lasting impression on America’s national memory.

But symbolic politics and second-tier policies do matter. They matter in the winning of elections, and they matter as signals of the general direction of change. There is no way to understand the recent history of the Democratic Party and American politics without acknowledging and appreciating the role played by the DLC and Al From.

Contrary to the image of the DLC, From himself has a liberal pedigree. After obtaining a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, he began his career in 1966 working in the South for Sargent Shriver in the Office of Economic Opportunity, an enterprise that he recalls without apologies. The War on Poverty, he writes, was about “empowerment,” not welfare. Later he worked for Senator Ed Muskie and in the Carter White House; by 1981 he was staff director of the House Democratic Caucus.

But with the Democrats’ repeated losses, From became convinced the party had to change so as to “attract moderates and conservatives” as well as liberals and that it had to “do well among men, whites, independents, and young voters.” In a January 1985 memo, he proposed a new organization “to develop an agenda strengthening the Democratic Party and making it competitive again in national elections.” Besides tilting toward the center, the new organization would enable elected officials to develop a national agenda at a time when the Democratic Party itself had limited their role in the interest of opening up the nominating process and national party machinery.

The DLC’s mission, From recalls, had three principal elements: administering “reality therapy” to Democrats who were in denial about why they were losing elections; developing “a clear philosophy” to tell voters “what we stood for”; and formulating “substantive ideas that made up a governing agenda.” The premise of the DLC “reality therapy” was that there just weren’t enough liberals to win at the national level and no formula for mobilizing the party base could overcome that disadvantage.

According to this analysis—laid out in an influential 1989 paper, “The Politics of Evasion,” by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck—the problem was not liberalism per se, but the Democrats’ shift in an “unacceptably liberal” direction, which needed correction so that Democrats could reclaim the center. In fact, Democrats had been trying to reclaim the center by abjuring liberalism throughout the 1980s. In 1984, Mondale had foresworn all liberal initiatives, promising a “new realism” about spending with “no laundry lists that raid our Treasury.” In 1988, Michael Dukakis had insisted that the election was about “competence” rather than ideology. So rather than calling for a courageous departure, the DLC analysis was in line with what Democratic leaders had been trying to do. From just thought they hadn’t gone far enough. What he wanted—and what liberals detested—might be described as conspicuous repudiation.

The division between the DLC and liberals reflected a perennial disagreement among Democrats about how to respond to conservative ideological dominance. Public opinion surveys have long shown that, by a wide margin, Americans are more likely to describe themselves as conservative than as liberal. But as the political scientist James Stimson has pointed out, there are two problems with the data on ideological self-identification. First, one-third of respondents typically don’t answer the question on ideology, so the data characterize at most two-thirds of the electorate (generally the more educated); and second, many of those who self-identify as conservative take positions on concrete issues that put them closer to liberals.

The pattern is an old one. In their 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril estimated that on an ideological scale, conservatives outnumbered liberals three-to-one, by 50 percent to 16 percent—and that was based on data from 1964, the year of the greatest liberal landslide in history. Yet at that time, according to Free and Cantril, 67 percent were liberal and only 14 percent conservative on an operational scale (using responses on issues). In other words, many Americans were “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” In his analysis of later data (including the late 1980s and ’90s), Stimson finds the same pattern. Conservatives have had the edge symbolically, liberals operationally.

Although the national political mood varies, this persistent combination of symbolic conservatism and operational liberalism in the electorate creates a distinctive challenge for Democrats. One way to respond is to adopt policies and political language that appeal to symbolic conservatism. Another way is to try to break through those symbolic attachments by focusing on concrete and practical liberal policies that these voters actually prefer. The DLC specialized in developing the first strategy, while liberals have favored the second. These approaches are not, however, mutually exclusive; Democrats can do both, as Bill Clinton demonstrated as a candidate and as President.

Political language and symbolic policies were the DLC’s gift to Clinton. In a foreword to From’s memoir, the former President heaps praise on the DLC and calls attention to the New Orleans Declaration, a statement of principles the organization adopted in 1990. The 15 “core beliefs” set forth in that declaration may seem unexceptional (for example: “We believe the Democratic Party’s fundamental mission is to expand opportunity, not government”). But by carefully tempering liberal commitments with assurances of moderation, they gave Clinton a balanced and coherent framework for his campaign.

The conceit running through much of the DLC’s and Clinton’s rhetoric was that their ideas were so unlike anything before that they couldn’t fit into the old categories. Everything was new when New Democrats proposed New Paradigms. In 1991, Clinton told a DLC conference in Cleveland: “Our New Choice plainly rejects the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn’t liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different.” This denial of labels was a way of getting people to listen. Eventually, though, needing a label, From settled on “progressive,” an ironic choice. During the Cold War, “progressive” had meant left of liberal (as in Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party), but it now came to refer vaguely to any viewpoint left of center. From says he called the DLC’s policy arm the Progressive Policy Institute because he was tired of his organization being described by journalists as conservative.

Clinton’s victory in 1992 put the DLC in the spotlight, but it was only one of several influences on his presidency. Remaining outside the Administration, From played a role that he describes as “Keeper of the Faith.” As he tells the story, Clinton was at heart a New Democrat but suffered lapses with regrettable frequency, whereupon From would fire off a memo reminding the wayward President of the true path. As a good politician, however, Clinton straddled the liberal/DLC divide; indeed, if he hadn’t been so adept at straddling it, he probably wouldn’t have been elected President. Clinton took DLC ideas far enough to distinguish himself as a “different kind of Democrat,” but not so far as to alienate liberals.

The DLC’s policies certainly had alienating possibilities, as From’s discussion of national service and the earned-income tax credit (EITC) illustrates. The DLC originally proposed national service as a requirement for any federal aid for college—goodbye, Pell grants. That would have reduced access to higher education. Similarly, the DLC first proposed an increase in the EITC as an alternative to a higher minimum wage. On its own, though, the EITC might substitute for wages, allowing employers to pay their low-wage workers less; the EITC and the minimum wage work together to boost incomes at the low end of the labor market. Pitting national service against all college aid and the EITC against the minimum wage was wrongheaded, both as policy and as politics. But that was not the direction Clinton followed.

Clinton’s liberal-but-straddling impulses were also evident in his 1993 plan for universal health insurance, which loomed far larger in fiscal and political terms in his first two years than the items on From’s to-do list. If it had passed, Clinton’s health plan would have been the largest redistributive federal program since the 1960s. But in its reliance on competing private health plans, the proposal reflected the same political logic as many DLC ideas—the hope of making an egalitarian policy more acceptable to moderates and conservatives by preserving choice and competition. (I plead guilty to encouraging that delusion.) The DLC, however, had nothing to do with it, and From regards it as one of Clinton’s lapses from the faith.

In its statements about economic policy, the DLC put growth first, fairness second. The New Orleans Declaration, for example, stated: “We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.” The declaration then added that “a progressive tax system is the only fair way to pay for government,” and as From says in his memoir, he’s not against redistribution. Clinton’s first budget included a higher income tax rate on the top bracket. To be sure, liberals and DLC members had disagreements on economic policy, notably trade. But these were not matters of first principles. If one group calls for “growth and fairness” and another insists on “fairness and growth,” they are not having an unbridgeable philosophical dispute.

The early increase in the EITC and the strong economic growth of the 1990s enabled Clinton to confront the policy divide he was least able to straddle. In 1995 and 1996, when the Republican Congress forced his hand on welfare reform, Clinton used his veto twice, refusing to eliminate the federal guarantees for food stamps or Medicaid. He signed welfare legislation only after the Republicans had limited work requirements and the end of federal guarantees to cash assistance (AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children). It was a choice the President could defend to liberals on the grounds that the enlarged EITC, together with food stamps and federal disability benefits, now served as a more nationally uniform, politically defensible safety net than AFDC, which had never provided much protection in conservative states. Although some liberals protested at the time, Clinton put the issue to rest; returning to the old welfare system ceased to be an option.

Symbolic politics drove DLC choices about philosophy and rhetoric, as well as policy. “Opportunity, responsibility, community” was the credo the organization adopted in 1991, and those are all fine words in my book, especially if they are interpreted with the help of an unmentioned concept—equality. As the DLC understood it, “responsibility” meant that instead of getting “something for nothing,” the beneficiaries of government aid would have to work or uphold standards of behavior. The underlying norm being invoked was reciprocity. But responsibility could also apply to people at the top. Wall Street’s largest financial firms, for example, benefit from what are effectively government guarantees of their solvency, enabling them to borrow at artificially low rates. Although making any demands of finance is usually described as “populist,” such requirements could just as easily be seen as demands for reciprocity: From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Responsibility in the financial industry, however, wasn’t high on the DLC agenda. But it would be easy to take the DLC’s own language in, um, a more “progressive” direction.

And that is the direction in which the electorate is evolving. A March survey by the Pew Research Center finds a remarkable change. Among millennials, 31 percent self-identify as liberal and only 26 percent as conservative, making the millennials the only generation in which self-identified conservatives do not significantly outnumber liberals. If that trend continues, Democrats may not need to frame their ideas to accommodate a predominant symbolic conservatism. But we are still a long way from that point for at least two reasons.

The first has to do with regional culture. The growing number of Latino voters promise to put states such as Georgia and Arizona in play for Democrats and to continue helping the party in Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina. In 2014, Democratic candidates are waging serious Senate campaigns in Georgia and Kentucky. To win races in those states, however, Democrats will still need the language of conservative reassurance that the DLC was adept at formulating.

Insofar as national elections turn on battleground states with similar profiles, the same logic applies, albeit in lesser degree, to presidential politics. If Hillary Clinton becomes the 2016 nominee, she may not be able to count on the exceptionally high African-American turnout that Obama enjoyed, but she may be able to win back some of the white votes that Obama lost, particularly in Appalachia and other regions that voted less for Obama in 2008 than for John Kerry in 2004. To that extent, the New Democrat formula will still be relevant.

A major challenge for Clinton in 2016, assuming she enters the race, will be to recapture the freshness and excitement that her husband enjoyed when he first ran for the presidency. It will have been 24 years since that campaign, a very long time for both people and ideas on the national stage. Hillary won’t have to demonstrate that she’s a “different kind of Democrat,” but even after running eight years earlier, she will need to communicate her own governing philosophy as well as policies that bear out that conception, especially on the economy. Moreover, it won’t do to run separately from Democrats running for Congress; if she is going to accomplish much as President, she will need a Democratic Congress, and voters will understand that. Although Republican intransigence hasn’t changed many minds, it has deadened one thing that both Bill Clinton and Obama inspired—hope.

So what Hillary and her party will require is an updated, coherent frame for policy and politics that revives the national sense of possibility. Al From’s memoir, though it claims too much for the DLC, is a reminder of how the struggle for political self-definition can help create a sense of new beginnings and build a political majority. The clash over ideas and policies between New Democrats and liberals in the 1990s was the source of productive tension. Another spirited conflict between centrists and progressives leading up to 2016 will be just as contentious and irritating—and no less necessary for framing a successful campaign and presidency.

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Paul Starr is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and the co-founder of The American Prospect. His books include Freedom's Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism and, most recently, Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform.

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