In late July 2006, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) held a three-day conference in Colorado during which it unveiled a policy manifesto, presented by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), aimed at recapturing the White House and Congress. According to the Los Angeles Times: "Clinton wielded a red-white-and-blue bound copy of the group's initiative and used a measured tone to paint a grim portrait of the last five years under President [George W.] Bush. 'Americans are earning less while the costs of a middle-class life have soared,' she said. 'College costs, up 50% in the five years. Healthcare, 73%. Gasoline, more than 100%.'" Although the conference, which was attended by four likely Democratic presidential contenders-Clinton, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson-as well as some 400 elected leaders from the local and state levels, covered everything from college tuition to healthcare, the Iraq War "was scarcely mentioned" (Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2006).
But it is the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's heavy-handed war on terror, both largely supported by DLC leaders, that are at the center of a growing debate among Democrats about the future direction of the party. Instead of addressing the debate head on, Clinton argued that the party "will not let the president and the Republicans off the hook for the mistakes they've made and the disastrous policies they have followed abroad. We'll hold them accountable every bit as much for national security and homeland security as for their failure to provide Americans with economic security." About Iraq, Clinton managed to say that a Democratic-led Congress "would investigate no-bid contracts, the role oil companies are playing in Iraq, and supply problems that have plagued U.S. combat troops" (Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2006).
The DLC is a nonprofit corporation organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code. According to the DLC, the council "is not a political committee and is not organized to influence elections." Rather, the DLC "seeks to define and galvanize popular support for a new public philosophy built on progressive ideals, mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions." The DLC publishes the magazine Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century and an online newsletter called New Dem Dispatch. Closely associated and sharing offices with the DLC is the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a think tank sponsored by the Third Way Foundation that proposes policy agendas for the so-called third way movement of what the DLC designates the "New Democrats."
The DLC's "New Democrat Credo" declares: "In keeping with our party's grand tradition, we reaffirm Jefferson's belief in individual liberty and capacity for self-government. We endorse Jackson's credo of equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none. We embrace Roosevelt's thirst for innovation and Kennedy's summons to civic duty. And we intend to carry on Clinton's insistence upon new means to achieve progressive ideals."
The DLC's "leadership team" includes Vilsack, chairman; Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, vice-chairman; Senator Clinton, chair of the DLC's American Dream Initiative; Al From, chief executive officer; and Bruce Reed, president. From and Reed, together with Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, are the main architects of the DLC's center-right political agendas, which are laid out in more detail in the reports of the PPI and in articles in Blueprint and New Dem Dispatch.
The DLC comprises three main clusters of New Democrats. The largest is a group of nearly 400 national, state, and local legislators and officials. This contingent includes a wide range of centrist and conservative Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. (Perhaps the DLC's political thrust is more precisely defined by a list of prominent Democrats who have not lent their names to the DLC, including such figures as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.)
Aside from the DLC's leadership team, the major forces of the New Democrat movement are 45 House members and 20 senators who compose the New Democrat coalitions in Congress. According to the DLC, "Together, they are among the most influential forces in the United States Congress." In the House, the coalition's leaders are California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, and Alabama Rep. Artur Davis.
The Senate New Democrat Coalition (SNDC) was formed in 2000 by Bayh, Graham, Lieberman, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in order "to provide a unified voice in the U.S. Senate for progressive ideas, mainstream values, and innovative, market-based policy solutions," according to the DLC. Other members of the SNDC-which the DLC calls "the strongest and most unified Democratic group in the Senate"-include Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
The DLC was established in the wake of President Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide victory, in which he won 49 states, over Democrat Walter Mondale. During the Democratic convention in San Francisco, Mondale had successfully beat back a challenge from Gary Hart, who predicted that unless the Democratic Party adopted a new image it would be decisively defeated. Mondale proved unable to respond effectively to charges from the Republican right and neoconservative Democrats that the Democratic Party was the party of progressives-which Jeane Kirkpatrick variously labeled as the "San Francisco Democrats" and the "blame America first" Democrats-who were out of touch with mainstream America. As Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein concluded in their book Storming the Gates, "Mondale's landslide defeat exposed as a dead end the vision of regaining the White House by mobilizing an army of the disaffected with a message of unreconstructed liberalism."
Pondering the Mondale defeat, a gathering coalition of Southern Democrats and northern neoliberals expressed concerns that the Democratic Party faced extinction, particularly in the South and West, if the party continued to rely on its New Deal message of government intervention and kept catering to traditional constituencies of labor, minorities, and anti-war progressives. In 1985, Al From, an aide to Rep. Gillis Long (D-LA), took the lead in formulating a new messaging strategy for the party's centrists, neoliberals, and conservatives. Will Marshall, at that time Long's policy analyst and speechwriter, worked closely with From to establish the DLC and then became its first policy director.
In his "Saving the Democratic Party" memo of January 1985, From advocated the formation of a "governing council" that would draft a "blueprint" for reforming the party. According to From, the new leadership should aim to create distance from "the new bosses"-organized labor, feminists, and other progressive constituency groups-that were keeping the party from modernizing. From's memo sparked the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in early 1985. According to Balz and Brownstein, "Within a few weeks, it counted 75 members, primarily governors and members of Congress, most of them from the Sunbelt, and almost all of them white; liberal critics instantly dubbed the group 'the white male caucus.'"
Although DLC members shared, for the most part, the neoliberal perspective of centrist Democrats such as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and Michael Dukakis, they took a much harsher, conservative stance on social justice and foreign policy issues. Regarding foreign policy, the DLC attempted to resurrect the hardline anticommunism of Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson but rejected the New Deal politics that Jackson and other traditional "New Deal liberals" embraced. In the late 1980s, DLC Democrats supported aid to the Contras, applauded Reagan's "Evil Empire" rhetoric, and offered their support to those militarists calling for missile defense and rejecting arms control negotiations. While the neoliberals foresaw an end to the Cold War, the DLC still viewed the Soviet Union as an unmitigated threat.
In a 1986 conference on the legacy of "Great Society" of the Johnson administration, DLC chairman Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia took up the neoconservative critique of liberalism first articulated in the early 1970s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, and other neoconservatives. According to Robb, "While racial discrimination has by no means vanished from our society, it's time to shift the primary focus from racism-the traditional enemy without-to self-defeating patterns of behavior-the enemy within." This speech signaled the end of the "New Politics" of the 1960s and 1970s in the Democratic Party and the rise of a new social conservatism in the party. Robb's speech opened room for Democratic Party stalwarts to back away from political agendas that proposed government initiatives to address poverty, discrimination, and crime, and to join the traditional conservatives and neoconservatives in opposing affirmative action, social safety-net programs, and job-creation initiatives. Thus, the New Democrats of the DLC added their voices to the chorus of those calling for stiffer sentences, an end to affirmative action, reduced welfare benefits, and less progressive tax policies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of neoliberal technocrat Dukakis opened up new political room for the DLC and validated its claim that a conservative agenda was the only hope for reviving the Democratic Party. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who accepted From's request to become DLC chairman in 1990, helped synthesize the various currents driving the Democratic Party to leave both "New Deal" nostalgia and "New Politics" of the 1960s progressives behind. Clinton successfully redefined the Democratic Party, molding it into an organization led by New Democrats, who seized hold of the political center by targeting swing votes of the middle class and advocating the politics of growth rather than redistribution and safety nets. Clinton leaned heavily on the polling of Yale University political scientist Stanley Greenberg and on the policy framework outlined by two analysts from the PPI in their 1989 paper "The Politics of Evasion."
In many ways, it was Bill Clinton-not the DLC-who succeeded in giving a human face and viable political program to the New Democrats. Although Clinton adopted most of the DLC platform as his own, he softened its hard ideological edge through compromise and inclusion, drawing in the party's left-center and center-right. Ralph Nader and other critics of Clinton and the DLC contend that Clinton was a creature of the DLC. But Clinton proved larger than the DLC ideologues, and it was Clinton who made the DLC a major force in the Democratic Party rather than the other way around, as the DLC leadership implies when it takes credit for the Democratic presidential victories of the 1990s.
Writing shortly before the November 2000 presidential election, John Nichols observed that the DLC had been founded "with essentially the same purpose as the Christian Coalition," namely, "to pull a broad political party dramatically to the right." According to Nichols, "The DLC has been far more successful than its headline-grabbing Republican counterpart" (Progressive, October 2000). Although the DLC can rightly claim to have yanked the Democratic Party to the right, it has repeatedly failed to sideline what PPI president Marshall has disparaging labeled "the party traditionalists." Since its founding, the DLC has aimed to subsume all Democrats under its ideological umbrella. But persistent (and resurgent) resistance to neoliberal prescriptions, neoconservative foreign policy, and social conservative domestic policies has curtailed DLC ambitions and obliged it to operate more as a powerful agenda-setting and lobbying group within the party. In effect, the DLC has focused on controlling the party's platform and leadership rather than on selling "big tent" politics to all Democratic Party constituencies.
As Kenneth Baer observed in his book Reinventing Democrats, the DLC, after several clashes with the leadership of the party's progressives and traditional liberals, refined its mission to function as "an elite organization funded by elite-corporate and private-donors." However, leading DLC voices such as Al From have continued to harbor hopes that the DLC and its think tank will one day constitute the core of the Democratic Party, not just a fifth column working within the party's elite.
When Al Gore, a DLC member since its first years, chose Lieberman, the DLC chairman, to be his presidential running mate, the DLC staff felt triumphant. Although Gore was not a neoliberal "true believer" or national security militarist like Lieberman, in the lead-up to the 2000 party convention, From predicted that soon "We'll finally be able to proclaim that all Democrats are, indeed, New Democrats" (Progressive, October 2000).
More recently, former candidate Howard Dean's criticism that the DLC and its "New Democratic agenda" constituted "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party" highlighted long-running tensions between the party's center-left and center-right. Dean was roundly criticized for dividing the Democratic Party when unity was needed to defeat George W. Bush. The party's leading conservative and then-chair Lieberman lambasted Dean, claiming that his rival for the nomination "essentially pushes Bill Clinton out of the Democratic Party" along with "hundreds of governors and local officials" who consider themselves part of the New Democrat movement. Throughout his campaign, Dean characterized his candidacy as representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" (Los Angeles Times, December 25, 2003).
Such language alarmed the center-right of the party, especially the DLC leadership. Seven months before Dean took the DLC to task for pushing the party to the right, the DLC had mounted an initiative to discredit Dean. In May 2003, From and Bruce Reed sent a memo to party leaders arguing that Dean's efforts to energize traditional party constituencies around a populist, anti-war, and liberal message would doom the party to the fates suffered by George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Then, at the July 2003 DLC annual conference, the DLC leadership blasted Dean and other presidential hopefuls for flirting with a "far-left" critique of the Bush administration and pointed out the political folly of attacking Bush's tax cuts and his national security leadership. Commenting on the "Democratic Weaselship Council" in Salon.com, Joan Walsh observed that the DLC was "in danger of adopting a political terror strategy [that] involves doing the enemy's work for them: damaging your own party's candidates by declaring them ideologically flawed and unelectable" (Salon.com, July 29, 200 3).
Both the DLC and the closely associated PPI have elicited sharp criticism from several centrist and progressive factions of the Democratic Party. One of the most outspoken DLC critics is Jesse Jackson, who once said that DLC stands for "Democrats for the Leadership Class" (Progressive, October 2000). Nader has also challenged the DLC's attempt to define itself as centrist: "So right-wing is the DLC, mounted imperiously on their sagging party, that even opposing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, that cause huge federal deficits and program cuts in necessities such as health, education, environmental protection, and children's well-being, is considered ultra-liberal and contrary to winning campaigns" (In the Public Interest, August 1, 2003). Nader continued: "If there were a superlative to the word 'hubris,' it would come close to describing Al From and his DLC cohorts. With unseemly regularity, they take credit for all Democratic victories as having been rooted in their philosophy of turn-your-back-on-organized labor and open-your-pockets-to-corporations (who fund the DLC, incidentally). All Democratic defeats are explained as owing to losing candidates being too 'left' or too 'populist.'"
Although Clinton's personal charisma and political smarts were the main factors in the success and corresponding re-imaging of the Democratic Party, From, Marshall, and the DLC leadership can claim at least partial credit in moving the core Democratic Party platform closer to the DLC's modernizing agenda, which stresses market-based solutions, an alignment with the military-industrial complex, and a distancing from the identity politics and bothersome demands of the "New Politics" constituencies that emerged in the late 1960s. To its credit, the DLC and PPI have helped the Democratic Party redefine itself as a party that not only represents minorities and the disenfranchised but also the mainstream. But blinded by their own triumphalism, New Democrat ideologues fail to acknowledge that they have fallen in line behind the ills of neoliberals, neoconservatives, militarists, and social conservatives who have transformed the Republican Party over the past three decades. What's more, the DLC (with PPI) has also proved itself an effective shill for transnational Wall Street capitalists, although it faces competition in this role from the Republican Party and its array of affiliated policy institutes and think tanks. Such rightward leanings prompted the America Prospect's Robert Kuttner to call the DLC the "Republicans' Favorite Democrats" (American Prospect, July 1, 2002).
Regarding foreign policy, the DLC proposes a "third way-between the neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left." The DLC labels its stance on foreign policy "progressive internationalism," which it defines as "the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy." Following this logic, the group proclaims: "We therefore support the bold exercise of American power, not to dominate but to shape alliances and international institutions that share a common commitment to liberal values. The way to keep America safe and strong is not to impose our will on others or pursue a narrow, selfish nationalism that betrays our best values, but to lead the world toward political and economic freedom." When the DLC gets to the specifics of foreign policy, such as supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there seems to be little separating its progressive internationalism from the "neo-imperial" foreign policy of the Bush administration and its neoconservative advisers. According to the PPI, "We aim to rebuild the moral foundation of U.S. global leadership by harnessing America's awesome power to universal values of liberal democracy" (see Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Policy, DLC, October 30, 2003).
The DLC and its close associate, the PPI, receive grants from many Fortune 500 companies and various right-wing foundations such as the Bradley Foundation. According to the a 2002 study by the Capital Research Center, corporate contributors to the PPI have included the AT&T Foundation, Eastman Kodak Charitable Trust, Prudential Foundation, Georgia-Pacific Foundation, Chevron, and Amoco Foundation. The Third Way Foundation, an umbrella group of the New Democrats in the DLC, receives funding from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, Ameritech Foundation, and General Mills Foundation. According to John Nichols in the Progressive, the DLC has had funding from Bank One, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, Health Insurance Corporation, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Occidental Petroleum, and Raytheon (Progressive, October 2000).