Among the several people I met in Chicago was Ed Kilgore, former policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council and advocate for all things moderate. I wish I could tell you he told me something insider-y, but since we met at the Teamster “cookout” we were reduced to shouting over the Union loudspeakers, a circumstance not conducive to nuanced conversation.
However, I did get the impression that the DLC is feeling left behind.
Joe Klein wrote last week that none of the Dem presidential candidates visited the DLC annual meeting in Nashville. Not even Hillary Clinton, who is a prominent member of the DLC. And today Martin O’Malley and Harold Ford Jr., governor of Maryland and DLC chariman, have a whiny op ed in the Washington Post asking why no one likes them any more. It begins:
With President Bush and the Republican Party on the rocks, many Democrats think the 2008 election will be, to borrow a favorite GOP phrase, a cakewalk. Some liberals are so confident about Democratic prospects that they contend the centrism that vaulted Democrats to victory in the 1990s no longer matters.
“Some say, ‘Well, maybe the recession should have been deeper,’ ” Bush said last summer. “That bothers me when people say that. You see, a deeper recession would have meant more families would have been out of work.”
In Bush’s world, large herds of nameless people go about saying absurd things to which the President strongly disagrees. Some say “certain people” don’t want to be free. Some say we shouldn’t fight terrorists. Some say we should mix thumbtacks into our oatmeal. But I say we must be resolved to keep thumbtacks out of the oatmeal.
So now these same strange and nameless people are following Harold Ford about, also. Some liberals say that centrism no longer matters. Well, Harold Ford and Governor O’Malley disagree.
The temptation to ignore the vital center is nothing new. Every four years, in the heat of the nominating process, liberals and conservatives alike dream of a world in which swing voters don’t exist. … But for Democrats, taking the center for granted next year would be a greater mistake than ever before.
Ford and O’Malley whine along in this vein, talking about a “center” that wants “practical answers,” such as
… smart, New Democrat plans to cap and trade carbon emissions, give more Americans the chance to earn their way through college, achieve universal health care through shared responsibility, increase national security by rebuilding our embattled military and enable all Americans who work full time to lift themselves out of poverty.
And I say, WTF? Capping and trading carbon emissions is fine, but what does “earn their way through college” mean, exactly? Bigger and more glorious work-study programs? And “achieve universal health care through shared responsibility” sounds like “don’t get sick and you won’t mind not having health insurance.”
I looked on the DLC web site and found this:
What is missing today is the political imagination and courage to move to a new vision of universal health care — one in which government takes action in the public’s interest, without seizing control of the system. Such a vision would reject the false choices offered in the stultified left-right debate between those who seek a government takeover of health care and those whose veneration of free markets would leave individuals to fend for themselves. Instead, it would equip Americans with the tools they need to build the world’s best health care system from the ground up.
Translation: We’re not going to risk pissing of the health insurance industry, so you’re on your own.
And we need these people, why? Joe Klein offers this explanation:
In a way, this is just the latest edition of the fight between Northern liberals and Southern moderates that has befuddled the Democrats since… well, since Ted Kennedy challenged the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. But it’s also a consequence of the smug ideological xenophobia that currently afflicts activists in both partiesâ€”although, in fairness, the Democrats are playing catch-up to the wing-nut avidity cultivated by Karl Rove as a conscious governing strategy in the Republican Party. The Republicans don’t even have a DLC equivalent.
At the center of the controversy is a gentleman named Al From, a former Senate aide who helped found the DLC in reaction to the Walter Mondale presidential wipeout in 1984 and now serves as its CEO. From is a moderate who acts like an extremist. Early on, he gleefully picked fights with various crumbling pillars of post-Vietnam liberalismâ€”trade unions, antiwar activists and ethnic pleaders. Many of these battles were worth waging, especially on social issues like crime and welfare reform, where Democrats had drifted into a slough of guilt and warped good intentions.
There is a germ of truth there, although you have to do some weeding to get to it.
There are many factors that came together in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in a weakened, spineless, and soulless Democratic Party, and I explained these in some detail here. But there are three major factors Iâ€™d like to point out:
In the 1970s and 1980s, white voters left the Dem Party in droves and began to vote Republican, mostly because Nixon, Reagan, and others did a bang-up job exploiting racism. I think the racist backlash to Dem support of civil rights and antipoverty programs cost Democrats far more, in the long run, than the war in Vietnam did.
Second, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Left ideologies discouraged young activists from getting involved in party politics. Instead, progressivism broke up into single-issue advocacy movements that competed with each other for funds and attention.
Third, the New Deal coalition, which had sustained the Party from FDR’s day through the 1960s, dissolved. More critically, nothing took its place. Thus, the Democratic Party itself lost clear identity and purpose. But someone should explain to Joe Klein that trade unions are not vestiges of “post-Vietnam liberalism.” They were the cornerstone of the New Deal coalition, and the relationship between the unions and the Democratic Party goes back many, many decades. New Left activists, on the whole, were uninterested in labor issues.
And while the Democrats were in decline, the Right was busily establishing its almighty infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets. Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988 ran adequate campaigns for the pre-VRWC age. But the shift in political and media culture that the Right had imposed stymied both of them.
Al From and others found a strategy for playing by Right-wing rules and winning an election here and there. But they never confronted the real problem, which is that politics and media came to be dominated by a faction of Right-wing extremism subsidized by corporate power, making it nearly impossible for any voices but the Right’s to speak to the American people. The Right claimed the center and enforced that claim with bluster and intimidation. And for a time the majority of Americans more or less went along with the Right’s agenda, mostly because that was the only agenda presented to them.
Before the Clinton presidency, the leadership councilâ€™s critique of the Democratic Party had merit. Many voters emerged from the 1970s and early â€™80s deeply skeptical of liberalism. As Mr. Clinton put it in his 1991 speech, people who once voted for the Democrats no longer â€œtrusted us in national elections to defend our national interest abroad, to put their values in our social policy at home or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.â€
The council grew out of frustration with Walter Mondaleâ€™s crushing 1984 defeat. Mr. Mondale had maneuvered to win the A.F.L.-C.I.O.â€™s endorsement during the Democratic primaries, but his victory was pyrrhic. The endorsement solidified Mr. Mondaleâ€™s reputation as the candidate of special interests. In order to shake the label, Mr. Mondale proposed raising taxes to cut the deficit, which only worsened his image among swing voters.
Let’s look at this more closely. What, exactly, had the Dems done to lose the nation’s trust?
The nation’s economy had stalled halfway through the Nixon administration, and stagflation reigned through the Ford administration. (Ford’s economic policy, as I remember, was handing out “Whip Inflation Now” pins.) President Carter, it is true, made little headway against the economic problems handed to him. But the problems were handed to him by Republican administrations, notice. Then in 1979 the Federal Reserve clamped down on the money supply, which whipped inflation. Reagan’s first term was marked by a deep recession that was especially painful for blue-collar Americans. Reagan’s economy heated up, then cooled off just in time for George H.W. Bush to take over. The Bush 41 years saw whopping income disparity and mass layoffs.
And dontcha love the part about trade unions representing “special interests”?
I’ve written at length about the charge that Dems are “soft” on security. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern,” “Don’t Blame McGovern II,” and “How the Democrats Lost Their Spines.” This is a history that goes back to the end of World War II; in short, the Right took credibility on national security away from the Dems through years of hysterical charges and lies. And the Wingnut Generation (b. 1970, give or take) were heavily imprinted by Jimmy Carter’s failure to resolve the Iran Hostage Crisis and the perception that the nation had been made strong again by Reagan. The fact that Democrats saw the nation through World War II, and the way Democratic President John Kennedy stared down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis, were entirely forgotten. Carter-Reagan became the only recognized narrative for both parties.
So how did Mrs. Clinton respond in 1991? We’re sorry we’re such screwups. We promise to do better from now on. In other words, instead of correcting the narrative, the “New Democrats” validated the narrative and attempted to win elections by riding piggy-back on Right-wing propaganda. See? We can electrocute mentally retarded criminals and blame poverty on welfare queens, too! Can we say Republican Lite?
The DLC came along and had some success with a short-sighted strategy: Ignore the base, because they don’t have anyone else to vote for, and try to pick off “swing voters” by moving to the Right. But now the American people are desperate for someone to lead them away from the failed policies of the Right. As Ford and O’Malley say, “George W. Bush is handing us Democrats our Hoover moment. ”
Let’s see, what did Franklin Roosevelt do with his “Hoover moment”? Did he mince around and say, Don’t worry, I won’t do anything drastically different from what Herbert Hoover did. I’ll just institute a few tweaks. I don’t think so.
The base — and please note, Mr. Ford and Gov. O’Malley, we vote too — is sick to death of “leaders” who are too timid to lead.
The Democratic Party is growing more liberal for the first time in a generation. …
…The Democrats’ shift to the left carries some risk, but probably much less than it would have in years past. That’s because independent voters â€” the ones who swing back and forth and thus decide elections â€” also have turned against the war and in favor of many more liberal approaches to government.
“There is greater support for the social safety net, more concern for inequality of income,” said Andy Kohut, the president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. “More people are falling into the liberal category based on their values.”
Dear DLC: Step aside, fellas. We’re doing the leading now.
Update: See also the BooMan, who was also in Chicago.