The Centrists Didn’t Hold
By NOAM SCHEIBER
Published: July 28, 2007
NOT very long ago, the Democratic Leadership Council was a maker of presidents — or, at least, the maker of a president. In 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, then the council’s chairman, elucidated the “New Democrat” ethos and previewed the themes of his presidential candidacy (“opportunity, responsibility, community”) with a speech at the centrist group’s annual conference. “It became the blueprint for my campaign message,” Mr. Clinton later wrote in his autobiography. He added, “By embracing ideas and values that were both liberal and conservative, it made voters who had not supported Democratic presidential candidates in years listen to our message.”
But few headlines will be made this weekend at the council’s “National Conversation” in Nashville. The next president of the United States almost certainly won’t be there. Not only are Democratic front-runners like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama planning to skip the conference, but so are the Bill Richardsons and Chris Dodds of the field. That’s probably a good move for the candidates, as the council has become radioactive among Democratic primary voters. But the Democratic Leadership Council’s fading influence is also good news for the entire party.
One cause of the council’s decline is obvious. The group lost a direct line to the White House when Bill Clinton left office. But the change has also come about for more subtle reasons. The New Republic, where I work, was once closely associated with the council’s moderate agenda. These days, however, many of the fights the group picks seem as quaint to me and my colleagues as an old Fleetwood Mac song. Despite what you hear from the council, the biggest problem facing the Democrats, and the nation, is not the party’s liberal activists.
Before the Clinton presidency, the leadership council’s critique of the Democratic Party had merit. Many voters emerged from the 1970s and early ’80s deeply skeptical of liberalism. As Mr. Clinton put it in his 1991 speech, people who once voted for the Democrats no longer “trusted 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.”
The council grew out of frustration with Walter Mondale’s crushing 1984 defeat. Mr. Mondale had maneuvered to win the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s endorsement during the Democratic primaries, but his victory was pyrrhic. The endorsement solidified Mr. Mondale’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.
During the 1980s and ’90s, the council played a vital role in curbing both the perception and the reality of liberal excess inside the Democratic Party, and its efforts paved the way for Mr. Clinton’s ascendance. The council’s medicine worked. The centrist wing of the party won important battles on welfare reform, crime and the budget. By the late ’90s, Americans trusted Democrats to run the economy and keep their neighborhoods safe.
But George W. Bush taught Democrats of all stripes that their differences with one another were minor compared with the differences between them and Republicans. For seven years, Democrats have faced a radical administration that operates in bad faith. Yet there was the Democratic Leadership Council, still arguing that teachers unions endanger the republic.
Democrats, moderate and liberal, have been bewildered by the group’s post-Clinton agenda. Take, for example, the law passed by Congress in 2005 that makes it harder for ordinary people to declare bankruptcy. The measure’s only obvious beneficiary was the credit-card industry, and most Democrats opposed it. One main exception was a coalition of House members allied with the council. In an implicit rebuke to their Democratic colleagues, these New Democrats declared their support for the bill “as champions of both personal and fiscal responsibility.”
But Democrats had by this point done much to establish themselves as proponents of “personal and fiscal responsibility.” They were in no danger of trashing the party’s post-Clinton reputation. More important, the bill hardly seemed like a high priority amid the Bush administration’s vast upward redistribution of wealth.
The leadership council made an analogous mistake in the aftermath of the Iraq war. By 2006, most Democrats who supported the invasion had recanted. But council officials doubled down in the face of the fiasco, attacking opponents of the war during Ned Lamont’s Senate campaign against Joe Lieberman.
Today, the council has almost no constituency within the Democratic Party. About every five years, the Pew Research Center conducts a public opinion survey to sort out the country’s major ideological groupings. In 1999, Pew found that liberals and New Democrats each accounted for nearly one-quarter of the Democratic base. By the next survey in 2005, New Democrats had completely disappeared as a group and the liberals had doubled their share of the party. Many moderates, radicalized by President Bush, now define themselves as liberals.
On a variety of issues the council, and not the party’s liberal base, is out of touch with the popular mood. A recent Washington Post poll found that 60 percent of independents, along with 70 percent of Democrats, favor withdrawing from Iraq by next spring.
Two decades of work by the Democratic Leadership Council — and a not inconsiderable assist from President Bush — have made the Democratic Party the healthiest it has been in the 22 years of the council’s existence. Democrats should thank the group and then tell it that it’s no longer needed.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor for The New Republic.