The party is in desperate straits. It has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. It consoles itself with a majority in Congress, but even there its ranks are dwindling. On nearly every issue of national significance—from social affairs to fiscal matters to foreign policy—its positions are increasingly out of step with those of the majority of Americans. Riven by factions, it sometimes seems more like a collection of squabbling interest groups than a coherent political entity. People have started muttering that it might become merely a regional concern, or even go the way of the Whigs and die out.
This is the plight of the Republican Party today. “If we’re being honest,” the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, moped earlier this year, “we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988.” Polls show that the party’s stance on practically every issue is a loser: same-sex marriage, international affairs, immigration, even taxes and the deficit. But this dismal situation was, a quarter century ago, the plight of the Democrats.
In the late 1980s, Democrats were the party of racial quotas, handgun bans, and welfare rights, viewed as soft on crime, weak on communism, and antagonistic to family values. The party’s lone president since 1964, Jimmy Carter, won post-Watergate with just 50 percent of the vote. “You’d look at polls and see that the American public agreed with the Republican Party on every meaningful voting issue,” Bill Andresen, a House Democratic aide at the time, recently recalled. The Democratic brand was so toxic that many of the party’s politicians shunned its liberal national candidates, particularly the 1984 presidential nominee, Walter Mondale. As William Galston, who was Mondale’s issues director, told me, “It was not possible to build a platform long enough that southern Democrats would appear on it while Mondale was at the podium.”
By 1992, all of that was changing, thanks to the Democratic Leadership Council, a policy group that was founded in 1985 with the goal of reorienting the party around more-centrist ideas. The philosophical realignment it achieved was remarkable. Such shifts, political scientists note, generally come only in the wake of national crises. If today’s Republicans are to change course, they could learn from the DLC.
So how did the DLC do it? The group’s first order of business was to force the party to face facts. Of all the Democrats’ many problems in the late 1980s, the biggest was denial. Party activists professed that their nominees were losing not because they were too liberal but because they weren’t liberal enough. Or they said that the party simply had to do a better job of turning out its base of low-income and minority voters. Or that Democrats’ majorities in Congress and governors’ mansions proved the party was still doing fine. Some insisted that voters were being hoodwinked by the charismatic Ronald Reagan, or were just too racist and backward to embrace the righteousness of Democratic positions.
The bottom line of such defenses—that the party did not need fundamental change—echoes today’s future-of-the-GOP argument. The DLC took on such excuses in the time-honored medium of intellectual insurgencies: in 1989, following Michael Dukakis’s defeat by George H. W. Bush, it issued a manifesto. “The Politics of Evasion,” a 20-page paper by Galston (the former Mondale staffer) and Elaine Kamarck (a political scientist and longtime Democratic operative), demonstrated with devastating rigor the flaws in Democratic thinking. Countering the turnout argument, the report cited research showing that Dukakis would have lost even if blacks and the poor had voted at rates far exceeding everyone else. The party’s problem wasn’t electoral mechanics or voter apathy—it was the disdain of mainstream Americans. “Too many,” the authors wrote, “see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
Liberals didn’t take the DLC’s efforts lying down. Union members picketed a DLC convention; activists organized an anti-DLC conference in Washington under the slogan “Because one Republican Party is more than enough”; Jesse Jackson dubbed the group “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” The DLC had initially pursued a “big tent” strategy aimed at winning over Democrats from across the political spectrum. But as Kenneth S. Baer recounts in his book on the council, Reinventing Democrats, the group found itself not standing for anything in particular. The DLC eventually embraced a more confrontational strategy, denouncing the party’s ways at meetings across the country. The process was ugly, the sort of spectacle parties generally go to great lengths to avoid. But these New Democrats, as they called themselves, were serious about change. “Our goal was not to unify the party but to expand it,” Al From, the founder of the DLC (which closed down in 2011), told me recently.