Who Will Be The Republican Al From?

Tonight there will be one of those lavish Washington tributes. Speeches, toasts, gentle ribbing and fulsome praise--they'll all be on display at the Mellon Auditorium when Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, retires. David Paul Kuhn has a smart piece today about how the Netroots and From's DLC have more in common than either realize. I'd add a few points.

The DLC still offers the best model for Republicans. It's hard to remember now how moribund the Democrats were in 1985 when the DLC was founded. Yes, the party still held both chambers of Congress. But after the Reagan-Mondale 49-1 state blowout, the party was at its modern nadir. Like today's Republicans, there were no lack of deniers who thought the only thing that ailed the party was a lack of communications skills. From, a former aide to Rep. Gillis Long, knew better. The Democrats needed to find a way to adhere to progressive values but be more flexible about their means. For those of us who toiled at journals like The Washington Monthly and The New Republic, who had seen the hopes for "new ideas" raised and dashed in Gary Hart's Pyrrhic victory in the 1984 New Hampshire primary, the DLC offered hope even if in its first manifestations it seemed to live up to Jesse Jackson's moniker as the Democratic Leisure Class. In time, though, the organization became a powerful force for ideas and organizing. The DLC's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, became an important force for ideas like national service, defense reform, welfare reform, and other causes that were central to the Democratic comeback. The intimate connection between Bill Clinton and the DLC that he once chaired is well known. The two boosted each other. Some of the lynchpins of the relationship are well known. Bruce Reed was an architect of Clinton domestic policy. Rahm Emanuel moved easily between both worlds. The Democrats rebuilt because From understood what the party needed.

It's not that the DLC didn't make mistakes. Long after the old-new Democratic split seemed increasingly spurious, the DLC seemed less relevant. It never glommed on to the small-donor, grassroots world of the Internet the way other organizaitons did. But it was and remains central to the Democratic firmament.

It's interesting to note that 1985 saw the founding of two other groups--Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Jackson's group was the least influential, an extension of his already manifestly large ego. The Christian Coalition seemed transformative for awhile, but today's it's a shadow of its former self, eclipsed by other groups on the Christian right. The DLC may be at the apex of its influence in the way it was during the Clinton era when a Democratic president boasted of his connections to the group. (And is it any surprise that Clinton, a pol who rose in the Reagan 80s in a Southern state found common cause with the DLC in a way that Barack Obama of Chicago, in the 21st century, didn't?) 

As the Democratic Party became an anti Iraq war party, the DLC lost much of its cache. Joe Lieberman had been so closely aligned with the DLC that the campaigns against him--first in Connecticut and then in the Senate to strip him of his chairmanship--became wars against the DLC, too. But the DLC wasn't just Joe Lieberman's clubhouse. It had become a church with many denominations and adherents. In his quest to break out of the stale politics of left and right, Obama became an important messenger of the DLC creed even if he never embraced the organization.

So tonight, as the glasses clink, it's worth asking: who is the Republican Al From? Who understands the GOP has more than a perception problem and will try to rebuild it? And can that have as much luck and good fortune as befell From?

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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