Recruiting Bill Clinton

How the New Democrats recruited a leader and saved the party after three devastating Republican routs
President Bill Clinton salutes as Al From looks on at a 2000 DLC conference in San Jose, California. (Reuters)

In the aftermath of the 1988 presidential election, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the American people weren’t buying what the Democrats were selling. If Democrats wanted to begin winning national elections again, we needed to stand for ideas and beliefs that the American people would support.

We had learned a hard lesson in the last presidential cycle. For all the good things we did between 1985 and the end of 1987, when we got into the presidential year of 1988, it was much like the presidential years of previous cycles. Those of us who wanted to see a different kind of Democratic Party were disappointed.

To bring about real change in the Democratic Party, the Democratic Leadership Conference, which we had founded in 1985 to expand the party's base and appeal to moderates and liberals—had to become a national political movement. That required two things.

First, we needed an intellectual center, because without a candidate to rally around, we needed a set of compelling ideas. Just as it was clear that we needed to paint the mural, it was also clear that we needed to beef up our capacity to paint it. We needed more substantive help. We needed a political think tank with the capacity to develop politically potent, substantive ideas that our elected officials and political supporters could embrace. In January 1989, we created the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

The second thing that we needed was to recognize that all knowledge did not reside in Washington. To reach out across the country for ideas and support, we had already begun organizing state DLC chapters. And by the middle of 1992, we had a presence in every state and DLC chapters in half of them, with more than 750 elected officials and thousands of rank and file members. PPI and state chapters gave the DLC critical weapons for the battle to change our party. But we still needed a battle plan.

So we looked at the results of the last six presidential elections to determine why the Democrats had lost.

We discovered that we were losing because middle-class voters, voters at the heart of the electorate, had voted Republican in 1988 by a 5-4 margin. The reason was that they did not trust Democrats to handle the issues they cared about most. In a Time magazine survey a week before the election, voters said that Republicans would do a better job than Democrats of maintaining a strong defense by 65–22; of keeping the economy strong by 55–33; of keeping inflation under control by 51–29; and, of curbing crime by 49–32. Those were the issues that drove presidential elections, and until the perception on them changed, Democrats simply were not going to be competitive.

Armed with this knowledge, we launched a four-part strategy to change the Democratic Party.

Phase one was reality therapy. We believed that Democrats needed to face the reality of why we had lost three presidential elections in a row by landslides so they would not repeat their mistakes for a fourth straight time. So we would tell them.

Second, we had to articulate a clear philosophy, a simple philosophical statement that told voters what we stood for.

Phase three was the development of substantive ideas that made up a governing agenda. That’s why we needed the PPI.

But even having the philosophy, and the governing agenda, in hand, we still stood to be disappointed in the 1992 election as we were in 1988 if we didn’t have a candidate espousing the DLC philosophy as the nominee. Like it or not, a political party is defined by its presidential candidate. So our philosophy and ideas had to pass the market test, and this was phase four of our strategy. In our system, a market test can only come in the presidential primaries, so we needed to find a candidate.


A little after four o’clock on the afternoon of April 6, 1989, I walked into the office of Governor Bill Clinton on the second floor of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.

“I’ve got a deal for you,” I told Clinton after a few minutes of political chitchat. “If you agree to become chairman of the DLC, we’ll pay for your travel around the country, we’ll work together on an agenda, and I think you’ll be president one day and we’ll both be important.” With that proposition, Clinton agreed to become chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, and our partnership was born. With Clinton as its leader, the New Democrat movement that sprung from the DLC over the next decade would change the course of the Democratic Party in the United States and of progressive center-left parties around the world.

The idea of forging a new agenda for 1992 particularly appealed to him. I’m convinced that after he decided against entering the presidential race in 1988, he concluded that the most important thing about running for that office was knowing what you’re going to do for the American people.

We talked for a few more minutes about what our agenda might include. We agreed that the Democratic Party had to modernize and reestablish its sense of national purpose, and that it was important for the party to get on the right side of the security issue. Then he called in a couple of members of the Arkansas legislature to meet me and suggested I join him and a few of his staff members for a drink at a local hangout.

Ever since Clinton had told Chuck Robb in 1987 that he was open to taking the DLC chairmanship, he was my first choice to succeed Sam Nunn. After hearing the response to his speech the year before in Williamsburg and watching him captivate the audience the previous month at the DLC meeting in Philadelphia, I was convinced that he was the best political talent I had ever seen.

But political skill was just one of several reasons I was so determined to make Clinton the next DLC chairman. He was a reform governor and understood the importance of innovative ideas to political success. As he would say in his inaugural speech as DLC chairman, “In the end, any political resurgence for the Democrats depends on the intellectual resurgence of our party. There’s far too much talk about personality in politics and far too little about what we’re going to say and do to make sense to the American people.” Clinton loved to talk about ideas, and he had a striking ability to explain the most complicated concepts clearly.

He was not afraid to challenge old orthodoxies. In the early 1980s, long before I knew him, he and Hillary Clinton pushed cutting-edge education reforms, like pay for performance and public-school choice, against the opposition of the powerful Arkansas Education Association. Speaking about education in his Philadelphia speech, Clinton said the Democratic Party was “good at doing more. We are not so good at doing things differently, and doing them better, particularly when we have to attack the established ideas and forces which have been good to us and close to us. We are prone, I think, to programmatic solutions as against those which change structure, reassert basic values or make individual connections with children.”

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Al From is the founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

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