Epitaph for the DLC

The DLC didn't kill the New Left, but arguably, it won the future.

With centrism as their lodestar and a bit of seed funding from business, the Democratic Leadership Council launched itself in the mid 1980s. First came a clarion call to fight against populism within the Democratic Party. Founders Al From and Will Marshall believed that Democrats couldn't win the presidency unless they adopted an economic agenda that was more, well, reasonable and less wedded to traditional party constituencies. Also, there was no reason, they also believed, as to why corporations wouldn't contribute money to Democrats who were pro-trade agreements, more skeptical of labor, and less stringent when it came to regulation.  A forward-thinking Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton glommed on to the DLC ... and they glommed on to him, and their relationship consummated in his election to the presidency.

With reports today that the DLC is preparing to fold, the political world, which thinks in terms of wins and losses, will wonder into which bucket the group belongs. On the one hand, many DLC-influenced ideas became reality in the 1990s: a free trade agreement with Mexico, a Democratic President who saw the budget balance,  and welfare reform. From is essentially retired.  Longtime staffer Bruce Reed is now Vice President Biden's Chief of Staff. President Obama addressed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today. The president is pursuing spending cuts and free trade agreements. (Read this speech by candidate Clinton in 1991. It may found familiar.)

On the other hand, the DLC became a hobgoblin and a whole new cadre of wealthy donors and younger activists came to view it as an interloper. Democrats in Congress grew fearful of trade when the short term ramifications in their districts  became clear. By 2004, the DLC was more of a useful foil for liberals than a seed bed for policy. By 2008, corporate America was ready to fund the presidential election of a Democrat without the DLC's help.

There's truth in both accounts. Maybe the zero sum assessment of their impact doesn't do justice to the Weltanschauung of the group. For one thing, From and Reed dominated the DLC and their personalities influences its direction as much as anything else. Without them, the DLC really doesn't do much.

For another, their success as ideological entrepreneurs allowed other groups to spring up in their place. Third Way, founded by ex-Clinton administration veterans, was savvier at media, more open in terms of how it developed policy and less deliberately confrontational with the left.  Third Way's budget for 2011 is $7.5 million, according to Matt Bennett, one of its top staffers. A much larger group, the Center for American Progress, is now the leading generator of center-left Democratic ideas, and it has the brand and money to attract the brightest Democratic talent.

More prosaically, the DLC did something in 2006 to permanently alienate them from virtually the entire party: they endorsed Joe Lieberman's re-election bid. Lieberman's stalwart support for the war in Iraq and for President Bush was just about the biggest sin of all to Democrats of the era. Some issues are zero sum, and the DLC found itself on the wrong side of history, as least as far as the Democratic Party was concerned.

There are two other factors worth mentioning. One was that Big Labor became all the more important to helping Democrats get out the vote, and that made it more difficult for Democrats to affiliate with the DLC. The second was that the Netroots -- Atrios and Daily Kos and Chris Bowers -- thought the DLC's "centrism" was equivalent to the politics of concession and compromise.

No question: the Netroots and progressive left are at the center of gravity for the Democratic Party as an institution. There is a distinction, though, between energy and influence. And it still isn't clear how Democrats win the election without galvanizing the type of voters the DLC sought to attract. The group may be going away, but debates about its ideas will dominate politics for a long time to come.

UPDATE: DLC co-founder Al From sends along this statement:

"With its CEO Bruce Reed joining the Administration, the DLC Board of Directors has decided to suspend operations while it considers what the next phase of the DLC will be.   The issues the DLC has championed continue to be vital to our country and the DLC will continue to impact them in its next phase. The Democratic Leadership Council has had an historic impact on American politics over the past 25 years.  We're convinced that it will continue to have that impact in the future."