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.