The Democratic Leadership Council — a group of centrists that dominated politics during the Clinton presidency but is laboring to remain relevant in the Obama era — is on the brink of a major shake-up.
Al From, the DLC’s founder and leader since its creation 24 years ago this month, said he plans to step down within the next couple of months, handing the chief executive reins to his longtime protégé, Bruce Reed.
At the same time, the Progressive Policy Institute, an influential think tank closely affiliated with the DLC, will soon part ways with the council. Will Marshall, who heads the think tank, said the recent Democratic electoral gains and a massive new agenda being pushed by the Obama administration “require us to think anew.”
The upheaval at the DLC is a striking sign of the political times. Under From, the group was always controversial — making its name during the ’80s and ’90s with stark warnings that traditional, interest-group liberals were threatening to turn the Democratic Party into a permanent minority party.
The DLC’s apogee came when one of its chairmen, none other than Bill Clinton, ascended to the White House, bringing Reed to the West Wing and enacting free-trade agreements, anti-crime laws and, above all, welfare reform — all pillars of a "new Democrat" agenda.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson once derided the group as “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” As recently as 2004, then-presidential candidate Howard Dean said the DLC, with whom he clashed over the group’s backing of the Iraq war and other issues, was “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.” The liberal Daily Kos blog once vowed to “make the DLC radioactive.”
From always relished the conflicts. Lately, though, the challenge has not been high-profile intramural quarrels so much as obscurity. Barack Obama ascended to the presidency without much debate over whether he was a “new” or “old” Democrat and did not seem much interested in the DLC — spurning the precedent of Clinton and other candidates and not appearing before the group’s annual conventions.
Reed, a close friend of and one-time co-author with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, said he plans to run a leaner organization focused less on internal party battles and more on “post-partisan” policy ideas.
“We want to get out of the political advice business and focus on the ideas that will help the [Obama] administration succeed,” Reed said.
From called this new focus appropriate. The reason the old Clinton era battles in which the DLC specialized may seem obsolete, From contended, is that his side won.
When the group was founded, drawing its membership largely from disaffected Southern Democrats appalled by Walter F. Mondale’s losing 1984 campaign, From said he believed “the Democratic Party had become disconnected” from middle-class voters “who went to work every day and played by the rules.”
Now, he said, the party is focused around these voters and has electoral wins, from Clinton to Obama, to show for it.
From, who turns 66 in May, asserted, “What I set out to do at the DLC has largely been achieved.”
Bill Clinton, in a statement to POLITICO, seemed to endorse this idea.
“For 25 years, Al From has urged the Democratic Party to be the party of ideas and of ‘the dynamic center,’ rooted in the values of opportunity, responsibility and community,” Clinton said, adding, “Those ideas helped me win in 1992 and govern for eight years. ... By helping to modernize our government for the 21st century and cultivating young leaders with new ideas in every state, Al From has made invaluable contributions to the Democratic Party’s success and America’s future.”
By some measures, he DLC’s reach remains exceptional. The people in the new administration who have been affiliated or worked closely with the DLC include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Emanuel, White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Kathleen Sebelius.
Still, the animating ideas that founded the DLC are, by some lights, anachronisms in the Obama presidency — leaving competition for who will be the dominant political and policy incubator for centrist Democrats.
Many DLC and PPI employees, uncertain of the future, have put themselves on the job market in recent days, according to Democratic sources.
One Democratic operative who has worked closely with From said Thursday’s moves represent “the end of the DLC/PPI as we knew it.” In any event, it is a generational turning.
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, which also promotes centrist Democrats, praised From and Bill Clinton as leaders of a “first wave” of reformers.
“Their task was largely defensive, pushing back on the Mondale-style excess of the 1980s,” Bennett said.
Their success helped make Obama’s victory and majority control in Congress possible, Bennett said, even as a “new generation” is no longer satisfied with defensive politics: “This second wave is seeking broader, transformational change.”
Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who has been active with both the DLC and Third Way, agreed that such issues as health care and global warming demand big efforts by government, but ones entirely consistent with From’s philosophy.
“When I think of being a centrist, I think of following what works: not liberal or not conservative but pragmatic,” Carper said.
Don Baer, a White House communications director under Clinton, said this attitude used to be less common among Democrats and called From “one of the great heroes of American politics during the last quarter-century.
“His dedication to principles and finding a new way to modernize progressive government — along with his rambunctious spirit — contributed in a big way to saving the Democratic Party,” Baer said.