Party Cannibals

By Perlstein, Rick | The Nation, February 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Party Cannibals


Perlstein, Rick, The Nation


In December the leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council, Al From and Bruce Reed, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about what the Democrats had to do to attract heartland voters ("We need to be the party of Harry Truman and John Kennedy, not Michael Moore"; help "parents protect their children from a coarsening culture"; "expand opportunity for all who are willing to work for it"). Angry letter writers to the Journal just saw two more crypto-Bolsheviks who "cannot resist the impulse to engage in a bit of class warfare," in thrall like all the rest to "special-interest constituenc[ies] such as extreme environmentalists."

On the one hand, it's a sign of the ripening strangeness of the right-wing imagination. On the other, the letters reveal a grain of truth. The DLC is made up of centrists, not conservatives, just as it claims, and that's why the Journal's readers hate it. Let's be generous in one regard: It's fought the Administration on more than a few issues in the past year, from climate change to Social Security reform, honestly and in the open.

Would that it were so honest and in the open when it came to fighting Democrats. The main problem with the DLC is not that its ideology mirrors the Republicans'. It is that its tactics do. At the DLC's annual convention this year, From ("his voice intense with emotion," according to the New York Times) said, "The DLC has saved the Democratic Party once, and we're bound to do it again." As the battle heats up between party centrists and progressives for the February 12 election for Democratic Party chair, a glance at the DLC's history shows that From's definition of "saving" looks a whole lot like that of the field commanders who thought they'd rescue Vietnamese villages by sanctioning their destruction.

Consider what happened in 1995, when the DLC's Progressive Foundation, angry that so few DLC-ers were nominated to high positions in the Clinton Administration and at Clinton's full-on push for universal healthcare, inaugurated something called the "Third Way" project. The DLC's historian, Kenneth Baer, in his book Reinventing Democrats, says, "There is some evidence that this project was to be the beginning of a third party movement." DLC funder Michael Steinhardt even approached a senator to run against Clinton in the 1996 primaries.

It might seem strange that the DLC would cut itself loose from Bill Clinton, the very figure around which it now defines its identity. Par for the course, actually. The DLC claims politicians as its own when it suits it, jettisoning them when it doesn't, all the time and without remorse--just look what happened to Howard Dean.

In fact, the DLC was born in contempt for the decisions of the Democratic Party. In 1984 Walter Mondale's defeat looked inevitable. So Al From chose to exploit the party's moment of maximum vulnerability to maneuver a takeover of the Democratic National Committee. It was only when From and his allies' candidate for DNC chair lost the next year that they took their Trojan horse out into the open. They gave their tendency a name (one sounding close enough to "DNC" to make it seem all but an official party organ) and a public mission: It would serve as the party's vehicle for "ideas, not constituency groups." The idealism was vouchsafed by a $1,000 membership fee, with private retreats with business-friendly pols like Virginia Governor Chuck Robb available for those willing to pay extra cash on the barrelhead.

Behavior like this soon started to smell to other Democrats. So From effected an image makeover. By 1986 the DLC was calling itself a "philosophically diverse group" with no particular ideological interests whatsoever, successfully seducing liberals like Representative Sander Levin of Michigan into membership. …

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