Democratic Congressional standings after elections since the establishment of the Democratic Leadership Council (click to enlarge)
Apart from the election of Bill Clinton — the DLC’s been a failure since its inception 20 years ago. Part of its tack-to-the-center rhetoric has been its own distancing from liberals. And by “distancing,” I mean denigrating liberals in exactly the same ways that conservatives do.
In his dedication address at his Presidential Library today, Bill Clinton had this to say (text is my own transcript of the C-SPAN video, emphasis added):
America has two great strands of political thought. We’re represented up here on this stage. Conservatism, which at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which at its very best, breaks down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place.
It seemed to me that in 1992 we needed to do both to prepare America for the 21st century. To be more conservative in things like erasing the deficit, and paying down the debt, and preventing crime, and punishing criminals, and protecting and supporting families, and enforcing things like child support laws, and reforming the military to meet the new challenges of the 21st century. And we needed to be more progressive in creating new jobs, reducing poverty, increasing the quality of public education, opening the doors of college to all, increasing access to health care, investing more in science and technology, and building new alliances with our former adversaries, and working for peace across the world and peace in America across all the lines that divide us.
Clinton and the DLC ceded the deficit, debt, crime, family, and military issues to the conservatives. This, despite the fact that at the time he came into office, the national debt had been run up by the Reagan and Bush I Administrations, the economy was thready, people like Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were closing bases across the nation, and families all over the country were in trouble. But people like Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and others either believed that liberals were soft on crime, anti-family, anti-military, spendthrifts or they cynically used that tactic to get themselves elected.
Unfortunately for everyone else, their strategy doesn’t work. Let’s look at the evidence.
The DLC was founded in the mid-1980s, ostensibly as a response to the losses of presidential candidates like Midwestern “wimps” George McGovern (South Dakotan, WWII B-24 bomber pilot and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient) and Walter Mondale (Minnesotan, who served in the Army stateside during the Korean War). Has it been effective?
Presidents. So far, the only person the DLC has managed to get into the White House is Bill Clinton, one of its former chairs. But it’s hard to tell from one seat that’s only come up five times since its inception. A 40% average isn’t bad, but the sample’s really too small.
Senators. The 2004 election is an indicator that the DLC’s Third Way isn’t exactly wowing anyone at the polls. All of the Senate seats have come up at least two times since the DLC started up, for a total of about 230 elections. To paraphrase Ed Koch: “How are they doin’?” Well, in the 98th Congress (1983-1985), the Democrats started out in the minority with 46 seats. Now, the Democrats have 44. They haven’t had a real majority since 1994, the first mid-term after DLCer Clinton took office. From the 100th to the 103rd Congress, Democrats had a lead in the Senate equal to or greater than that of the Republicans now, but Reagan and Bush were in the White House. At best, the DLC can claim that its effect has been negligable overall.
Representatives. This is where — if the DLC has done any good for the party — it should show up in the numbers. Nearly 4,000 House contests have taken place since the 1986 elections. When the DLC willed itself into existence, Democrats regularly had between 250 and 270 members in the House, about 120% of what you need for a majority. After the Gingerich Contract with America debacle (again, the first mid-term of Clinton’s presidency), that number dropped to 204. It’s flirted briefly with the number needed for a House majority (218), but this Congress it’s back at 204. Two decades of DLC “leadership” have resulted in a 20% overall loss in the number of seats in the House.
The DLC’s Third Way has been a failure almost from the beginning. It’s going to continue to be a failure because people like DLC President Bruce Reed have only one strategy, which is to become more like the Republicans. They’ve been trying that for nearly twenty years.
No number of Reed’s exhortations “to speak the rich language of faith” is going to help candidates sway religious voters in and of itself. No attempt to “crack the cultural code” of voters is going to allow a candidate to finesse positions that don’t adhere to that code unless they lie. And nobody lies better than the Republicans. It’s never going to be a winning strategy for the Democrats. A Democratic Fourth Way needs to be willing to tell the truth to people.