Centrists Win As The DLC Loses

Writing in The New York Times, Noam Schieber has an op-ed entitled The Centrists Didn’t Hold. He discusses the DLC, equating the organization with centrists beliefs. He offers a good run down of the conditions which briefly made the DLC an organization with influence among Democrats:

Before the Clinton presidency, the leadership council’s critique of the Democratic Party had merit. Many voters emerged from the 1970s and early ’80s deeply skeptical of liberalism. As Mr. Clinton put it in his 1991 speech, people who once voted for the Democrats no longer “trusted us in national elections to defend our national interest abroad, to put their values in our social policy at home or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.”

The council grew out of frustration with Walter Mondale’s crushing 1984 defeat. Mr. Mondale had maneuvered to win the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s endorsement during the Democratic primaries, but his victory was pyrrhic. The endorsement solidified Mr. Mondale’s reputation as the candidate of special interests. In order to shake the label, Mr. Mondale proposed raising taxes to cut the deficit, which only worsened his image among swing voters.

During the 1980s and ’90s, the council played a vital role in curbing both the perception and the reality of liberal excess inside the Democratic Party, and its efforts paved the way for Mr. Clinton’s ascendance. The council’s medicine worked. The centrist wing of the party won important battles on welfare reform, crime and the budget. By the late ’90s, Americans trusted Democrats to run the economy and keep their neighborhoods safe.

The DLC’s fortunes declined when they no longer had Bill Clinton in the White House. Instead we had greater unity among Democrats as “George W. Bush taught Democrats of all stripes that their differences with one another were minor compared with the differences between them and Republicans.”

Today the DLC has little support and Democratic candidates are ignoring their meeting. This should not be confused with a decline in economic centricism. The DLC lost its credibility because of taking the wrong side on major issues. The war and the reaction to George Bush’s war on freedom (or war on terrorism as conservatives like to call it) separated the DLC from both the left and many former centrist Democrats. Economic centrists such as Howard Dean and John Kerry drifted from the DLC as they stressed opposition to the war, and such opposition to the war replaced economics in dividing between left and liberal. For a time, even a moderate such as Dean was considered  far left for opposing the war. Today, opposition to the war has become the mainstream, centrist view, leaving the DLC even further out in the wilderness.

Schieber mentions Iraq, but stresses the bankruptcy bill as an issue in which the DLC’s views differed from most Democrats. Despite taking the liberal side on this issue, he also notes that the party continued to embrace some centrist economic ideas:

In an implicit rebuke to their Democratic colleagues, these New Democrats declared their support for the bill “as champions of both personal and fiscal responsibility.”

But Democrats had by this point done much to establish themselves as proponents of “personal and fiscal responsibility.” They were in no danger of trashing the party’s post-Clinton reputation.

The problem isn’t that centrist ideas didn’t hold, but that the DLC moved to the right while the center changed. As the Republicans have moved to the extreme right, the Democrats have taken over the center both by the worthwhile changes in attitude brought about by the DLC and because Democratic ideas on issues such as the war and health care now represent the majority, middle of the road views. Centrist ideas have won, while the DLC has lost due to move to the right.

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    Howard Wolfson, Jr. says:


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