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Dear Reform Conservatives, You're Doing It Wrong

A veteran of the New Democrat movement shares some advice


Dear Conservative Reformers,

I've been pleased to watch your efforts to remake the Republican Party and, perhaps, the conservative movement. I've been reading your columns and essays in in the National Review and New York Times,  among other places. I’ve also taken a look at your new book, Room To Grow. I gather you want the GOP to be more practical—to realize that some of its positions are out of touch with most voters and to stop demanding ideological purity on policy. You also worry that the Republican establishment has gotten too close to big business, while losing touch with the middle class. These seem like sensible impulses to me.

But you must be a little anxious, too. Changing a political party and movement from within isn’t easy. 

I know this as well as anybody. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was policy director at an organization called the Democratic Leadership Council. If you know your political history, then you know that the DLC—and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute—spearheaded an effort to reposition the Democratic Party, much as you say you wish to reposition the Republican Party now.

Looking back, I believe the New Democrats, as we called ourselves, did some good things that shook our party out of intellectual and political lethargy. We also made some mistakes, substantive and political, that I regret to this day. 

You haven’t asked for my advice, I know. And you may doubt my motives. But a constructive, lively debate between the parties makes for a better democracy. Right now the cultural extremism and anti-government absolutism that has increasingly taken hold the Republican Party makes that impossible. In short, I want you to succeed—and I’m worried you won’t.

Here, then, are a few pointers:

1. Make enemies and pick fights.  The Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel recently attacked Room to Grow. Great! But that sort of open hostility from fellow conservatives has been rare. That’s a bad sign. 

New Democrats were constantly under attack, from national leaders like Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean to much of the early Left Blogosphere.  There are enough sharp edges in the Reform Conservative message to cause some howls. Many of you have called for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and some have even made a big deal about extending unemployment insurance, albeit with reforms. Within the GOP, that’s borderline heresy these days. You should start fights over these and other issues, and articulate the bedrock heresy that you believe the government--yes, even the federal government--has a legitimate positive role in national life, and always will. 

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If established powers within your party don’t feel sufficiently threatened to strike back at you, then you’re not relevant enough to force a change. 

2. Recruit some true believers.  In 1988 three of the DLC’s founders—Dick Gephardt, Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt—sought the Democratic presidential nomination.  But none of them ran as DLC-style party reformers. And none of them won. 

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president with the DLC serving as one of his primary bases of support, and utilized a coherent message right out of the DLC playbook.  He won.  He hadn’t run purely on New Democrat ideas. He blended the approach with more traditional liberalism. But Clinton’s embrace was enough to give the DLC a very long lease on life. (It finally closed its doors in 2011.) And a few ideas that the DLC championed, like work-based welfare reform, national service, community policing, and trade expansion, became law.

It’s not just a matter of picking the right horse, by the way. You need a horse who is willing to wear your colors and actually shares your thinking.  Only presidents really succeed in reforming parties.  If you don’t play a visible part in electing and advising a president, you probably aren’t going to be a visible partner in reforming the Republican Party.  Get used to it. 

3. Stop ducking the hard issues. Perhaps the most troubling thing to me about Room To Grow is that it avoided immigration, as well as foreign and defense policy. These are critical issues, obviously, and talking about them will expose cavernous divisions within the GOP. This is exactly what you should be doing.

Yes, I know you rationalized these omissions by saying that economic policy is what Republicans most need to get right. And, sure, you may be internally divided on these issues.  That’s why they are difficult.

But in terms of political relevance, party “reform” movements derive most of their influence and media presence when they squarely confront their party’s most difficult issues and offer fresh approaches. 

It’s no accident that one of the New Democrats’ most influential early contributions was Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s The Politics of Evasion, published by PPI, which indicted Democrats’ unwillingness to come to grips with “Republican issues” like national security and fiscal management.  And it’s no accident that Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 message emphasized items like welfare reform, national service and reinventing government that addressed areas of long-standing Democratic weakness. 

4. Be wary of alliances with unprincipled elites--or with mass movements that don’t share your values.  If I understand you correctly, you think you are champions of middle-class Americans whose interests have been sacrificed to wealthy privilege-seeking elites.  That’s exactly how the early DLC perceived itself. Back then, we called for a Democratic Party reconnected with the “economic aspirations and cultural values of the middle class.” The DLC was also a very early popularizer and demonizer of “corporate welfare” in the federal budget and tax code, and frequently upset would-be corporate supporters with policy ideas like cap-and-trade. 

But partly out of irrational exuberance for the New Economy, we New Democrats let ourselves be seduced into support for a deregulatory agenda for the tech and financial sector—an alliance that forever tainted our progressive credentials, and more importantly, contributed to the disastrous end-game of the Bush administration. 

Looking back on it, I barely remember moments like the repeal of Glass-Steagall. But it turned out to be a memorable concession to terrible policy.  Beware making casual alliances with elites in your party who may offer you subjectively important support for your priorities, but only at the cost of your principles. Or, to put it more bluntly, stay away from money and power brokers who don’t share your interest in putting distance between the party and the business establishment.

Conversely, you may be tempted to position yourself as the intellectual vanguard for a mass movement--in your case, the Tea Party movement--that doesn’t share your principles, either.  New Democrats had a version of that problem. We frequently cooperated with “Blue Dogs” who were not really interested in reforming liberalism or creating some kind of new “Third Way.” They were simply more conservative and wanted to pull the Democrat Party to the right. (In the end, many abandoned the party altogether for the GOP.) That earned us a lot of grief from other Democrats. It also led to some notorious sell-outs, most notably on the Bush tax cuts, which the DLC excoriated even as a lot of “our” elected officials voted for them.

Reform Conservatives need to be very careful about their relationship with a Tea Party Movement that not only eschews “reform” of the federal government in favor of its demolition, but will cynically use reform proposals—particularly those that undermine the structure of New Deal and Great Society programs or simply defer to the states—as way stations back to the 1920s.  Anything you can do to insist on a coherent approach to issues and challenge “populists” to adopt a real governing agenda will help make sure you don’t become the Mensheviks of the conservative movement. 

* * * 

My final thought is that however you weigh its strengths and weaknesses, the New Democrat movement did fulfill its prime objective of helping elect a Democratic president when the future did not look bright for the Donkey Party. We also contributed to the policy legacy that made it possible for Al Gore to win the popular vote in 2000, and Barack Obama to be elected and re-elected.  With all due respect, you have a long way to go before your record, and with it your virtues and vices, can be compared to ours. Good luck.