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The DLC Hits Me Back ... Weakly

A week ago Saturday, I wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that the Democratic Leadership Council had outlived its usefulness, partly because it had already succeeded in re-shaping the Democratic Party, and partly because it seems most interested these days in picking counterproductive fights. Since then, the DLC has posted three responses to my piece on its website (see here, here, and here) and published a letter to the editor. Suffice it to say, the group is not losing influence for lack of effort. As for accuracy and high-mindedness--well, that's another story.

The DLC says it's a mistake to read too much into the decision by the Democratic presidential field to skip its "National Conversation" this year, pointing out that Al Gore skipped the event in 1999 and that the major presidential candidates also sat it out in 2003. (Both Gore and John Kerry appeared at the event once they'd become the party's nominee.) So, fine, let's concede for argument's sake that the year before a presidential election is a lousy time to measure the DLC's strength, given that the Democratic candidates have to court the party's liberal base to win the nomination. Perhaps a more useful benchmark is the number of likely candidates who attend its convention two years out.

By that benchmark, the DLC still appears to be in decline. As my former colleague Ryan Lizza pointed out earlier this year, "In 2002, the National Conversation was a major stop for anyone testing the waters for 2004. Lieberman, Bayh, Daschle, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Mark Warner, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt were all there." What about 2006? The only likely candidates who showed up were Tom Vilsack and Hillary Clinton, both of whom had pre-existing ties to the organization.

DLC chief Al From also complains that I relied on "factual errors and innuendo" to make the case against the DLC. He says my claims about the DLC's opposition to teachers unions, its support of the 2005 bankruptcy bill, and its position on the war are all off-base. Let's take these in order.

On the subject of teachers unions, it's possible, as From says, that I mischaracterized what is a blissfully constructive relationship between the two groups. On the other hand, I doubt the teachers unions consider it constructive when the DLC refers to them as "anti-testing zealots," as it did when denouncing the backlash against No Child Left Behind in 2004.

As for the bankruptcy bill, it's true that the DLC remained neutral during the relevant legislative debate. That's why I never claimed the DLC had officially endorsed this terrible measure. What I wrote was that "a coalition of House members allied with" the DLC had not only supported the bill, but implicitly criticized other Democrats for opposing it. This was almost certainly an understatement. The House New Democrat Coalition isn't just an occasional DLC ally. It was created "to establish an ideological home in the U.S. House of Representatives for the New Democratic movement started by the Democratic Leadership Council," as the DLC website puts it. Representative Ellen Tauscher, a leader of the House New Democrats and a key backer of the bankruptcy bill, was a DLC vice-chair from 2001 until 2005.

To the extent that the DLC can be said to be part of a movement defined by certain core principles and shared goals, the New Democrat Coalition must be considered a part of it as well. I assume that's the reason the DLC lists the coalition on its "New Democrat movement" page.

Finally, From also mischaracterizes my critique of the DLC on the war. I did not accuse the DLC of "blindly supporting the President's position on Iraq," as From alleges. I wrote that the DLC had spent much of 2006 "attacking opponents of the war"--a fight that seemed quaint (to put it mildly) by that point in the Iraq fiasco. Again, this charge is simply undeniable. For example, in the summer of 2006, Marshall Wittmann and Steven Nider, two DLC officials, took to the pages of the Hartford Courant to proclaim that "far too many Democrats view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the nation than Osama bin Laden." Set aside the possibility that this view may be right. The line was clearly intended as an epithet against war opponents.

That said, I will concede, as both From and Time magazine's Joe Klein have pointed out, that the DLC does more than just pick fights with fellow Democrats. As demonstrated by the impressive turnout of local and state-level officials at this year's National Conversation, the DLC has historically played a useful role in furnishing moderate Democrats with intellectual and political infrastructure. And that role has been all the more important given the party's chronic difficulty competing in the South and far West. My response is not to question whether the party benefits from this kind of grassroots effort--it clearly does. It's simply to question whether the DLCers can continue to play this role effectively given the extent to which they've alienated the rest of the party.

In addition to the point I used to frame my op-ed--that the DLC failed to appreciate how the differences between most Democrats and George W. Bush massively overshadowed any differences among Democrats over the last seven years--I think From and the DLC misunderstand two other key features of the party today. First, the interest-group structure that was responsible for some of the party's excesses in the 1970s and '80s has been largely dismantled, thanks partly to the work of the DLC, partly to the way globalization has decimated the manufacturing sector and its unions, and partly to the rise of the netroots. I'm a little ambivalent about these changes, as I wrote in another Times op-ed. But, whatever you think about them, they have pretty big implications for an organization, like the DLC, whose animating goal was to rescue the party from its interest groups. Trying to graft that template onto today's party, as From persists in doing, gets you into all kinds of analytical trouble. For example, it leaves From at a loss to explain why the netroots--which he seems to regard as a kind liberal uber-interest group--would support relatively conservative candidates in conservative districts and more liberal candidates in liberal districts. Traditional interest groups aren't nearly so flexible.

Second, From and others from the DLC fail to see that many liberal positions have become mainstream positions among general-election voters, and that many DLC-type positions have become mainstream positions among liberals. In the piece, I cited support for withdrawing from Iraq as an example of the former. In addition to that, I'd list the anxiety about globalization, anxiety about income inequality, and frustration with the lack of access to affordable health care. As examples of the latter, I'd second the eternally-wise Ed Kilgore, and cite fiscal discipline, as well as an emerging pragmatism on social issues like abortion and guns. The upshot is that there just aren't many intra-party battles that need to be fought these days.

Interestingly, one reason for this center-left synthesis is that a lot of the people who would have self-identified as "New Democrats" in the '90s now consider themselves liberals. These are affluent, educated people who were mostly sympathetic to the Clinton economic agenda, but became radicalized by Bush. I'd put people like Howard Dean and Paul Krugman in this category, as well as bloggers like Atrios.

Obviously the Democratic Party is far from perfect. I'd personally like to see Democratic politicians deal more creatively with globalization and the problem of income inequality. But to be able to address the party's shortcomings, you have to start with a picture of the party as it's configured today, not as it was configured 10 or 15 years ago. The last several years haven't inspired much confidence in the DLC's ability to do that.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.