The Agenda

The Misunderstood DLC

Artur Davis observes that the Democratic reformers of the 1980s who paved the way for the Clinton presidency weren’t nearly as unified as we’ve come to believe:

First, the history: for all of the varnished memories of exactly how Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council reframed their party, it was no masterpiece of cohesion around policies or specific goals. To be sure, Clintonian reformers were virtually all free traders and advocates of tougher teacher standards and charter schools. To a person, they thought that welfare was too easy to obtain and even easier to depend upon, which distinguished them from 20 years of liberal rhetoric. But these were relatively small sized pieces of the conversation at the time. On a much larger array of issues, Democratic reformers were all over the map. Some were ardent social liberals, who even then touted gay rights, others were notably sympathetic to the pro life movement and uncomfortable that liberalism verged on being libertarian. Some were anti-affirmative action, just as many thought anti-quota talk made them sound like mini Pat Moynihans (a Democrat, but a liberal scourge for years for his advice that the subject of racial injustice could use a dose of “benign neglect”). Some thought it a priority to readjust Reagan era tax rates to take a bigger chunk from the wealthy, others were self-consciously pro-business (the DLC’s bills were always heavily footed by industry lobbyists) and promoters of corporate rate cuts. One camp embraced comprehensive healthcare reform, another feared it was too costly and smacked of sixtyish redistribution.

There was, in other words, a consensus on a few second tier agenda items, disarray on the hottest subjects in politics, mixed with a strategic instinct about making Democratic political language more middle class friendly, deemphasizing identity based appeals, and there was a fondness for the word “community” without a lot of common ground on what that meant.

Yet, for all of the ambiguity, Democratic reformers in the gap years between Reagan and Clinton mattered a great deal. They introduced thematic arguments that were foreign to the liberal activists who had controlled the Democratic nominating process since 1972: notions like personal obligation, mutual responsibility and the concept that a downsized government could more efficiently promote progressive values, and that all of these principles were not code words for survival of the fittest. And by driving these arguments, DLC style Democrats showed a side of their party that was more attractive to blue collars and suburbanites than the interest group beholden, socially permissive brand of their intra-party rivals.

Artur concludes by arguing that conservative reformers are trying to do something broadly similar — though not always aligned on specific policies, they are united by the view that sluggish income growth and insecurity are vitally important challenges, that government can and should play a role in facilitating upward mobility, and that entrenched inequality in access to high-quality education and medical care poses a threat to social cohesion. There are modest signs that some conservatives, like Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, are interested in finding ways to reconcile the traditional small government concerns associated with the Tea Party movement with a more affirmative, middle-class-friendly agenda. But as Ramesh Ponnuru has observed, congressional Republicans seem intent to chase after bright, shiny objects.

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