Does the Center Hold?

A decade ago, if someone had told the president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Al From, that Al Gore would be heading up the Democratic ticket in the year 2000, he would have thought the DLC millennium had truly arrived. Today, though, it's not so clear. Gore's support for free trade, welfare reform, and what some consider balanced-budget fetishism makes him seem like a DLC-style New Democrat. But some in the DLC are not so sure; and perhaps with good reason.

It's easy to overlook how much the second Clinton-Gore administration, even in its more centrist moments, has already departed from DLC orthodoxies. Consider a few examples:

What used to be called "entitlement reform" has always been a central goal of the DLC. The Council favors retrenchment, means testing, and, more recently, partial privatization when it comes to Social Security and Medicare. The administration has sought to buttress these programs with new general-revenue funds while maintaining their current universal structure. Since late 1997, it has reaffirmed a hard line against any form of Social Security privatization. Likewise, though in a more muddled fashion, it rejected DLC-supported Medicare reform proposals. In the political battles of the late 1990s, few lines were drawn so clearly in the sand, and few caused so many rankled feelings at DLC headquarters.

The administration and the DLC have also broken ranks on race. Despite some rhetorical glosses ("mend it, don't end it"), both Clinton and Gore clearly support affirmative action even if the courts and various state referenda have diminished the impact of that stance. The DLC never opposed affirmative action in the militant, grasping manner of conservative Republicans. But a principled opposition to preferences has long been a staple of the DLC policy canon, and to a significant degree it remains so.

Gay rights is a less clear-cut case since both the administration and the DLC have, like the country in general, shifted toward greater tolerance of homosexuality over the past decade. While the DLC was never hostile to gay rights per se, it was basic to the DLC mission to pursue a politics that hewed closely to "mainstream" values and consciously avoided aligning itself with "counterculture" or identity politics. Clinton and Gore were perhaps not as cautious as the DLC would have wished.

Certainly there are continuing disagreements between liberals and moderates over trade, poverty, and fiscal policy. But back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a "DLC Democrat" who broke with the organization on race and on Social Security and Medicare reform would scarcely have been a DLC candidate at all.

Moreover, there are political differences between Gore and the DLC that are even more marked than the policy ones. The central premise of DLC electoral strategy has long been that Democrats should win their majorities in the moderate suburbs with a broad message rather than cobbling together the votes of various base constituencies. This difference burst briefly into the open earlier in the campaign when Gore 2000 campaign manager Donna Brazile told The Washington Post, "The four pillars of the Democratic Party are African Americans, labor, women and what I call other ethnic minorities." She was slammed by the DLC.

Clinton and Gore have courted the suburbs, but there has also been an aggressive cultivation of core constituencies such as labor and minorities. If anything, the Democratic Party of the 1990s has relied even more heavily on African-American votes than it did previously. Labor unions, too, have been critical, for both their votes and their financial resources. And though the ballot-box strength of gays is difficult to ascertain, that group has become a key fundraising source for Democrats across the country.

Moreover, the DLC's original regional strategy no longer holds. Though Democrats made an impressive rebound in southern gubernatorial elections in 1998, and they appear poised to recapture House seats there this year, the notion that the party's presidential prospects rest with reasserting strength in the South has been all but abandoned. None now doubt that the Democrats are a party of the West Coast, the Northeast, and the industrial Midwest.

The point isn't that Clinton and Gore have become liberals; it's that the Clinton-Gore style of New Democrat, as it has evolved over the past eight years, is quite different from the pure DLC variety. Having co-opted New Democrat themes in areas large segments of the public support--disciplined fiscal policy, welfare reform, and more hawkish stances on defense and crime--Clinton and Gore have, in turn, jettisoned the positions liberals and most of the electorate have never much liked, such as privatization and opposition to minimum wage hikes. If Gore were to lose, the DLC's raison d'être as the upholder of the centrist policy agenda within the Democratic Party would be magnified as the party itself would move to the left. But if Gore wins and the DLC's differences with the Gore administration are limited to these less popular positions, the council's salience as an institution will likely be diminished. Liberals may never be satisfied with the Gore-Lieberman agenda, but the DLCers may not be either. ¤