A movie pick for Republicans frantically trying to figure out how to revive what remains of the Grand Old Party now that Donald Trump has thrown it into the hole it dug for itself: Crashing the Party.
That’s the new documentary, debuting at the Annapolis Film Festival on April 2, about how an “entrepreneurial insurgent operation,” the Democratic Leadership Council, brought the party back to the White House in 1992 after it had lost five of the last six contests. (Full disclosure: As a reporter for Newsweek, I covered these events and I was interviewed for the film.)
Running as a “New Democrat,” Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won back the working-class white voters dubbed Reagan Democrats by defying liberal orthodoxy and offering a pro-business, trade-friendly agenda while promising (more on this in a moment) to “end welfare as we know it” and put 100,000 cops on the streets.
Before Clinton, “we were out of power, out of ideas, completely out of touch with the country,” says Al From, who founded the DLC in 1985 after Walter Mondale’s crushing 49-state loss to Ronald Reagan.
So why should Republicans watch? Every step the DLC took can be replicated by a band of insurgents within the GOP when the party finally hits bottom. It’s an arc that resembles addiction recovery, and the first step is simply telling the truth—that your party has lost touch with the voters it seeks to represent.
“Until you understand why you’re losing, it’s hard to put together a strategy on how to win,” says Elaine Kamarck, a DLC ally who appears in the film, and is now with Brookings.
Second, dispense with the myth that if only you could mobilize more of your voters, victory would be at hand, as Trump suggests when he regularly invokes a 90-year-old woman he says he met on the campaign trail who will be voting for the first time. There aren’t millions of disgruntled white voters who are going to flock to the polls.
Third, block out the siren song of ideology that’s a recurring theme within both parties. If only the Democrat had been more liberal, or the Republican more conservative. If Ted Cruz somehow claims the party’s nomination, his hard-line conservatism would be a wake-up call about the limits of that philosophy’s appeal.
Fourth, tune out what Kamarck calls the myth of Congress. Some Republicans have begun to tell themselves that losing the White House isn’t so bad as long as they keep their strong majority in the House and retain control of the Senate.
Not true for the Democrats back then, she says, or the GOP today, for that matter, because the trends causing the party to lose the White House eventually catch up to their congressional seats, as when Democrats lost the House in 1994 after a 40-year reign.
Finally, Republicans will have to come to the same realization that Democrats did when they were all but exiled from the White House—that ideas matter, and a party that isn’t offering a credible alternative is not going to win votes.
Clinton chaired the DLC the year before he announced for president, traveling the country on issue-themed trips that laid the groundwork for his candidacy and finally won the presidency on a platform of DLC ideas that he says were part of his DNA. “I felt I might never have made it if I didn’t have Al From,” he says.
That bedrock of ideas helped him survive what From euphemistically calls in the film “a few unanticipated occurrences” involving marital infidelity and draft avoidance that would have ended a less prepared candidate’s campaign.
The Democrats emerged victorious and united (victory has a way of uniting), but getting there was tumultuous. Clinton and the DLC were at odds with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had run for president in ’84 and ’88, and who referred to the DLC as Democrats for the Leisure Class.
Interviewed in the film, Jackson says he regarded the group’s commitment to equal opportunity but not to equal outcomes as a “back-handed slap at affirmative action.” They didn’t invite him to speak at their convention, which he described as private, invitation-only, no labor, no blacks.
Al From and his closest colleagues, Will Marshall and Bruce Reed, were often derided as the Southern White Boys Caucus, and that added to the tension with Jackson when Clinton spoke out against a young black woman rapper, Sister Souljah, who’d appeared at an event Jackson had organized after giving an interview where she talked about killing cops. The episode is remembered for its symbolic power in distancing the New Democrats from the Jackson wing of the party and the perceived excesses of liberalism.
In the film, Clinton calls Jackson a good friend and says “a lot of this is theater.” Jackson doesn’t seem quite so forgiving; the exclusion still stings. Kamarck says candidly, “That tension served us.”
What would be the equivalent “Sister Souljah moment” on the Republican side?
Give the devil his due, Trump has done some of it in defying big donors and channeling the anger of voters who feel their voices are not heard. But he’s more problem than solution.
Al From and his band of brothers called themselves the cavalry. Don’t change parties, they said, join our campaign to change the party from within, and that message took hold.
For Republicans today intent on “saving” their party from Trump, insurgent reform from within based on ideas is the road less traveled, at least for now.