Stage Left

Al From, Architect of Democrats’ Comeback in the ‘90s, Welcomes the Populists

The battle is on within the Democratic Party over whether a newly emboldened and resurgent left threatens the carefully cultivated centrist brand Bill Clinton rode to the White House, and which helped elect Barack Obama. Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) credited with bringing the Democratic Party back into the mainstream, said in an interview that he’s not worried about the party damaging its brand and losing electoral strength as it embraces a more populist message focused on economic inequality.

“Back in ’92 I might have looked at it differently, but every Democrat ought to want to reduce inequality,” he said. “We can have an argument, or a debate, over the methods. A small increase in the minimum wage can’t alone eliminate poverty, but I don’t have any problem with arguments over the means.”

Clinton’s successful presidency restored the Democratic Party’s credibility as a steward of the economy, with an Internet boom and 20 million jobs created. “Now the focus is on income inequality, and that’s fine,” From said. It’s what he calls a Big Idea, and he likes it as long as the party doesn’t get too carried away with inequality at the expense of policies that promote economic growth.

“The Democratic brand is going to be determined by what happens over the next three years in the Obama administration: Whether the economy continues to grow, whether he gets health care right, and it works. I personally like the plan but the implementation has been awful. What kills the Democratic brand is when government doesn’t work.”

The faulty and Obama’s misfired promise that people can keep their health plan if they like it took a toll on the president’s ratings. “You can’t govern with just big government and good intentions. You need to be able to deliver,” he says. “People in the party calling for things that are left of center doesn’t bother me very much as long as you drive policies that grow the economy and create jobs.”

The DLC was created in 1985 after three crushing presidential losses (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis) in an effort to take stock and shift the party away from its leftward image to the center where national elections are won. The Rev. Jesse Jackson dubbed it Democrats for the Leisure Class. But Clinton embraced the DLC, and together they honed a message of “community, responsibility, opportunity” along with a raft of policies Clinton championed—national service, welfare reform, charter schools, community policing, “all those things that were big deals in those days,” says From.

The Democratic left wasn’t enamored of From, blaming him for the “corporatization” of the party and a growing reliance on the concerns of the business community. From says the late Senator Paul Tsongas, who ran against Clinton in the ’92 primaries, told him that Democrats are so focused on passing out the golden eggs, “they forget to worry about the health of the goose.” He recalls Clinton as a candidate in 1992 talking about corporate responsibility and inequality—as part of a growth agenda, not as independent virtues. “You can’t win on the politics of good intentions,” From said. “When you are in power, the real issue is performance—how you do. If the economy grows then we can have the kind of policies that will reduce inequality. If it isn’t growing, then you have everybody reaching into the same pie.”

From’s new book, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, reprises the glory days of the Clinton campaign in ’92 and the policies that he put into place that left the country with a budget surplus when he left office in 2001. Some of the things Clinton did then are relevant to the conversation today. Clinton’s policy was that anybody who works full-time shouldn’t be poor. He greatly expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which returns federal tax dollars to low- and moderate-income people who work fulltime. (President Reagan started the program as a way to reward work.) A further expansion is being debated today, along with a hike in the federal minimum wage.

“The way you move the country, you go as big as you can, laying out a vision that people have a hard time disagreeing with,” From said. ”You get people talking about the vision, then lay out the policies. You want to avoid fighting over the details until the very last minute. He’s doing that on inequality. The tone of the debate is really important.”

What the Democratic brand looks like going into the midterm elections, and into 2016, depends almost entirely on what Obama does over the coming months, and whether he can advance a positive agenda for himself, and for his party. “The challenge is not to just make good judgment calls when things happen but to set the terms of the debate,” says From. “His style is more of a counter puncher.” From is no longer in the day-to-day combat the way he used to be, but his advice is pretty basic, and it’s not right or left—it’s making government work. If Obama over the next three years produces a reasonable economy and gets the health care plan working, the Democratic Party will be fine. End of story.