The Bill Clinton and DLC Model For Reinventing the Republican Party

Democratic turnaround artist Will Marshall on what Republicans can do to end their political losing streak.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, a kind of annual camp meeting for the American right, opens in Washington today amid controversy over who’s in the tent and who’s not. Not invited were two prominent GOP governors, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, yet the obnoxious Donald Trump managed to snag a ticket.

This was too much for conservative realists, who think the movement can ill afford to shun Republicans who know how to win elections and govern in blue and purple states like New Jersey and Virginia. “When a party is in the minority, it has to add, not subtract,” huffed Jennifer Rubin. “CPAC’s cardinal sin was in foolishly trying to toss out others instead of building the broadest coalition.”

She’s right. Republicans have failed to win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Their message may sound like the revealed truth to the CPAC faithful, but it repels moderate voters. And they blame their losing streak on bad candidates, inept organizing, insufficient funds, beastly attack ads—everything but what they stand for.

I have seen this movie before, only then, in 1989, it starred the Democrats. As one of the original New Democrats who worked with Bill Clinton to turn the party around, I see some striking parallels between then and now.

Democrats had just come off their third straight presidential loss, this time to a candidate, George H.W. Bush, who seemed like pretty weak tea after the intoxicating Ronald Reagan. Their nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was no left-wing firebrand, but a smart and utterly decent technocrat. Even so, he could not overcome the electorate’s lingering mistrust of ’70s-style economic and cultural liberalism.

In 2012 Republicans likewise nominated a Massachusetts governor who stressed competence over ideology. They also were confident of victory (despite the consistent findings of voter surveys, which apparently get about as much respect from conservatives as climate science) and so were rudely surprised when Obama beat Mitt Romney handily.

Romney was not a strong candidate, but he also bore the albatross of his party’s ideological rigidity. As their center of political gravity has moved steadily rightward over the past two decades, Republicans have made gains at the congressional level, but have lost their presidential mojo. In the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012, GOP nominees have averaged about 45 percent of the popular vote and a mere 39 percent of Electoral College votes. Their pathetic showing among rising forces in the electorate—including young voters, minorities, and college-educated women—augurs an enduring Democratic advantage in presidential contests. And they lost moderates—who made up 40 percent of the electorate—by a whopping 15 points.

In contrast, Republicans had a “lock” on the Electoral College during the six elections from 1968 to 1988. In those years, as working-class whites bailed out of the Democratic Party, GOP nominees averaged 416 electoral votes, while Democrats eked out just one win (Jimmy Carter in 1976) and averaged only 43 percent of the popular vote. That era of political backlash and Democratic fecklessness ended in 1992, when Clinton, with a big assist from Ross Perot, picked the lock.

What happened? Taking the helm of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1990, Clinton adroitly used the perch to diagnose his party’s malaise, jettison old political baggage, and infuse it with fresh ideas. After winning the White House as a “different kind of Democrat,” Clinton went on to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to claim a second term and by the end of the decade had brought his party to parity with Republicans.

The DLC went dark two years ago. Lately, however, it’s been exhumed by commentators like Michael Gerson, Alex Castellanos, and Joe Scarborough, who yearn for something like it to moderate their party. Does the GOP need a DLC? Probably, but as the CPAC episode shows, conservatives aren’t ready yet to exorcise their ideological demons.

Political Turnaround Artists

Large organizations in decline have a hard time reforming from within, and political parties are no exception. Unlike Europe’s hierarchical parties, ours sprawl over the landscape like beasts without a brain. There’s no central committee authorized to define official party doctrine or strategy. Instead, there are competing nodes of power: the White House, congressional leaders, big constituency groups and donors, and the campaign pollster-consultant complex. The national committees, made up of state party functionaries, attend to the electoral mechanics of raising money, airing ads, coordinating campaigns, and staging conventions.

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What this means is that a party’s creed is essentially relitigated every four years in the presidential cycle. After a loss, there’s always a furious debate, but no mechanism for forging internal consensus around what went wrong and what to do differently next time. To paraphrase Archimedes, if you want to move a U.S. political party, you need a lever and a place to stand. That’s why Al From and I created the DLC in 1985, as Democrats were still licking their wounds from the Walter Mondale debacle.

We envisioned it as a vehicle for elected Democrats to reclaim the party’s agenda and reposition it closer to the political center. The DLC was organized around an intrepid band of governors, senators, and representatives, mostly from the South and West, who could feel the political earth moving beneath their feet and wanted to find some way to stop the party’s slide. Crucially for its credibility, the DLC’s original cast included such rising stars and presidential aspirants as Rep. Dick Gephardt; Sens. Sam Nunn, Al Gore, and Lloyd Bentsen; and Govs. Chuck Robb, Bruce Babbitt, and Bill Clinton.

Although the method to our madness is more evident in retrospect than it was at the time, the New Democrats’ turnaround strategy entailed four key steps:

(1) Confronting The Politics Of Evasion

As a party in denial, a dose of “reality therapy” was the first step toward a cure. Democrats had plenty of excuses for their losing streak: Republicans had more attractive candidates, more money, simpler messages, and fewer scruples about exploiting voters’ ignorance and fears (the first reflex of failing parties is always to hold the people in contempt). Such alibis helped avoid a grim conclusion: that voters had heard what Democrats were selling. They just weren’t buying.

In 1989 the Progressive Policy Institute (founded that year as an affiliated think tank of the DLC) published a seminal tract, The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency. Written by two political scientists and presidential campaign veterans, Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, Politics debunked the consoling myths Democrats turned to after defeats. It attributed the party’s failures instead to its fealty to paleoliberal ideas and programs that could not command majority support in the country. “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security,” it said.

It was an unsparing indictment, but it laid the political predicate for Democrats’ intellectual rejuvenation over the next several years.

(2) Putting Common Interests Above Narrow Interests

When the DLC appeared on the scene, the Democrats’ message was a pastiche of “tax and spend” liberalism and special pleading. The party’s 1984 platform, for example, reads like a compendium of wish lists from organized interests: teachers, labor unions, minority- and women’s-rights organizations, nuclear freezers, environmental activists, and on and on.

These were, and are, important constituencies. While they have every right to press their causes in the political arena, parties must be greater than the sum of their parts. It’s up to elected officials, who are answerable to the voters, to define a party agenda that puts the country’s interests above special interests.

Invoking the unifying values of “opportunity, responsibility, and community,” Clinton spoke to America’s broad middle class—families who “work hard and play by the rules.” He also distanced himself from extremist views in his own party, as when he slammed Sister Souljah’s message of racial hostility.

(3) Embracing New Ideas, Not Just “Better Messaging”

Precious few Washington politicos actually believe in the power of ideas to win elections. For them, it’s all about framing and messaging and finding the totemic words that work associative magic in the subconscious minds of voters. It’s the package, not the content, that counts.

New Democrats assumed otherwise. We believed the party’s electoral failures stemmed directly from its embrace of economic redistribution over growth, entitlements over personal and civic responsibility, identity politics over citizenship and statist solutions over civic empowerment. Through innovations like work-based welfare reform, national service, reinventing government, charter schools and community policing, Clinton helped the party regain the intellectual initiative as well as the mantle of reform. Before his breakthrough in the 1991 New Hampshire primary, he already had won what his pollster Stan Greenberg called the “ideas primary.”

(4) Finding a Leader Who Can Persuade Doubters, Not Just Preach to the Choir

Ideas need a champion, and New Democrats were fortunate to find an exceptionally persuasive one in Bill Clinton. In Barack Obama’s ungenerous estimation, Clinton was not a “transformational” president like Ronald Reagan. But Clinton did end the party’s longest dry spell since the Gilded Age and in doing so raised the platform from which Obama twice vaulted to impressive presidential majorities.

Clinton’s MO was persuasion and seduction. He flattered voters not by pandering to them or inflaming their prejudices, but by making reasoned, fact-based, and often quite complicated arguments for his positions—just recall his bravura performance at the 2012 Democratic convention. Rather than polarizing voters, Clinton disarmed skeptics by acknowledging their valid concerns, good faith, and intelligence. His genius lay in crafting a governing vision that could intrigue moderate and independent voters without dimming the enthusiasm of the Democratic base.

Reinventing the GOP

Today’s Republicans are back at stage one—the politics of evasion. They know their electoral base is shrinking, but only a few have connected the dots between their demographic quandary and their ideological stridency.

“We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party,” warns John Weaver, a top advisor to the 2008 McCain campaign. “The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class,” says Mark McKinnon, a top adviser to President George W. Bush. Even RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has chimed in, urging Republicans to be the “happy party.”

All good advice, but here’s the problem: angry extremists have hijacked the party, and someone is going to have to wrest it away from them. If the New Democrats’ experience is any guide, there will be blood.

The first step is acknowledging how far the party has migrated from the mainstream in recent years. Reagan Republicans stood for limited government; today’s radical Republicans see government as an evil incubus on our prosperity and freedom. George W. Bush spoke of compassionate conservatism and wooed Hispanic voters; conservatives now display a bristling hostility to out groups—minorities, immigrants, and poor and all the other “takers,” along with a truly weird solicitude for the rich—a.k.a., America’s “job creators.” John McCain co-sponsored a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill to slow global warming; “drill baby, drill” Republicans now insist there’s no such thing. They used to complain that Democrats are weak on defense. Now Sen. Rand Paul fears that President Obama may be planning to unleash drones against Americans here at home.

Conservatives have indulged the paranoiacs, fanatics, and haters in their midst and are reaping the whirlwind. Smart conservatives like Gerson, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam are urging Republicans to take more balanced stands on taxes, spending cuts, “amnesty,” abortion, guns, etc., and reorient themselves around middle-class aspirations. A clearly worried Karl Rove is raising money to prevent candidates too extreme for general elections from winning GOP primaries.

But elected Republicans seem AWOL in the fight to take back their party. On the contrary, House Republicans seem as intransigent as ever, even as polls show that Americans increasingly blame them for the fiscal impasse in Washington.

This underscores the key difference between Democrats in 1989 and Republicans in 2013. The DLC spoke to, and for, a Democratic rank and file that was considerably more moderate than party establishment. For Republicans, however, the “base” is the problem, not the solution. Radicalism rises from the grass roots. The Tea Party–Club for Growth axis is still eager to punish ideological deviation, threatening to “primary” GOP officeholders who show the slightest inclination toward compromise. And it’s not just intimidation: thanks to a combination of geographic sorting and gerrymandering, many House Republicans can truthfully claim to be faithfully representing their constituents who sent them to Washington to pull down the Temple, now to do deals with Democrats. That’s why the House stands for now at least as the Proud Tower of unbending right-wing orthodoxy.

Eventually it will fall—just as the Democrats’ House bastion fell in 1994. But it will probably take more GOP losses to convince conservatives that they need to build majorities within an actually existing America, not the America of their dreams.

Why should a New Democrat like me care? Isn’t it more fun to watch Republicans purge moderates like Christie and persist in their lemminglike rush off the ideological cliff?

Not necessarily. America’s political stability—a vastly underappreciated national strength—owes much to an inner gyroscope that keeps our democracy flying level. Normally, if one party lurches too far in one direction, the other moves to occupy the abandoned center. Ideological polarization, however, eviscerates the center by treating compromise as a sellout. It means that impasses can only be broken by zero-sum victories by one party over another.

But America’s system of separated powers and checks and balances doesn’t work this way. By forcing power sharing and giving minorities blocking power, it makes democratic bargaining and compromise integral to our country’s progress and success.

So Republicans need to come back to their senses, if only to keep Democrats from eventually losing theirs. GOP, heal thyself: we need the competition.