After three straight presidential losses in the 1980s, Democrats charted their way back from the wilderness with the help of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a political startup founded to incubate ideas that mainstream Democrats could identify with, and to expand the Party’s reach in the business community.
Now the Republicans are in the wilderness, having lost two elections back-to-back. A makeover announced after the 2012 election went nowhere, so I asked Al From, who founded the DLC, to imagine how he would construct a similar venture, a Republican Leadership Council, to reinvigorate and restore the GOP as a mainstream party capable of winning the presidency.
It doesn’t have to be exactly like the DLC, he says, but the GOP needs a “power center” to counter the Tea Party extremists in their party. The DLC gave Bill Clinton, an Arkansas governor who wanted to set a different course for his party, an organized power center “so he wouldn’t hang out there alone to die the way Romney did,” says From, adding, “I can’t believe in his heart Romney was for self-deportation of immigrants.”
An RLC would give “power and cover to the candidate who wants to push off the Tea Party,” says From. It would give activists around the country a way to rally. When Clinton ran into trouble in New Hampshire in ’92, he had a core of DLC people who knew him and had worked with him, and who were vested in him. Compare that to Gary Hart, four years earlier, who was out of the race in a week when scandal struck. Clinton took real hits, and the DLC wasn’t the only reason he survived. “He’s unbelievably talented,” says From, “but it sure helped him to have these people backing him.”
Secondly, Republicans need to recognize that ideas are important, and they have to have some ideas that people will support. From quotes Clinton a lot, and he credits Clinton with saying that an intellectual resurgence has to presage political power. “The DLC was a place where you could have a debate about ideas; it wasn’t just one guy trying to do it,” From says. Republicans eyeing 2016 have begun shaping a policy debate—Scott Walker on governing lessons from Wisconsin; Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan on fighting poverty; Chris Christie until he got waylaid by the bridge scandal. They would get more firepower as an “ideas” party if they had a power center.
Third, unity is overrated, says From. “When you’re dealing with an extreme wing of the party, the price of unity is to go out of the mainstream. Unity occurs around the most extreme.” Many Republicans applauded House Speaker John Boehner’s denunciation of outside conservative groups at the end of last year’s congressional session. Democrats faced accusations about the party being divided, and the DLC and DNC (Democratic National Committee) were often at odds. “But if a unified party gets 43 percent in every election, you’ve got to expand—that’s what [the Republicans] have got to do,” says From.
Finally, he says, in addition to good ideas and an organized effort, the party has to become much more inclusive and tolerant of other views when it comes to cultural issues. “You don’t have to give up your beliefs,” he says, citing the Clinton formulation on abortion, “safe, legal and rare,” he says, “That allowed some pro-life people to say ‘OK, I’ll give him a chance.’”
The steps From outlines to create an RLC that would steer the party back to the center are all pretty basic, but they start with an organized effort. Without that, he says it’s hard to bring about the change that is needed with just one or two voices. Unless they happen to hit absolutely right, they will be shouted down or edged aside by the more dominant and still ascendant conservative wing. No one is certain that Boehner will follow through with his break from the extremist right.
Writing his newly published book, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, From revisited the losses that preceded Clinton’s election in 1992. He concedes the Democratic candidates pre-Clinton were “not the most scintillating” (Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis), but he concluded that they were also brought down by their party. He remembers writing a memo in the fall of ’88 urging Dukakis to turn back Vice President George H.W. Bush’s attacks on his patriotism by redefining the Democratic Party in favor of national service. Dukakis talked about it in his concession speech. Why he saved it until then puzzled From, but when he asked Dukakis about it in researching his book, Dukakis said he didn’t know why he didn’t raise it sooner. Getting politicians to understand how to deflect attacks and fight back with the power of ideas is the core of a winning strategy whether a candidate has a D or an R after his or her name.