I came upon a great article that Rick Perlstein wrote earlier this year at The Nation, From & Friends. It is a review of Al From’s memoir, The New Democrats and the Return to Power. In case you don’t know, Al From is one of the most vile political operatives of the last 30 years. As the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he stands as one of the most important figures in creating our modern dysfunctional political system. And the particularly great thing about From is that he sees himself as a great hero — the man who saved the Democratic Party.
What I’ve argued for a long time is that the DLC “solution” to saving the Democratic Party both destroyed the party and caused the Republican Party to make a hard right turn. According to From, without the Democratic Party becoming conservative on economic issues, we would have had a string of Republican presidents from 1992 onward. And implicit in From’s argument is that the Democratic Party lost the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections because it was liberal. This is patently false.
The economic fundamentals were such that nothing the Democrats could have done in 80, 84, and 88 would have won then the presidency. The economy was tanking in 1980 and that is why Reagan beat Carter. The economy was roaring back in 1984 and that is why Reagan beat Mondale. And in 1988, the economy was still doing very well and that is why Bush beat Dukakis. And as Perlstein discusses in some depth, none of Carter, Mondale, nor Dukakis were liberal. They were all proto-New Democrats. The only reason that From doesn’t consider them as such is because they lost. That is apparently what it is to be a New Democrat: you have to be economically conservative and you have to win.
As for the elections after this period, the 1992 election was Clinton’s to lose. The fundamentals were even better for him in 1996. In 2000, Gore had a minor advantage in terms of the economy. But as we know, Gore actually won that election. The fact that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush doesn’t mean anything. In 2004, Bush had as big an economic advantage as his father had against Dukakis in 1988. But the most telling election was 2008, when the economic fundamentals were even stronger in the Democrats’ favor than they had been in the Republicans’ favor in 1980. Yet while the Republicans took the opportunity to elect an extremely conservative president, the Democrats took the opportunity to elect a moderate (conservative Democrat) who was more interested in “bipartisanship” than liberalism.
That is the legacy of Al From. Now, even when the Democrats win presidential elections, liberals still lose. Our choice for president is now a modern Democrat, who is more conservative than an old Republican, or a modern Republican who is more extreme than Barry Goldwater and far less intelligent. Yet From’s 288 page awesomeness essay came with an introduction by Bill Clinton. And if we are very lucky, in 2016, we will elect Clinton’s wife who will continue the DLC tradition of offering us ever more neoliberal economic policy. Al From is a great political hero — for the conservative movement. Why any liberal would celebrate him, I can’t say.