Al From: the Conservative’s Best Friend

Al FromI 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Al From: the Conservative’s Best Friend

  1. Fascinating, I’d never heard of the guy. Honestly, until the 2008 election, when “The Nation” had a piece on then-primary-candidate Obama’s financial advisors (the crew of doom), I’d never paid much attention to our side’s behind-the-scenes folks, just the other side’s.

    Hindsight says if the Dems had stuck to their labor/populist guns, they would have lost tons of campaign funding. They would have gotten stomped, a lot. And what, now would be different? It’s hard to imagine the national-level financial/regulatory policies being much worse than they are today. The major difference would be that today Democrats could point to ruinous market-fundamentalist rule and say “we told you so.” They’d be a valid option for change. Now, serious leftists don’t much bother with the Democratic Party — probably wise on their part when it comes to many issues, ineffectual (so far) when it comes to financial reform.

    A major portion of the far-right takeover of the GOP is those far-right challengers (Goldwater being a very early example) weren’t afraid to lose. Established political power structures (and even the minority party represents an established structure) are always afraid to lose. It’s why Republicans today can’t change their racist tune, even though they know it’s going to hurt them more and more in the future.

    What we see today in the GOP’s “old guard vs Tea Party” schism isn’t really much of a schism; it’s a battle of egos and who shows respect for whom. They all hold the same views, more or less.

    There are Dems who aren’t in line with the New Dem platform, and the party hates their guts. They’ll get support once they’re in office, but the fights to keep them from being nominated in primaries is brutal. If you saw the crap the local Democrats slung at Franken when he was running for the primary you’d puke. It was hideous. Calm man he, he plays nice with them now. I wouldn’t be able to forgive!

    It’ll be interesting to see as popular leftist movements, not trusting the Democrats as far as they can throw them, continue to grow, if more Democrats in safe districts will appeal to those movements instead of the DLC/Wall Street consensus. It’ll take time, though, and we don’t have much to spare on many fronts.

    • Yeah, I think that’s it completely. The New Democrats have moved the entire playing field to the right. If Democrats had lost elections (and I don’t think they would have), they would have still acted as a counterbalance to the Republicans, and kept pretty much the same policy. I doubt, for example, that a Republican would have ended welfare as we know it.

      What’s annoying is that money doesn’t seem to have much direct effect on partisan politics. (It has a huge effect on non-partisan things like the California proposition system.) What more happens is that funders see who is winning and so funnel money to those candidates in the expectation of getting in good with them. So candidates don’t need as much money as they think. Of course, the party itself thinks this and so the first thing they ask a prospective candidate is, “How much money can you raise?” And that’s why we get Andrew Cuomo and not Zephyr Teachout.

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