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DLC Once Held Center Stage for Democrats

Robert Giroux/AFP
President Bill Clinton addresses members of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1993. The group provided much of the intellectual capital for his agenda and his presidency, and a platform for centrist Democrats. The organization announced this week that it is shutting down after 26 years.

It is like a roll call of the last generation of Democratic leaders: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt — all one-time stars of the Democratic Leadership Council, the 26-year-old incubator of moderate politicians and policies that announced this week it is shutting down.

Clinton, the DLC’s fourth chairman, became its most iconic figure, and Gephardt, the first chairman, broke from the group because of a disagreement over trade policy.

But that’s all part of history, when the DLC was a driving force in Democratic politics.

In recent months, the staff had dwindled to a handful, but the group leaves behind a legacy of transforming the Democratic Party, helping launch Clinton into the White House and serving as a springboard for some of the party’s best-known policies.

“The DLC was the single most influential Democratic organization in the last generation,” said Rob Shapiro, a co-founder of the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute who spent seven years with the organization starting in 1989. PPI is now separate from the DLC. “It fought for a more moderate approach to national policy issues and to achieving the traditional goals of the Democratic Party.”

Part of that legacy, though, may have created fundraising challenges as younger moderate Democratic groups such as Third Way have grown on the shoulders of the DLC.

Al From founded the DLC in 1985 after the bruising that Democrats took in the previous year’s presidential election, losing 49 of 50 states. From, though he has disengaged from the DLC, released a statement late Monday announcing the group’s suspension.

In an interview Tuesday, he said the DLC’s legacy “is that there’s a Democratic Party that’s competitive and has the White House.”

“We modernized the party, made it a party of economic growth,” he said.

The DLC pushed for free trade, charter schools, community policing and welfare reform, among other high-profile positions.

Then-Rep. Gillis Long (La.) was an early champion of the DLC, and former Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Chuck Robb (Va.) served as early chairmen, From said.

From recalled traveling to Little Rock, Ark., in April 1989 to scout a state politician, something the DLC was known for. “I knew Clinton a little bit, and I just decided he was the best talent I’d seen in politics,” said From, who now runs the From Co. “I said, ‘If you become chairman, I think we can develop an agenda, and you’ll be president someday.’”

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