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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.’”

Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president for public affairs and a co-founder, said Clinton’s and the DLC’s success moved the Democratic Party to make room for moderate views.

“Very few groups have that kind of impact in the course of their lifetimes,” Bennett said. “We are proud inheritors of that legacy. We named ourselves and have advocated for a politics that is very similar to the kinds of things they were advocating for 20-plus years of their existence: a moderate progressive politics.”

The DLC’s focus, Bennett added, was on “winning a battle inside the Democratic Party. We didn’t have to fight that battle because they had already fought that.”

Third Way, which is 6 years old, is something of a think tank, or “ideas institution” in Bennett’s words.

PPI President Will Marshall said that even though his organization parted ways with the DLC in 2009, it, too, carries on the DLC mission.

“The DLC helped the Democratic Party revive itself after a long period in the political wilderness,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of the baseline for Democrats now, a view that’s pro-growth and takes fiscal responsibility seriously.”

Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader who is now president and CEO of Gephardt Government Affairs, said in a statement that he appreciated the opportunity to help shape his party’s agenda during the DLC’s start.

“Although it is closing, the DLC leaves behind a legacy of understanding voters’ priorities that will continue in our party through other institutions,” he said. “I admire Al From’s longtime commitment to the DLC and its mission, and I congratulate the organization’s leadership — both past and present — for its important contribution to our nation’s political history.”

Jonathon Jones, a lobbyist with Peck Madigan Jones & Stewart Inc., was involved in both the DLC and Third Way as chief of staff for Sen. Tom Carper (Del.).

Jones said Third Way is a think tank for policy ideas for Members, while the DLC is “the father of the whole movement.”

And he said there is room for more than one moderate Democratic player to take the DLC’s place.

“There seems to be plenty of resources for them all to survive and thrive,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about competing. It’s about focus and commitment — something that’s very hard to maintain for 25 years.”

Jones, like other party insiders, said that when From left the DLC, the group lost its visionary, the person “who woke up every day thinking about how to move the organization forward.”

From said he left the group because after 25 years, “it was time for a new crowd.” 

He stayed on as chairman, technically, though he said he wasn’t really involved with the organization. After Bruce Reed, the DLC’s former CEO, went into the administration as Vice President Joseph Biden’s chief of staff, the group looked at where it was financially, From said.

“We just decided that the DLC might very well have a new future but we just needed to reassess, and while we’re reassessing the operation had dwindled, so we might as well just shut it down and see ...  what the future holds.”

He said he still believes the DLC may have a role to play.

“We were an insurgent group, but once you change politics, then the role is a little bit different,” he said. “What the DLC did in its heyday, it broke eggs a lot more. We challenged orthodoxy.”

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