Clintonism screwed the Democrats: How Bill, Hillary and the Democratic Leadership Council gutted progressivism

Imagine there's no Clintons. It's easy if you try! Without pernicious DLC, liberalism is a stronger movement today

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published April 30, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)


Hillary Clinton today promotes herself as a "reformer with results," and she's relied on a widespread impression that she and Bernie Sanders aren't really that far apart on major issues. After the last round of primaries in the Northeast, she expressed it again:

"Because whether you support Senator Sanders or you support me, there’s much more that unites us than divides us. We all agree that wages are too low and inequality is too high, that Wall Street can never again be allowed to threaten Main Street, and we should expand Social Security, not cut or privatize it. We Democrats agree that college should be affordable to all, and student debt shouldn’t hold anyone back."

Of course, it's not just Democrats. The points she touched on have broad popular support, despite elite hostility, or at best neglect, which is a large part of why Sanders went from 3% support in the polls to near parity in some April polls [FOX, NBC/WSJ, IPSOS/REUTERS].

But Clinton is a skilled politician, so she's artfully re-aligned herself to blur their differences, with overwhelming support from the elite punditocracy.  When the dark side of the Clinton record from 1990s is raised—NAFTA,  Defense Of Marriage Act, “welfare reform,” mass incarceration, Wall Street deregulation, etc.—two defenses come readily to mind: “Hillary didn't do it!/Bill was president" and "times change/you're forgetting what it was like."

These are both effective narratives in the establishment echo chamber, which is designed and intended for horse-race politics at the expense of political understanding (as well as factual accuracy).  But Hillary Clinton wouldn't be here today if she hadn't been aligned with those policies—and with helping to create the environment in which they came to pass.  Even before entering the White House with her husband, who had promised voters  “two for the price of one” during the 1992 campaign, the pair had cast their lot in with those who moved the party to the right, most notably when Bill Clinton became head of the DLC—the Democratic Leadership Council, or as Jesse Jackson called it, “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”

The DLC was crucial to the Clinton's rise to power, so it's absolutely essential to understand it, if one wants to understand their politics—and that of the party they've so profoundly reshaped—all the way up through Hillary Clinton's most recent rearticulation of the day. 

An excellent starting point for understanding this comes via the much broader focus of Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers's book, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics. While the book makes references going back to the Carter era, it opens with a meeting of twenty top Democratic Party fund-raisers three weeks after Walter Mondale's landslide loss in the 1984 election, where they discussed1988 and how they could have more policy influence in that campaign, how they might use their fund-raising skills to move the party toward their business oriented, centrist viewpoints,” as the Washington Post reported the next day. 

It goes on to describe how, two days later, a closely-related group, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, sponsored a similarly-themed public forum that drew national press attention, dominated by speeches given by Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt and Virginia governor Charles Robb, who, in turn, were also prominent founding members of the Democratic Leadership Council in the following spring, along with Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn:

“The moderate and conservative Democrats didn't make it past the first round in its primaries in 1984 and we want to change that,” said Nunn, a major Democratic proponent of increased military spending who had backed John Glenn in the 1984 race.

Right Turn makes it abundantly clear that the DLC was just one facet of a much broader mosaic of elite political reorientation—a reorientation profoundly out of step with the American people, as the book also takes pains to point out.  Salon contributor Corey Robin recently illuminated this broader elite shift in a blog post, “When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton,” citing in particular A Neoliberal’s Manifesto” by Charles Peters, founder and editor of The Washington Monthly, in which “The basic orientation is announced in the opening paragraph,” Robin notes:

We still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.

This captures neoliberalism in a nutshell: a disavowal of New Deal liberalism in the posture of open-mindness, which (“Ooops, I did it again!”) repeatedly lends itself to conservative cooptation. It quickly became a popular stance in the Democratic donor class, spread further by the publications they financed and other political infrastructure.

Still, the DLC emerged to play a much more central role than most of the other forces involved, specifically because of Bill Clinton. Al From tells the story like this:

A little after four o’clock on the afternoon of April 6, 1989, I walked into the office of Governor Bill Clinton on the second floor of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.

“I’ve got a deal for you,” I told Clinton after a few minutes of political chitchat. “If you agree to become chairman of the DLC, we’ll pay for your travel around the country, we’ll work together on an agenda, and I think you’ll be president one day and we’ll both be important.” With that proposition, Clinton agreed to become chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, and our partnership was born.

Clinton was a natural fit for DLC, From said. Both Clintons, in fact:

He was not afraid to challenge old orthodoxies. In the early 1980s, long before I knew him, he and Hillary Clinton pushed cutting-edge education reforms, like pay for performance and public-school choice, against the opposition of the powerful Arkansas Education Association.

Fighting teachers unions! Just like Bernie Sanders, I'm sure!

As far as the DLC was concerned, Joan Walsh put things a little more realistically here in 2003:

Clinton.... took the DLC’s shelves of policy-wonk manifestoes and dark warnings about special-interest politics, and turned it into an agenda for winning elections and governing, with his own charm and his own brand of compromise and conciliation, not DLC founder Al From’s. The DLC thinks it made Bill Clinton, but in fact Clinton made the DLC. Without his charisma and political smarts, its earnest, castor-oil approach to politics and policy would never have won a national election.

The same, of course, is true of Hillary Clinton as well: however smart, educated, and otherwise well-qualified she may be—as much as anyone in her generation, arguably—she would never have been where she is today without her husband's charisma and political smarts, which in turn undermines her retroactive efforts to disavow the path they blazed together. And that path was “progressive” because From decided to label it so—as push-back against journalists' more accurate recognition that it represented a conservative force within the Democratic Party. As Paul Star wrote in 2014:

In 1991, Clinton told a DLC conference in Cleveland: “Our New Choice plainly rejects the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn’t liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different.” This denial of labels was a way of getting people to listen. Eventually, though, needing a label, From settled on “progressive,” an ironic choice. During the Cold War, “progressive” had meant left of liberal (as in Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party), but it now came to refer vaguely to any viewpoint left of center. From says he called the DLC’s policy arm the Progressive Policy Institute because he was tired of his organization being described by journalists as conservative.

Even the claim of being 'vaguely left of center' is a questionable one, considering the vast differences between elite and mass opinion which have so shaken and confused elites this cycle. It's arguably more instructive to recall that in 1896, running against the Populist/Democratic Party alliance headed by William Jennings Bryant, William McKinley's big business Republicans successfully portrayed themselves as representing the forces of progress. It's an extremely ambiguous term, to say the least. Clinton's description of their agenda as neither liberal nor conservative, but “both” and “different” perfectly exemplifies this ambiguity.

While it's true the DLC's formation was born out of a widespread Democratic donor class revolt, and was intended to combat forces pushing the party to the left, that's not the full story of its genesis, and it's misleading to ignore that there were some genuinely progressive motivations involved.   We need to understand that side of the story, too, if we're to understand the limitations that live on today in Hillary Clinton's continuing claims to be a progressive. And for that, we can turn to Mark Schmitt's look back in 2011, “When the Democratic Leadership Council Mattered,” just after the DLC closed its doors. “The real DLC was far more complicated -- though not necessarily more benign -- than its caricature in the 2000s, when it became best known for blind support of the Iraq War and for founder Al From's simmering anger at anti-Iraq War liberals like Howard Dean and Ned Lamont.” Schmitt wrote.

To understand the real DLC, it's useful to know the name Gillis Long,” the Louisiana congressman (cousin of the legendary Huey Long) who chaired the House Democratic Caucus after Reagan's election. “Both DLC co-founder Will Marshall -- who now runs the thriving and independent think tank the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) -- and From had worked for Long and remained devoted to him after his death, on the day of Reagan's second inauguration.”

The DLC was, in significant ways, an effort to keep Long's style of politics alive:

But chasing the chimera of a South that was going to elect more than the occasional Long or [Florida Governor Lawton] Chiles led the DLC into a cul-de-sac, in which the pursuit of white Southern votes became an end in itself, and so the fight to eliminate affirmative action and reform welfare (neither of which would much affect the economic well-being of the working middle class that was already losing ground) became the organization's touchstone issues in the mid-1990s. Racial politics, not "corporatism," was the more controversial aspect of the DLC at the time Jesse Jackson called it "Democrats for the Leisure Class."

Which is why it's so ironic to see Hillary Clinton depending so heavily minority support (especially Southern blacks) to not only keep her candidacy alive, but also her reputation as a progressive.   Schmitt goes on to say, “But at least the organization was thinking about how to construct a working majority with progressive ideas at the heart of it,” but there three distinct problems here: First, how progressive were those ideas? Second, were they really at the heart of what the DLC was doing? And third, what working majority? The third problem is far less subject to obfuscation than the other two: The fact that Democrats lost the House in a landslide two years after Clinton's election for the first time in 40 years, and held on to it for 12 years after that does not square at all with notion that Clinton “saved the Democratic Party,” or that DLC politics constructed “a working majority with progressive ideas at the heart of it.”

In fact, they did the exact opposite: they destroyed the Democratic House majority which had long been a bastion for progressive ideas and political leaders.  That fact alone casts doubts about the whole thrust of the DLC's progressive claims. After all, if their argument was—like Clinton's today—that they are pragmatic progressives, then their failure to build an enduring political majority undermines the very core of their argument.

The fact that the same pattern of record-breaking Congressional losses (and state legislative ones as well) repeated itself with Barack Obama should tell us something. Obama had nothing to do with the DLC, directly. But he grew up politically in the world that the DLC did so much to create, and he espoused a similar desire to be neither liberal nor conservative, neither “blue state” nor “red state,” but “both” and “something different.” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both successful politicians individually, but neither was successful in constructing “a working majority with progressive ideas at the heart of it,” even if you don't question how progressive their ideas really were. Perhaps the best way to understand their success, as well as the limits of this brand of “progressive ideas” is through analytic lens of Augustus Cochrane III's 2001 book, Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie.

Cochrane argued that the same sorts of maladies which afflicted the South circa 1950, diagnosed in V.O. Key's classic, Southern Politics in State and Nation, had come to afflict the nation as a whole. The specific structures might differ—lungs vs gills—but the functions, or dysfunctions were strikingly similar, he argued, with political power held tight by wealthy elites while the majority of voters were confused, disengaged, or entirely absent, with politics serving them primarily as entertainment. In the 1950s-era South, its one party system was functionally a no-party system, operating somewhat differently from state to state. In the country at large, the same result later came from a dealignment of politics—the White House controlled by one party, congress by another—a frequent, but not dominant pattern in American politics until 1968, after which it's become the normal state of affairs. The intensified role of money and media served to accelerate the breakdown of party bonds and further entrepreneurial politics, in which individual politicians thrive by branding themselves, regardless of how party allies may fare. 

This is the environment in which Bill Clinton and Barack Obama proved so successful, even as their parties crumbled. Their branding worked first and foremost with the donor class, and then the broader political elite which provides guidance to the mass public public in ordinary times. But this system fails to really engage the public directly, or respond to their needs, which is why participation falls off so sharply during mid-term elections, leaving the possibility of a working majority—with a well-thought out, reality-based policy agenda—increasingly out of reach. 

The DLC brand of progressivism was perfectly crafted within this corrupt system of politics to enable certain individual politicians to succeed with their targeted messages and well-honed promises combining “responsibility” on the one hand an “compassion” on the other.  The Clinton's early 80s fight against the Arkansas teachers union was a textbook example of how this worked, which is why From cited that example as showing that the Clintons were made for the DLC. The problem Cochrane described is not about corrupt individuals, necessarily, but it is about systems in which mass organizations like teachers unions are automatically labeled corrupt.  In an upside-down world like that, things are bound to be confusing. 

Which is why that world favors clear, crisp messaging more than almost anything else. “Reformer with results” is a powerful branding message, regardless of how meager those results may be, or even how toxic they are now seen to be two decades on down the road.  In the end, the real problem with Bill and Hillary Clinton-style progressivism is not only what a mixed bag its results have proven to be. There's also the further problem of how it muddles our vision of what a truly successful progressive politics might look like. Now, more than ever, we need to go back and ask ourselves, what were the roads not taken? Where could they have lead us instead of here? And how can we create similar alternatives going forward?  That's a conversation we've barely even begun to have.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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