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Monday, July 21, 2003


The Problem With the DLC

posted by Joe at Monday, July 21, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
My colleagues at the DDF have ably tackled the new Dean issue of TNR more comprehensively, but I want to note that Jonathan Cohn gets it right when he writes:
So, if Dean isn't really so liberal, why do so many liberals love him? A big reason is that he seems as angry as they are--not just at President Bush but at the Democratic Party's leadership for meekly going along. Dean does have a habit of going too far--such as the time he criticized Edwards for fudging his stance on the war when Edwards had actually made his position absolutely clear--to the point that his apologies have become as predictable as his outbursts. But, in the larger, substantive sense, Dean's attacks on the party and his rivals are absolutely right: The Democratic leadership and presidential candidates have been timid. (Emphasis his.)
As one of those supposedly-liberal Dean supporters, let me tell you that the problem with the DLC isn't its policy. The problem with the DLC is its politics.

The post-Clinton DLC has made its living attacking other Democrats. The DLC could have decided to stand with its back to the liberal wing of the party, moderating its positions, and winning elections by denouncing the extremes of hyper-conservative Republican governance. Instead, DLC leaders decided to ignore the damage Republicans do to the values it cherishes and aim their rhetorical guns at other Democrats.

To be sure, railing against that monolithic glob known as "liberals" has become a profitable business in the last decade or two. It's also easy -- as the DLC demonstrates, moderate Democrats can get right to it because the GOP has already written and disseminated the talking points.

But capitulating to a Republican smear campaign by trying to distance yourself from liberals only divides the party. Attend a forum on globalization on any college campus and you'll learn one thing very quickly: you can't win a shouting match against the far left.

The Republican Party has learned a similar lesson about the far right, and has put it to effective use. Do Republicans have a premiere advocacy group constantly deriding its ideological base? No, they've got the Club for Growth, which funds conservative primary challengers against moderate Republican Senators like John McCain and Arlen Specter.

Moderate Republicans still haven't figured out how to control their party. They have been content to keep quiet so long as it pays off in November. Consequently, their party moves further to the right every two years. Again, some may be content to be brow-beaten and ridiculed by their conservative leadership, but that won't last forever (witness defector Jim Jeffords) and represents a frighteningly short-sighted plan.

Moderate Democrats, on the other hand, managed to elect a president. Bill Clinton made his career as a moderate, but he didn't do it by railing against liberals in every speech, press release, and op-ed (Al From, Bruce Reed, I'm looking in your direction). He did it by playing good defense. He deflected critics who derided him as a liberal by -- well, not being terribly liberal.

Howard Dean will do the same thing. His record as governor and his agenda as presidential candidate illustrate as much. His dissent on the Iraq war was not, as his critics would have you believe, about pacifism or about President Bush somehow doing "too much" to stop terrorism. He refused to support the drive to war because he believed that alienating the world and getting bogged down in Iraq would prevent us from doing more to stop terrorism and protect Americans. The issue in 2004 will not be Howard Dean's stance on Iraq. The issue will be George Bush's crusading adventurism in Iraq, while Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself, Afghanistan remains a lawless breeding ground for terror, and North Korea is producing still more nuclear weapons.

The Iraq issue highlights the difference between Clinton and Dean. Candidate Clinton might have gone along with the war in Iraq in order to avoid being called a liberal and establish his New Democrat bona fides. Clinton had to overcome a presumption about Democrats. He had to define for Americans what it meant to be a New Democrat.

Dean carries no such burden; lopsided majorities supporting the war included a majority of Democrats and their leaders. After a decade of Clinton-Daschle Democrats, the country expects moderation from the Democratic Party. The burden of proof has shifted from candidates who had to prove their moderation to those critics who would accuse them of anything else.

This shift means that it is time for New Democrats to play offense. This has terribly confused the DLC, which still defines itself primarily as an alternative to liberal Democrats.

Until the it recognizes that it has more in common with other Democrats than with President Bush and Justice Scalia, Democrats will only win elections in spite of the DLC. Its divisive politics undermine its sensible policy agenda. Not only do its broadsides against any combative Democrat -- liberal or otherwise -- make a far-left challenge by Ralph Nader more likely, they are the functional equivalent of Nader's self-defeating attacks.

Note: Also posted, in slightly different form, at Not Geniuses.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.