It is curious and noteworthy that the most powerful moderate organization in either party has become a pariah. In a way, this is just the latest edition of the fight between Northern liberals and Southern moderates that has befuddled the Democrats since... well, since Ted Kennedy challenged the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. But it's also a consequence of the smug ideological xenophobia that currently afflicts activists in both partiesalthough, in fairness, the Democrats are playing catch-up to the wing-nut avidity cultivated by Karl Rove as a conscious governing strategy in the Republican Party. The Republicans don't even have a DLC equivalent.
At the center of the controversy is a gentleman named Al From, a former Senate aide who helped found the DLC in reaction to the Walter Mondale presidential wipeout in 1984 and now serves as its CEO. From is a moderate who acts like an extremist. Early on, he gleefully picked fights with various crumbling pillars of post-Vietnam liberalismtrade unions, antiwar activists and ethnic pleaders. Many of these battles were worth waging, especially on social issues like crime and welfare reform, where Democrats had drifted into a slough of guilt and warped good intentions.
More recently, though, From has begun to pick some silly fights. Shortly after the 2000 election, he lambasted Al Gorewho was the most faithful advocate of DLC views in the Clinton White Housefor running with a "populist rather than a New Democrat message. As a result, voters viewed him as too liberal." In 2003, From took on Howard Dean for opposing the Iraq war. "It used to be that you could kick around liberals and not get a reaction," says Ed Kilgore, a former DLC spokesman turned moderate blogger. "Dean changed that. The liberal blogosphere kicked back."
That fight reached a climax in 2006, when From, independent of the DLC, supported his friend Senator Joe Lieberman, who was facing a primary challenge in Connecticut from Ned Lamont, a blogger-backed antiwar candidate. The Lamont primary victory followed by the Lieberman general-election victory (as an independent) infuriated the party's activists. They argued that From, like Lieberman, seemed to see liberals as a greater threat than the singularly awful presidency of George W. Bush. Indeed, the activists became positively Fromian: they decided to drum him and his DLC out of the partyand with their cybermegaphone plus the ability to raise money for favored politicians, they have intimidated the Democratic presidential candidates... for the moment.
But Ford is right: the Democratic nominee will come "home" when the general election rolls around because the DLC has become a crucial support and policy-development vehicle for state and local elected officials, especially in the South and Westabout 350 of whom showed up in Nashville. It is ironic that an organization best known among liberals for its position on Iraq spent practically no time talking about the war at its annual meeting. Not one of the DLC's 20 issue symposiums was about foreign policy. The emphasis was on state governance, issues like health care and alternative-energy development. The current DLC stars are Governors of crucial statesArizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennesseethat could switch from red to blue in 2008. Any Democratic nominee would want to court them.
As for From, he remains feisty. He is disappointed that Lieberman, moving steadily rightward, "has gone off further than I hoped he would" on the war, but he scoffs at antiwar Democrats: "Even a stopped watch is right twice a day," he says. "Look, it's the primary season, and they're only playing on half the field," he notes. "To win the White House, you have to play on the entire field. That's where we come in." But, to torture the sports metaphor, they win only if From and the activists decide that they're playing on the same team.