Big tent, not Bush-lite, will defeat Bush

The May 7 speech by Sen. John Kerry to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) drew cheers from New York Times op-ed pundit David Brooks, a Bush supporter. Brooks hailed Kerry’s performance at the DLC, saying he was “becoming more like the political twin of Joe Lieberman, a pro-trade, fiscally conservative, centrist Democrat who is willing to pour more troops into Iraq to win the war.” Brooks advised Kerry to play “the quadrennial game that smart nominees play: Shaft the Left.”

What is the DLC? It is not the Democratic National Committee (DNC) – the real leading body of the official Democratic Party. The self-styled DLC often presumes to act as if it were the DNC. The DLC is privately funded and an extra-party organization without official national Democratic Party sanction. In 1985, under the impact of Ronald Reagan’s two victories, Southern and Western conservative Democratic officeholders set up the DLC to attract more Big Business money to themselves and to make the Democratic Party more acceptable to Southern white males deserting to the Republicans.

Several years ago Robert Dreyfuss, writing in the liberal The American Prospect, noted the surging power of the DLC: “The DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), have blossomed into a $7-million-a-year operation.” The DLC’s “New Democrat Network,” provides funds to dozens of certified New Democrats in federal, state, and local races. Twenty U.S. senators and 70 members of the House of Representatives are in New Democrat caucuses. Hundreds of state and local elected officials are members. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Evan Bayh, and Joseph Lieberman are all New Democrats.

An elite group, the DLC tries to strike a grassroots pose. Though it offers membership for a modest fee to anyone interested, “its mass base is minuscule,” says Dreyfuss. The DLC doesn’t formally reveal its finances. But, according to Dreyfuss, “28 giant companies found their way onto the DLC’s Executive Council, including Aetna, AT&T, American Airlines, AIG, BellSouth, Chevron, DuPont, Enron, IBM, Merck and Company, Microsoft, Philip Morris, Texaco, and Verizon Communications,” and even Koch Industries, usually a funder of the far right. The DLC Board of Trustees is “an elite body whose membership is reserved for major donors, and many of the trustees are financial wheeler-dealers who run investment companies and capital management firms.”

Not everything Kerry said to the DLC on May 7 was the corporate-friendly program it wanted to hear, but much was. In substance and in tone, he tried to appeal to the right on key issues.

If the Kerry campaign thinks it can win more big business support by romancing the DLC, and that the political price is low because anti-Bush voters have nowhere to go, it is wrong. If Kerry doesn’t give people a reason to vote for him, anti-Bush voters can stay home or they can vote for Nader.

We on the left must oppose the DLC for reasons of principle and for practical reasons too. On principle, we oppose Bush’s wars and right-wing social and economic policies and we cannot give Kerry a blank check on either. As for the practical reasons – foolish advisers in the Kerry campaign take note – if Kerry takes DLC advice on the war and on social and economic issues, he will probably lose.

Why could Clinton win in 1992 and 1996 with this DLC strategy, but Kerry cannot? Because, for reasons of personality and political history, Clinton connected with Black voters in ways that Kerry has not.

In a new book, “The Two Americas,” labor and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg argues that the country is more closely and sharply divided politically than ever. The 2000 election was the closest electoral vote since Hayes/Tilden in 1878 and the closest popular vote with the exception of 1960, but the issues dividing people are sharper and the divisions wider than then – abortion, the war, tax cuts, gun control, gay marriage, etc. The electorate is more divided and more partisan now than in 1992. This means that turning out the base is more important than trying to win over loyalists of the opposing party or, in Clinton’s case, trying to win back the Reagan Democrats after 12 years of Republican rule.

DLC strategy and tactics dampen enthusiastic voting by existing and potential voters in the Democratic base and also by progressive independent voters wanting a Bush defeat. DLC tactics make it more difficult to engage those who have been disgusted by politics-as-usual, and make it harder to defeat Bush.

The DLC strategy of limiting its program to domestic issues, compromising with the Republicans, and supporting Bush on the Iraq war and the “war on terrorism” was discredited in the 2002 congressional elections. The DLC strategy of appealing primarily to “swing” voters (Republicans and independents) omits most of the peace constituency, including the African American community, young people, and independents who have abstained from electoral politics.

DLC positions, strategy and tactics are losers. Only a big tent approach, not DLC tactics, can defeat Bush.



Thomas Kenny is an economist. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.