The DLC, the Neo Left McGovernites, and the 1994 Mid Term Elections

Like their rightwing counterparts, the Neo Left McGovernites and their younger ideological heirs love to attack the DLC because they feel the Democratic Leadership Council directly caused the massive Democratic losses of 1994. No amount of reasoning and presentation of facts and southern voting trends will convince them otherwise.

Recently, as I was sloshing through yet another debate with them on this very topic (they make the claim, I ask for proof, they dodge and spin and change the subject), I realized that I did not have the facts handy all in one place. So I decided to write a little piece on the 1994 elections.

There’s an old saying that goes, “if something is repeated often enough, it will become true.” The DLC’s role in Democratic losses from 1994 on is a prime example of that saying in action on Democratic Underground specifically and the neo-left in general.

I used to believe there were two schools of thought among the more progressive Democrats when it came to recent losses for the Democratic Party, the first being that it was the fault of the Democratic Leadership Council that the Democrats lost in the 1994 mid term election cycle, setting up further Democratic losses in subsequent elections. The other school of thought being the last three elections were “stolen” through a combination of voting machine rigging, voter intimidation, and other forms of fraud. However, It didn’t take me long to realize that those putting forth these seemingly conflicting theories were often the same people. If the DLC were the focus of the discussion, the first theory would be espoused. If the discussion dealt primarily with the elections and not the DLC, then the second theory would be put forth. I tend to believe the latter theory myself. At least there is evidence to suggest voter irregularities in the last three election cycles.

But those aren’t the only pieces of conventional yet conflicting wisdom among some Democrats that gnaw at me.

Another gem often offered up when discussing Democratic losses in recent election cycles is the Democratic party has moved too far to the right, courtesy of the DLC, and that when people have to pick between a Republican and what they perceive as “Republican-lite,” they’ll pick the Republican. People who believe this often quote Harry Truman, a great moderate Democrat, who said “When given a choice between a real Republican and an imitation, the people will choose the real thing every time.” I believe this only if the people in question are Republicans! What is being implied here when this thought process is applied to Democrats is they will either vote for a Republican if they feel the Democratic choice isn’t liberal enough or they won’t vote at all. Either way, if we follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion, Democrats throw elections to Republicans if they aren’t happy with the liberal “purity” of the candidate.

I’d like to see some polling data to confirm that. Gallup does polls for just about everything else. Surely there must be one that asks something like, “If you’re a Democrat, why do you feel the Democrats lost in the most recent election cycle” – with choices that range from “they just didn’t get their message out” to “they were too close to Republicans on some issues so I just went ahead and voted for the Republican.”

Until I see that polling data, I’ll continue to seriously doubt the claim that the DLC caused losses in any election cycle.

In my estimation, the blame being cast upon the DLC for Democratic losses is nothing short of modern neoleftist McGovernites (the peace, love, and dope crowd as some call them) frustrated that they cannot garner more power and influence in the Democratic Party and blaming moderates for that. I can understand and sympathize. I get frustrated that the Democratic Party can’t regain the power it once had over the Republican Party and I am just as passionate in my quest as neoleftists. But their task is even more formidable because they feel they have to overcome two barriers – the DLC and moderate wing of the party and then the Republican Party. Although the DLC doesn’t have the gravitas it once had, it is still a formidable force when it comes to fielding candidates and raising money. I can understand how this can infuriate people who don’t subscribe to the DLC’s point of view. And with the Democratic Party losing elections, the faction that seemingly leads the party is an easy target to blame.

But is it fair?

It could just as easily be surmised that if it weren’t for the DLC’s brand of centrism the Democrats would be losing more often and by larger margins. Polling data on issues indicate that the DLC’s positions are often closer to that of mainstream America ‘s in most areas. Indeed, the purpose of the DLC’s formation was to serve the national interests as opposed to more special interests. Granted, this may not always be the best way, but national elections are won on national issues. But the underlying question remains: Was the DLC responsible, fully or partially, for Democratic losses in 1994 and beyond as some on the left claim? Historians and Democratic strategists say no.

Ideological Bankruptcy… Or Ideological Drift?

An article in the Boston Globe took up the issue of Democratic losses a week before the last presidential election. When a party holds power for too long, Adrian Wooldridge, reporter for The Economist, said in the article, “it grows fat and happy, [and] it also grows corrupt.” The classic example, he pointed out, is the Democratic Party of the 1970s and `80s, which, spoiled by generations of congressional power, “became a party of insiders and deal makers without any sense of the principles they stood for and eventually collapsed” when they were turned out in 1994.

The more common explanation for the 1994 Republican Revolution, though, is that liberal Democratic ideals — or at least the way they were presented — no longer resonated with the majority of Americans. According to Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and at the Century Foundation, the danger for the dominant party isn’t ideological bankruptcy but ideological drift. “Certainly you can make the argument that, if a party’s far enough away from the mainstream, if they don’t lose they don’t get enough impetus to correct their behavior.”

Interesting that the point in the Democratic Party where the more liberal elements of the party held the most sway – the post McGovern era to the late 80s – is the time described by Wooldridge as our “fat, happy, and corrupt” period. Even more interesting is Teixeira, who has solid Democratic credentials, states the party had moved too far away from the mainstream during the period of massive electoral losses for McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis.

Court and Country in American Politics: The Democratic Party and the 1994 Election

Philip A. Klinkner, author of “Court and Country in American Politics: The Democratic Party and the 1994 Election,” presents a very interesting and expansive theory concerning the major Democratic losses in 1994 that Wooldridge and Teixeira only touched on. Klinkner explains the circumstances surrounding the 1992 election provided ample evidence of a radically changed political environment. Several observers have commented on the growing volatility of the electorate since the late 1980s (Greider 1992; Phillips 1990, 1993, and 1994; Germond and Witcover 1993; Greenberg 1995). By most accounts, this phenomenon reached a new high in 1992, as voters expressed growing disgust with the federal government, elected officials, special interests, and politics in general, and a greater willingness to support outsider candidacies, even those of such diverse figures as Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot.

The author continues by writing that current American politics is best understood in light of the “Court versus Country” dynamic that has been a recurring theme in Anglo-American politics over the last 300 years. The label was first used to describe the intense political conflict in English politics from the Revolution of 1688 until the mid-eighteenth century. Historians have also used the Court versus Country framework to describe the politics of America ’s early national period, roughly from the Articles of Confederation to the election of Thomas Jefferson.

Politics in both of these periods revolved around the scope and legitimacy of governmental power. On the one side was a Court persuasion, which firmly believed in the necessity of a powerful central government to ensure prosperity, domestic order, and international prestige. “Court apologists were intensely statist . . . . They tried to endow the government with the resources and vigor necessary to command great respect abroad and maintain order at home” (Murrin 1980: 379) To achieve these ends, Court proponents advocated increased taxation, expanded government expenditures, a funded public debt, government guidance of nation’s economic and financial systems, and a bureaucracy large and powerful enough to ensure the attainment of the government’s objectives.

In opposition stood the Country advocates who saw the Court proponents as a corrupt elite, antagonistic to the economic interests and cultural values of the nation and striving to increase the power of government to serve their own evil ends. Moreover, Country supporters believed that the Court faction, through its links with financial elites and political manipulations, had managed to entrench itself into the office, upsetting the political system’s natural balance. Once free from the usual checks and balances, they claimed that the Court elite would then set out to further aggrandize power and debase the natural rights and liberties of the people. In response, the Country supporters advocated limited government, reduction of government debt and spending, reduction and/or reform of taxes, and structural and procedural reforms of the political system as a means of restoring the proper control and accountability to the government.

These Court versus Country themes are readily discernible in contemporary American politics. To a large extent, with their emphasis on a powerful federal government to provide direction and leadership on a range of issues, from macroeconomic management to civil rights to environmental protection, modern liberal ideology reflects the Court tradition of earlier times. In addition, the liberals’ tools of increased expenditures and government debt were also used by the English Court supporters and their American descendants, the Federalists.

The Country attitude, with its “plain distrust of government as such, and a considerable sense of apprehension at its ever spreading tentacles” (Holmes 1987: 121), is readily apparent in current popular attitudes. Like their Country predecessors, current critics of the political system oppose excessive government, as reflected in debt, high taxes, increased spending, and extensive regulation. In particular, they share the traditional Country concern for governmental corruption, especially the ways in which elected officials, bureaucrats, and special interests combine to create an entrenched governmental elite, unresponsive and unaccountable to the public interest. In the words of Ross Perot, “The British aristocracy we drove out in our Revolution has been replaced by our own version: a political nobility that is immune to the people’s will. They have created through our campaign and lobbying laws a series of incentives that corrupt the intent of the Constitution” (Perot 1992: 24). Criticisms of entrenched congressional incumbents echo the attacks of English Country advocates on the corrupt placemen and courtiers whom they believed were destroying the House of Commons. In fact, proposals for congressional term limits closely resemble the Place bills advocated by English Country members for “purging the House of Commons from the dead weight of court officers and dependents” (Holmes 1987: 130). …

The rise of these Country attitudes in contemporary America seems to have resulted from a number of forces, one of which was the civil rights movement of the 1960s.. and many began to question the scope and legitimacy of the governmental power on a range of issues from taxes to welfare to the criminal justice system (Edsall and Edsall 1991; Dionne 1991; Horowitz 1986).

By the early 1990s, Country sentiments were evident among much of the public. In 1964, over 70 percent of the public said that they could trust Washington to do what was right most or all of the time; by early 1994, only 19 percent expressed similar confidence (Phillips 1994: 7). In 1964, when asked, “Would you say the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all people,” nearly 40 percent more people agreed with the latter than with the former. In 1992 that sentiment had reversed itself, with 60 percent more people believing that the government was run for the benefit of special interests than those who believed it was run for the benefit of all. (Stanley and Niemi: 169).
Again, this period was largely dominated by the Democratic Party and the counterculture that was associated with it.
The emergence of Court and Country politics spelled trouble for the Democrats. As the party of governmental activism, the Democrats were bound to suffer from the rise of popular cynicism toward government. At the same time that Bill Clinton was winning the White House, voters preferred having “government cost less in taxes but provide fewer services” to having “government provide more services but cost more in taxes” by 54 to 38 percent (Milkis and Nelson 1994: 395). source

This was no better exemplified than by Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan, which support for collapsed, which set back his presidency and figured in the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives in 1994. They’ve never recovered from the loss.

Soon after Clinton took office in 1993, he promised health insurance for millions of Americans who had no coverage. But before long, the plan was a shambles, derailed by concerns that it would cost too much and create a huge new bureaucracy. “People have not gotten over 1994 yet,” Karen Pollitz, the project director for the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, said of the Clinton plan. “President Clinton tried to fix everything at once. It was not well received. And not only that — the Democrats got turned out at the next election.” http://www.freep.com/news/politics/issue27_20040127.htm

So, technically speaking, Clinton’s attempt to enact a left-liberal policy partially contributed to the Democrat’s downfall in 1994. A two decade long move to the left by the Democratic party – capped off by the failed healthcare plan (which I was for and still am) – brought us down. NOT movement to the right.

Who Gets The Blame For Prior Losses?

Of course, Democrats have suffered losses before – years before the DLC was even in existence. Surprisingly In 1938, Republicans gained 81 House seats running against Franklin Roosevelt. Again In the mid-term election of 1942, the Democrats lost 44 seats in the House of Representatives.

George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale suffered huge defeats in their 1972, 1980, and 1984 presidential runs.

The Republicans won control of the Senate in 1981 and retained it for six years – until the midterm elections of 1986 when the Democratic party picked up 5 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate to regain power. Interestingly, this was the first election cycle after the DLC was formed in 1985. The Democratic Senators elected and who gave the Senate back to the Democrats included moderates Barbara Mikulski (a participant in the DLC’s National Service Tour), Harry Reid (who recently said Democrats have to “swallow their pride” and move toward the middle), Conservative Democrat Richard Shelby, DLCer Bob Graham, DLCer Kent Conrad, and DLCer Tom Daschle.

Just as the Democratic Party was voted out of power in 1994, so is it inevitable that the same fate will befall the Republican Party. And if the current public mood is indicative of how they will vote, the GOP will find themselves out of power sooner than later for the same reason the Democrats lost power in 1994 – falling too far away from the mainstream of American thought and opinion. The difference is the GOP will have moved to the right of the American mainstream to cause the backlash. From the late 60s to 1994, the Democrats moved left.
But the evidence is lacking to even suggest the DLC caused the Democratic losses in 1994. If anything, their presence may have prevented even more losses. – end

Now, I had this piece presented at a message forum known for extreme left views. There were plenty of responses, but a few stand out:

There is absolutely no sense going back before 2000 to understand TODAY’S politics. Everything changed after a stolen election AND when both parties used 9-11 to advance their careers and agendas.What’s important NOW is that America and the Democratic party is in trouble and too many Democrats seem to think that enabling and appeasement is the way to get back into power.

FUNNY! THAT guy is one of the biggest neo-lefties there. He posts a weekly diatribe against moderate Democrats and pitches literary temper tantrums when you point out that absolutely nothing in his posts are sourced and documented. He’s one of the chief proponants there of the “DLC caused Democratic losses” school.

But someone else gets it:

Some people will argue that this was the period when the TV media began going downhill giving the GOP a big edge. In many senses this is the period where this started but we all know it’s not NEARLY as bad as it is today. Ted Turner (I believe) was still running CNN and FAUX news hadn’t been created yet. Then again the internet wasn’t very popular back then and so TV was really the only game in town.

Clinton’s lack of a popular mandate and a rough first two years in office certainly didn’t help. Some of the Democrats in congress were almost as hostile to his agenda as the Republicans. The healthcare battle was a prime example of this. It’s not necesarilly that he didn’t push for universal single-payer healthcare (although I wish that he had listened to Wellstone and done that), it’s that he continued to compromise and compromise and compromise until finally the bill was filled with so much crap that it was too costly and too hard to understand.

How Gingrich got his people to the polls in 1994 is an interesting question. Clinton’s lack of progress in his first two years was definately part of it, but in the end I think it was because Gingrich was framing the debate, not the Democrats. And you know what the debate is always about when the GOP frames it: Guns, God, and Gays.

I consider myself a progressive but that doesn’t mean that I automatically condemn the DLC. I would rather have more progressive people running the party than Lieberman, Bayh, and Hillary Clinton but I don’t deny that the DLC has pulled out some key victories.

So, blogospherians, what are YOUR thoughts?

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