Bill Clinton’s ascension to the presidency was, at its time, the triumph of a new kind of politics. After a dismal Carter presidency, a crushing loss for Mondale, and a wayward Dukakis campaign, Bill Clinton offered a different style – more than just a solution for Democratic issues, he represented a solution for consecutive Democratic losses.
As the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization whose aim was to recalibrate the party’s message, Clinton personified their notion of a New Democrat. Rather than fight Republicans on a spectrum of left and right, Clinton aimed for a “third-way,” a kind of politics that meant co-opting Republican policies and remaking them with a Democratic sheen.
Clinton was, no doubt, a master of New Democratic politics. Much of the vitriol with which Republicans berated him grew out of frustration, watching their own pet policies, from free trade to welfare reform, being advocated by a Democratic president.
With success came those who wanted to duplicate his political model. In time, so-called New Democrats held governorships and leadership positions in Congress. They pressed for a centrist agenda, avoiding, at all cost, being described as liberals. The precepts of DLC-centrism invaded the core of the party, pushing progressives to the margins. But it ultimately ended in failure. Bill Clinton had fathered a kind of politics that could be mimicked, but not replicated, the kind that requires the perfect touch and tempo and tone.
For most who tried, third-way politics meant the dumping of bread-and-butter Democratic policies, opting instead for a small profile of issues, directly in the center. Democrats began to define themselves as Republicans, but competent and with pro-choice credentials. As contrasts became muddled, a common complaint was a lack of clear differences between parties.
The exodus to the political center meant a wholesale abandonment of message, leading to crushing victories in 2000, 2002, and 2004. But for a series of blunders, an explosive corruption scandal, and a horribly unpopular war, the New Democrats might have continued their losing trend into 2006. In the aftermath of that victory, however, there are, at least, the signs of change.
In 2007, none of the Democratic presidential candidates spoke at the DLC Convention, an unheard of notion only a few years before. And with Barack Obama inching ever closer to the White House, it may be that a new revolution is afoot.
Obama has built his candidacy on reaching voters in the center without moving his policy positions there. In general election match-ups, Obama consistently beats John McCain among Independents, a group long considered to be the fuel driving McCain’s success. Instead, Obama has produced a political formula that advocates a strong progressive agenda, while laying the groundwork necessary to ensure its passage. The new majority Obama speaks of is not an empty platitude; it is the most compelling reason to vote for him. The product of Obama’s innovative campaign and transcendent message will be a powerful governing coalition, come January. Obama will consolidate and increase the size of the Democratic base while attracting droves of Independents, providing him with larger margins in Congress and a mandate, part hope and part juggernaut. With substantial political capital, Obama will help further the core of the progressive agenda, allowing it to make strides forward that have seemed all but impossible for more than 25 years. Without a doubt, his model will be copied.
Perhaps, much like the New Democrats, the Obama Democratic philosophy will require a master politician as its shepherd, its mimicry falling short of replication. But for a new generation of politicians, even those who fall short of the lofty peaks of Obama’s speeches, a new kind of politics may still be a guiding philosophy: the kind of politics that embraces a progressive agenda, honestly and persuasively; the kind that respects the ideologies it rejects; and the kind that stands with pride, knowing that the language of politics still carries the power to spark movements.
The Democratic Party was left worse off when those who attempted New Democratic politics failed. Obama Democrats may too fail at meeting his standard, but having embraced the core ideas of Democratic thought, they will leave the party stronger for having tried.