The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates this week are busy genuflecting at Corporate America's altar -- otherwise known as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Now, it's true -- the DLC is really just a group of Beltway-insulated corporate-funded hacks who have spent the better part of the last decade trying to undermine the Democratic Party's traditional working class base -- a base that had kept Democrats in power for 40 years and now, thanks to the DLC, has been forfeited to the Republicans. Even so, the fact that these presidential candidates feel the need to bow down to the DLC is a troubling sign about whether the Democratic Party is really serious about regaining power in America.
Let's just look at the cold, hard facts about the DLC and its record. The DLC has pushed, among other things, the war in Iraq and "free" trade policies, using bags of corporate money to buy enough Democratic votes to help Republicans make those policies a reality. They have chastised anyone who has opposed those policies as either unpatriotic or anti-business -- even as a majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, oppose the DLC's business-written trade deals, and are sick of watching America's economy sold out to the highest corporate bidder. Additionally, in brazenly Orwellian fashion, the DLC has also called its extremist agenda "centrist," even though polls show the American public opposes most of their agenda, and supports much of the progressive agenda.
Now, you could make a credible argument that the DLC's corporatization/Republicanization of the Democratic Party was justified, had it led to electoral success for Democrats. Few would argue that today's split-the-difference Democratic Party hasn't followed the DLC's policy direction over the last 10 years. That means the last 10 years of elections really have been a referendum on whether the DLC's model -- regardless of any moral judgements about it -- actually wins at the polls.
And that's when we get to the real problem with the DLC -- its policies are BOTH morally bankrupt, and politically disastrous. The rise of the DLC within the Democratic Party has coincided almost perfectly with the decline of the Democratic Party's power in American politics -- a decline that took Democrats from seemingly permanent majority status to permanent minority status. In this last election, just think of Democrats' troubles in Ohio as a perfect example of this. Here was a state ravaged by massive job loss due to corporate-written "free" trade deals -- yet Democrats were unable to capitalize on that issue and thus couldn't win the state because the DLC had long ago made sure the party helped pass the very trade policies (NAFTA, China PNTR) that sold out those jobs.
To counter, the DLC holds up Bill Clinton's 1992 win as proof that its policies win elections, but that is so dishonest it's laughable. First and foremost, almost everyone would agree Clinton ran a very un-DLC-like populist campaign for President in 1992, and won far more on the strength of his charisma/personality than any policy platform from a bunch of pencil-pushing geeks at the DLC in Washington, D.C. Secondly, since that 1992 victory -- with the exception of Clinton's 1996 victory over one of the weakest GOP challengers in modern history -- Democrats have been roundly destroyed in national election after national election.
Thus, we are brought back to the bottom line: with the DLC, Democrats get all of the bad policies, and none of the good electoral outcomes -- it is the worst of both worlds.
Why is this the case? Because, above any one issue, Americans don't think Democrats stand for anything. They hear Democrats say they stand up for America's middle class, but then watch as the DLC loudly supports the opposite. For instance, the DLC was one of the pioneers in pushing Social Security privatization - a policy the DLC's Wall Street backers love (and if you don't believe the DLC advocated this, see their position paper trumpeting "personal accounts"). The DLC has pushed "free" trade that sells out American jobs, which the DLC's corporate backers love. And the DLC has pushed wars that send middle class kids off to die for lies, which the DLC's neocon ideologues love.
The DLC attracts undue attention to itself and these awful policies by claiming to speak for Democrats, attacking the Democratic Party, echoing the Republican Party's agenda, and reinforcing dishonest right-wing lies about progressives -- a surefire way to get press attention. What's left is a widespread impression that the Democratic Party deliberately misleads voters about its priorities, cares only about their political advancement, and possesses absolutely no core convictions.
Thankfully, the rise of a new populism within the Democratic Party is challenging the tired, hackneyed suits at the DLC, as is alternate fundraising sources that allows candidates to ignore the fat cats who fund the DLC.
But make no mistake about it -- the Democratic Party is in the throes of a battle for its soul -- a battle that will decide whether Democrats will ever be a majority party again.
On one side, you have the DLC which seeks to remold the Democratic Party into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Corporate America, controlled by a tiny cadre of conservative-leaning elitists in the nation's capital who are desperate to hang onto their power over the Democratic Party apparatus in Washington, D.C. These are the people who are so desperate and conniving, they viciously attacked Howard Dean in 2004 and ruthlessly attack grassroots groups like Moveon.org who, unlike the DLC, actually goes out and does the hard work of trying to WIN election. They are also the same people who are now working overtime to undermine Democrats' opposition to President Bush's extremist economic agenda.
On the other side are progressives who want to see the party go back to what made it successful for decades: a willingness to stand up for America's middle class.
The 2008 presidential candidates would rather there not be this choice, and that's why they are trying to have it both ways, speaking at the DLC conferences, while reassuring progressives they are real Democrats. But ultimately, that won't be possible. Each of them will have to make a choice -- kiss the elitists' ring, sell out to the highest corporate bidder, and be ridiculed on the national stage for standing for nothing other than fat cats and political expediency. Or, actually follow the lead of conviction politicians, ignore the D.C. cocktail party circuit, create a principled McCain-like image, and stand up for the millions of Americans who the DLC and the Beltway crowd have arrogantly alienated for so long.
We've tried the former for many years now, and it has meant loss after loss after loss after loss (the repetition of this disastrous formula kind of makes you wonder whether the current crop of Democrats actually enjoys losing). Personally, I don't like losing and I don't like selling out, so I'm hoping the Democrats reject the DLC model and change course. While it might be a fine life to be a comfortable-in-the-minority elitist in the cushy confines of Washington, D.C. where the consequences of selling out are muted, out here in the real world, the results of Democrats' permanent minority status in national politics have very real and very harsh effects -- and it's time for a change.