How We Won the Mainstream
Three years ago things looked bleak for the Democratic Party. George Bush had just won a second term while his party consolidated its grip on Congress. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay crowed about a "permanent Republican majority," and Beltway Democrats acquiesced as Republicans built their unchallenged (and lawless) unitary executive.
Democrats appeared to be on the run, disorganized and demoralized. But outside of Washington there was hope. Grass-roots Democratic activists had seen the future of our politics in Howard Dean -- plain-spoken and unapologetic. His presidential candidacy had come up short, but its fresh, optimistic approach -- predicated on offering clear contrasts between the two parties -- was poised to redefine the party.
Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic Party despite predictions of electoral doom by the usual suspects in Washington, including the Democratic Leadership Council. In the House, Democrats chose Nancy Pelosi to lead them over current DLC Chairman Harold Ford, who warned of disaster if Pelosi won. Calling her a "throwback" who practiced a "destructive and obstructive" style of politics, Ford proclaimed, "I don't think Nancy Pelosi's kind of politics is what's needed right now." Today, Nancy Pelosi is the first female speaker of the House.
Ford, like his fellow Washington insiders, grossly misunderstood the American electorate. He and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley continue to do so [" Our Chance to Capture the Center," op-ed, Aug. 7]. Convinced that this is fundamentally a conservative nation, Ford demanded that Democrats unceasingly inch toward the right or risk electoral irrelevance. As then-DLC official Ed Kilgore put it in 2005, "If we put a gun to everybody's head in the country and make them pick sides, we're not likely to win." But we who live outside the D.C. bubble -- in all 50 states, in counties blue and red -- were hearing voices at odds with the Washington consensus. People wanted real choices at the ballot box. And given the disastrous rule of the Bush administration, they wanted a Democratic Party that stood tall and pushed back like a true opposition.
The new leadership responded. A concerted grass- and Net-roots effort, bridging online activists and the labor movement, forced Democratic officials to reject any "compromise" with right-wing interests seeking to gut Social Security. Democratic poll numbers rose in the wake of this victory as Bush's fell. Standing strong for a core Democratic program was not only good for our country, it was smart politics.
Months later we championed Ned Lamont's victorious primary challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. Beltway insiders predicted that our success would cost Democrats the U.S. Senate, and consultants allied with the DLC fretted that activists were "pushing the party to the left."
In fact, we pushed the party so far left that we positioned it squarely in the American mainstream and last year won a historic, sweeping congressional victory, something the "centrist" groups had been unable to accomplish for decades -- not even in the DLC's glory days of the 1990s.
By early 2006, so-called centrism had offered up Iraq, a tax regime that puts the burden on the middle class, bankruptcy reform that gave away the farm to irresponsible credit card companies, an outdated physical infrastructure, legalized torture and a crippled disaster-response effort in New Orleans. The American people, infinitely smarter than Washington insiders, had had enough. Unapologetic, muscular Democrats swept into office in dramatic numbers in state and local races nationwide.
A new day is dawning for the progressive movement. The distrust between Net-roots activists and more traditional progressive players in the party establishment and issue groups has given way to respectful cooperation as we all adjust to new technologies and the promise they hold for institutional change.
Last week, at the YearlyKos convention, all these players came together to celebrate our newfound unity and to organize for the coming battles in 2008 and beyond. The DLC was nowhere to be found -- unless you looked in Nashville, where its members continued to preach, in empty halls, about the "vital center." Even the Democratic presidential candidates have figured out where the heart of the party now lies: with the new, unashamedly progressive movement.
The DLC had two decades to make its case, to build an audience and community, to elect leaders the American people wanted. It failed.
Its members number in the hundreds, compared with the millions that the people-powered movement can claim, and they are reduced to attacking our movement from the studios of right-wing Fox News and pleading that in the next election they'll really prove that the mushy, indistinguishable "middle" is where the American people want to be.
Their time is up. The "center" is where we stand now, promoting an engaged and active politics embraced by significant majorities of Americans.
Susan Gardner is a contributing editor to and holds a fellowship with the Web site Daily Kos. Markos Moulitsas is founder of Daily Kos.