When the Democratic Leadership Council met here last week, it had much to celebrate. Not quite 15 years after moderate Democrats created the organization out of panic at seeing their party whipped twice by Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, the DLC has the president and vice president of the United States among its spokesmen -- and a growing number of kindred spirits are running the governments of Great Britain, Germany and other countries. Ideas the DLC think tank generated have proved to be both workable and popular -- from community policing to AmeriCorps and welfare reform.
But the session here also demonstrated that the DLC faces a pair of major challenges as it attempts to move its model of governing from Washington to the states and cities. Its leaders recognize that more and more domestic policy decisions are being made outside Washington. But in those statehouses and city halls, Democrats are competing with a large cadre of GOP governors, legislators and mayors who are themselves skillful political entrepreneurs. And one of those Republicans -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- is threatening to steal the DLC's bacon in his campaign to be the next president.
Al From, the DLC's president and chief architect of its rise to power, exaggerated a bit when he told the meeting here that the success of its model of center-left government has been "the biggest political story of the '90s." The Republican takeover of Congress was at least as important -- maybe more. But beyond doubt, the DLC has come a long, long way.
What started as a southern and border-state "white boys' " reaction to the growing influence of Jesse Jackson and organized labor on Democratic presidential politics has become a much broader movement. African Americans and Latinos were prominent among the 170 elected officials at the Baltimore meeting, and Rep. Cal Dooley of California reported that almost one-third of the House Democratic Caucus -- 63 members -- is formally aligned with the DLC. The leaders of the National Governors' Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are all DLC members.
But as the DLC tries to move from what From called a "top-down organization," focused on presidential politics, to "rebuilding a progressive centrist coalition from the ground up" in local and state government, the challenge is clear.
It has begun organizing caucuses of moderate Democrats in a dozen legislatures. But conservative legislators across the country have been linked through the American Legislative Exchange Council for years. Centrist Republicans occupy mayors' jobs in New York, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and other cities. And while From lured five Democratic governors onto his program, the biggest state any of them leads is Georgia. Republicans govern in 31 of the 50 states, including eight of the 10 largest.
In an article in the New Democrat, the DLC publication, From pointed to the worrisome record in five states that are barometers of national political trends: Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Clinton carried all of them twice in winning the White House. At the start of this decade, all but Illinois had Democratic governors. But in the 14 gubernatorial elections they have had since then, Democrats have won only once, and today Republicans govern in all five. Unless Democrats can mount stronger challenges in the gubernatorial elections of 2002, they will not be able to drive policy at the state level.
And then there is the Bush problem. From Clinton on down, all the speakers at the DLC meeting seemed preoccupied with the Texas governor -- and not just because he was politicking and fund-raising in Baltimore on the same day they gathered here. Clinton attempted to poke fun at Bush's slogan of "compassionate conservatism," but clearly he is worried about losing the franchise for middle-of-the-road policies to the man who may be the Republican nominee.
Clinton recognizes that Bush's themes appear to be virtually indistinguishable from the message of fiscal prudence and social inclusiveness that this administration has been promoting. Cal Dooley said Democrats better "build a brand-name identification for these ideas" before Bush does. And From told his colleagues that all their achievements could be undone by someone who "pilfers our ideas" and tries to "reclaim the political center on the cheap."
Poaching on popular ideas is nothing new in politics, of course. Indeed, much of what Clinton and the DLC did in their rise to power was to take the values rhetoric of the 1980s Republicans and wrap it around family-leave and anti-crime initiatives of their own. You can see the Democrats worrying that with Bush, it may be payback time.