This piece is part of our Jan. 7, 2018, Reflection Issue, in which we take a step back from the daily onslaught of news and controversy and try to get some perspective by reexamining the past. We gathered newsmakers who took part in pivotal Washington events over the past 30 years and asked them to talk about those experiences and possibly unearth new lessons and new ways of looking at the present. One of the periods we chose to revisit came in the wake of Ronald Reagan's triumphs in 1980 and 1984, when the Democratic Party faced a reckoning. Some Democrats, including Al From, then executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, felt the party's focus on identity politics and unyielding support for government programs were alienating voters. So From started the Democratic Leadership Council with a group of like-minded lawmakers including Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and later Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee. Clinton became chair of the DLC and the standard-bearer of the so-called New Democrats.
On Oct. 12, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane met with From, Robb, Nunn and former DLC staff members and strategists Elaine Kamarck (who recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post Magazine), Melissa Moss, Bruce Reed and Deborah Smulyan. (Babbitt and Gephardt could not make it. Clinton and Gore did not respond to our invitation. Former DLC policy director Will Marshall was unable to attend because he was at a retreat for a new DLC-style group that he is starting.)
During the hour-long conversation, the group reminisced about the DLC's ascent and discussed its legacy, including some of the criticism that was lobbed against it during the 2016 presidential race from both the left and the right. The transcript has been condensed, edited, annotated and reordered for clarity.
From: The DLC actually started in the House Democratic Caucus in 1981 under Gillis Long [a congressman from Louisiana]. Gillis was head of the Democratic caucus. I had been working in the Carter White House. He hired me to run the caucus for him. And we decided that we were going to start to rebuild the party intellectually, because until we stood for things people wanted to support they probably weren't going to support us.
Robb: When I was chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, I was asked to address the [Democratic National] Convention in 1984, and I basically laid out what became the basis for that whole DLC approach. Not everybody paid much attention at the time. But I got a call from Sam Nunn, who said, "I like what you're doing, and I've got about a dozen or so more senators and we'd like to meet with you." Sam offered an opportunity to broaden the discussion with a whole new group.
Robb and the group of lawmakers met after the 1984 election, in which Reagan won 49 states, to talk about what to do next.
From: I did an analysis that Gillis was supposed to deliver at the meeting, and my argument was the Democrats were going in one direction and the country was going in another. And unless we did something about it we were never going to win the presidency back. The main problem the Democratic Party had in those days was we were selling a product nobody wanted to buy. I mean, 1984 was 49 states, but so was 1972, and then because of Watergate we got a reprieve, but there were a lot of us back in the late '70s who said, we're doing okay by the numbers, but because of Watergate, we hadn't changed anything.
Kane: Senator Nunn, do you think that was the problem: selling something that the rest of the country wasn't buying?
Nunn: It was a combination of a lot of different things. We were aware that the Democratic Party was wedded to the programs of the past rather than the principles of the past. I think the analogy to today is that as I see the Democratic Party today, it is really more around identity politics than around ideas. We needed ideas. The exercise of thinking through them would make us more relevant to the actual facts as we can find them rather than thinking everything was the New Deal. Chuck [Robb] and his group gave me confidence that there were a lot of people who were feeling the same way.
Kamarck: During the time we were doing this, there were two big demographic changes going on. The South — every time an incumbent stepped down in the South, the Republicans picked up the seat. It was only incumbency that was letting us hold on to the South. And the private-sector labor unions were disappearing. So you have those two trends going on that are really weakening the party. But we knew we were not getting heard on any economic issues because of the cultural issues.
Kane: Bruce, you worked on the '92 Clinton campaign as policy director. The rap against Democrats is that they have 48-point plans that nobody really understands, and the Republicans everybody knows are for lower taxes, less government. Were there a couple of policies back then that broke through to turn the Democrats into the party of ideas that Senator Nunn was talking about?
Reed: Clinton came along and had concrete ideas on how to solve the problems that Republicans had been alarming voters about for decades, like crime. When he proposed to put 100,000 police on the street, that was history. That helped to redefine the Democrats, but more important it helped to solve the problem. It's always easy to forget here in Washington that what people look to politics for is answers to their problems. And that was the real key to Clinton's success.
Smulyan: It wasn't just a policy idea, but also the connection. It was that "Oh, that makes sense. Work is better than welfare." It created cognitive dissonance in people's minds so that they said, "There are different Democrats, so I'm willing to give it a try."
Nunn: Bill Clinton is able to express things in ways that people can understand. There's a saying back home that [the late Sen. Herman] Talmadge [of Georgia] used to say: "You've got to throw the corn where the hogs can get to it." [Laughter.]
Kane: Your presidential candidate won the popular vote last year by nearly 3 million votes. It was nothing like the '84 election. But then all those governor's mansions have disappeared. The House seats have disappeared. Are you guys in a deeper hole today?
From: It's not as grave because Republicans are a lot worse off. Just by existing we'll get some benefit from that. [Laughter.] But one of the things we did was change the message of the Democratic Party from fairness to opportunity. Opportunity gives hope. Fairness means taking from me to give something to somebody else. The Democratic Party is falling back today into the fairness issue, and we have to figure out a way to expand hope and opportunity.
Kane [to Reed]: You were there in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. In 2016 you had two people on different ends of the political spectrum — one Bernie [Sanders], one Trump — who were against what came about from Bill Clinton's term with NAFTA, deregulation of Wall Street and other issues. Was that sort of critique off the mark?
Reed: It's easy to sell false answers to real problems. In this last election we saw an enormous amount of that from Trump and a shameless effort to convince people who are really hurting that a wall he's never going to build that the Mexicans are never going to pay for would bring back the promise of opportunity that they deserve. Bernie's agenda is a different story. It's more in the line of noble promises that can't be kept. One thing that the Democrats underestimated in this last election is the depth of frustration with Washington. If we're going to be the party with answers, we have to convince people that the government is going to be on their side. And that's hard to do when all they see in Washington is gridlock.
Besides trade policy, some have taken issue with Bill Clinton's support for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which deregulated the financial services industry. But the big banks wanted the repeal and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Congress, which passed it in 1999 — contributing to the creation of giant financial institutions that roiled the U.S. economy when they failed, or came close to failing, during the Great Recession.
Kamarck: The only thing that the Clinton administration got really wrong was the repeal of Glass-Steagall. But at the time nobody saw what that was going to do. So going all the way back to the Clinton administration and the DLC to blame all sorts of things on it is pretty far-fetched.
From: Some of the policies which were criticized in this campaign were essential elements of solving those problems. NAFTA was part of Clinton's economic policy, which in my simple terms was always: fiscal discipline, investment in people and technology, and expanding trade. In the '90s, incomes went up for everybody. Now, are the circumstances around trade different today? Of course, but re-litigating something that worked for the time it was proposed drives me crazy.
Kane: Melissa, Markos Moulitsas from Daily Kos was quoted in the New Republic in October talking about Joe Biden because Biden had just gone to Alabama to campaign for Doug Jones. Jones is running [in a special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions' senate seat] pretty much as a centrist. And Biden went there and talked about bipartisanship. Markos said: "If Biden's solution to eight years of Republican obstruction and conservative slash-and-burn tactics against him and Barack Obama is to talk about 'bipartisanship' and 'consensus,' then he might as well pack up and go home. Because if he's that stupid to believe that" S-H-exclamation-T, "then he's no longer got any business being in the public face." How much more of this fight are we going to see in the years to come?
Moss: I don't know, but I will say that part of the magic of what happened in the alchemy of the DLC was we had clear ideas with new voices and that broke through. Joe Biden is an incredible person who has done so much for our country. But there are a lot of people that would like to marry some new ideas with some new voices.
Kamarck: We used to laugh about this. Back then, the DLC was a counterweight for people who had to run in places like Alabama or Virginia or Georgia, when the party got defined by New York City or Los Angeles liberals who were way out there on some social issues, etc. Some of our politicians could say, "I'm a different kind of Democrat. I'm a DLC Democrat." And what many people have been saying to me lately is we need a DLC today. If we're going to pick up Senate seats and House seats in purple districts or even red districts, people need to be able to say, "Yeah, of course I'm a Democrat. And I'm not a crazy racist like Donald Trump. And I'm also not going to build big government, etc."
Kane [to Reed]: How does the party channel that anger among the far left to help people like Doug Jones win?
Reed: When you're in opposition, you have to do everything you can to stop bad things from happening. But when you seek the White House you have an additional burden to show how you can make the country more successful as a result. People are going to be excited if you are talking about solving their problems. The danger is that if all you're doing is trying to outshout the other guy, then all but the party faithful will run screaming or change the channel. [Jones would go on to win by less than 2 percentage points.]
Kane: So, Al, we're going to give you the last word here. Imagine yourself 32 years younger today. What does Al From 32 years older tell his younger self to do now going forward?
From: I'd tell him to find Bill Clinton. [Laughter.] What I would tell him is if you have good ideas, and you can make an argument in terms that people can understand, and you stand for the right things, people will support you. Remember what we're all about at the core. And at the core we're the party of hope and opportunity. There have got to be ideas out there that Democrats can latch on to to become a party of opportunity. Americans want somebody who's going to give them hope and a belief that if they work hard they're going to get a chance to get ahead. If we do that, our party's going to be fine.
Paul Kane is a Washington Post staff writer.