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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Al From

Last Build Date: Mon, 27 Feb 2006 00:03:31 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Waking the Democrats

Mon, 27 Feb 2006 00:03:31 -0600

Just as Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers -- with new ideas to fit their times -- modernized the Democratic Party for the Industrial Era, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats modernized their party for today. In the same Democratic tradition of innovation, the New Dealers brought America back from economic depression, and the New Democrats led an economic resurgence in the 1990s. By tempering the excesses of capitalism, Roosevelt saved capitalism. By modernizing progressive governance, Clinton saved progressive governance. The New Democrat movement began as an effort to revitalize the Democratic Party as the New Deal coalition broke apart. For three-quarters of a century before 1932, Democrats were, in a sense, the remainder party in American politics. They were largely a confederation of disgruntled constituencies that seldom won the White House and had little sense of national purpose. Roosevelt changed that. Under FDR, Democrats offered a broad agenda for economic and social progress. Policies begun under the New Deal -- and boosted by the war effort -- rebuilt the American economy, created the great American middle class, conquered fascism, and saved the free world. The New Deal message was crystal clear: economic progress and upward mobility for the greatest number of Americans and anti-totalitarianism on the global scene. As the 1960s passed into the 1970s, the liberal agenda -- largely because of its success -- ran out of steam, and the intellectual coherence of the New Deal began to dissipate. The Democratic coalition split apart over civil rights, Vietnam, economic change, and culture and values, and the great cause of liberal government that had animated the Democratic Party for three decades degenerated into a collection of special pleaders. Not surprisingly, Democrats began losing presidential elections again -- five out of the six between Lyndon Johnson's victory in 1964 and Clinton's in 1992. The first seeds of a New Democrat movement were sown by Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine in the mid-1970s. In two groundbreaking speeches -- to the Liberal Party of New York in October 1975 and to the Democratic Party platform committee in May 1976 -- Muskie delivered a blunt message to his fellow liberals: To preserve progressive governance, we had to reform liberalism. "Why can't liberals start raising hell about a government so big, so complex, so expansive, and so unresponsive that it's dragging down every good program we've worked for?" Muskie asked. "Our challenge is to restore the faith of Americans in the basic competence and purposes of government. ... Well-managed, cost-effective, equitable, and responsible government is in itself a social good. ... Efficient government is not a retreat from social goals, ... simply a realization that without it, those goals are meaningless." The first organized effort that led to the New Democrat movement began in the House Democratic Caucus after the 1980 Republican landslide. Faced with a Republican president, a GOP Senate, and a sharply diminished Democratic majority in the House, a group of young House members -- including Al Gore of Tennessee, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, Tim Wirth of Colorado, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin -- gathered weekly in a windowless room on the top floor of the Longworth House Office Building to discuss policies and strategies to revitalize their sagging party. First in April 1981, and again in September 1982 and in January 1984, they issued policy manifestos aimed at modernizing their party. Their themes were strikingly New Democrat -- to expand opportunity for all, to rekindle private enterprise, to regenerate our sense of community and mutual commitment, and to reaffirm our commitment to a stronger America. "Our program amounts to a clean break with the recent rhetoric -- but not the traditional values -- of the Democratic Party," Caucus Chairman Gillis Long of Louisiana wrote in the introduction to the 1984 effort. In early 1985, many of these House members joined with about a dozen senators and another grou[...]