Al From’s “The New Democrats and the Return to Power” tells the important story of how a political party in trouble can reinvent itself and regain power.
The book is particularly timely because the Republican Party’s leadership has set a goal of broadening its appeal after losing the last two presidential elections. And the Democrats will need to look closely at their political direction after President Barack Obama, with his unique coalition of supporters, leaves the White House.
From helped remake a Democratic Party more than two decades ago that was at a low point after Democratic nominee Walter Mondale lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984, just four years after President Jimmy Carter lost by almost as big a margin.
From, a veteran party operative, could see that the Democratic Party had evolved into a political operation seen as beholden to its many interest groups and increasingly unappealing to the middle class, particularly middle-class whites, who had drifted away from the Democrats in the previous two decades.
He has written a thorough account of the successful effort to pull the Democratic Party toward the political center. From, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, recalls that “Democrats spent the 1980s wandering in the political wilderness.” He noted that the intellectual roots of the council stretched back to 1972, when Democrat George McGovern lost 49 states to President Richard Nixon.
He recalls how party leaders, including many moderate governors and members of Congress, met to discuss the future direction for the party. They concluded that putting together “a coalition of liberals and minorities” was not a winning combination; they had to develop their appeal in the South and West and create a message to attract political moderates and conservatives.
The group pulled together a nucleus of moderate Democratic leaders to travel around the country and spread the word about the new philosophy for the Democrats. In a carefully coordinated campaign of political events and high-profile speeches, the DLC began to gain momentum and the kind of media coverage that would sell its new message, even though it fell short in the 1988 presidential campaign. But the council had gained national credibility and an important new devotee – Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
The partnership was valuable to both the council and to Clinton. He became its chairman and launched a successful campaign for the White House. While the new administration struggled at first, Clinton was re-elected and ended his term with the economy booming.
The story of the New Democrats remaking the party recounts one of the most difficult and successful makeovers of a political party. The book’s detailed account will probably be of most interest to those with a passion for politics.
From says the GOP’s job of reinventing itself may be harder “because their party is much more ideologically homogenous” than the Democrats were in the early 1990s, when the party had a strong contingent of moderates and conservatives to support the swing to the center.
The 1992 Democratic ticket had two DLC members at the top, Clinton and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, and Al From and his group were widely praised for helping provide a winning formula for the Democrats. The centrist group continued to offer Democrats input for almost two decades after Clinton was first elected, then finally shut down in 2011.
From writes: “We had accomplished our mission and there was no reason to keep it going.”
Will Lester, a political writer for The Associated Press for a dozen years, is an editor in the AP’s Washington bureau.