Do the New Democratic Centrists Come in Peace?

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Perhaps this time around DLC co-founder Will Marshall won’t punch hippies or engage in intra-party strife. Photo: Progressive Policy Institute

When a new Democratic group launched earlier this month with the announced goal of expanding the party’s electoral base into more conservative territory, the ranks of those who are ever-ready for a “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” rejoiced. That included conservatives eager to suggest the group would be a redoubt for pro-life candidates progressives wanted to exclude; progressives quick to label it as advocating the “rich-friendly neoliberalism inflected with white identity politics” that Democrats have begun to repudiate; and mainstream-media folk looking for a new entrant in the “fight over the party’s direction.” There were also some clueless observers who apparently thought the group’s name, New Democracy, harkened back to a Maoist slogan rather than to the “New Democrats” that were Bill Clinton’s (and to some extent Barack Obama’s) ideological comrades.

Those who were familiar with the New Democrats (and the organization that launched them, the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council) can be forgiven for assuming the new group would again be taking up the cudgels against “fundamentalist liberalism” and an interest-group-dominated Democratic Party — particularly given the new prominence of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and his followers. After all, New Democracy’s founder, Will Marshall, was a co-founder of the DLC more than three decades ago, and he still espouses some of the same policy views (bemoaning economic anti-globalization and pessimism) and political perspectives (embracing a “big tent” party committed to persuasion as well as mobilization of voters) familiar to participants and spectators of intra-party fights in the past.

But in an interview with Ezra Klein, Marshall disclaimed any interest in struggling for souls:

I was interested to see that Marshall has formed a new organization: New Democracy, which promises to “expand the party’s appeal across Middle America and make Democrats competitive everywhere.” The DLC wing of the Democratic Party has been surprisingly quiet as its legacy has come under attack, and as the argument over the future of the party has centered on how far left it should go. The debate, I assumed, was about to be joined. But when I reached him, that’s not what happened.


“I don’t know the one true path to durable progressive majorities, and I don’t think anyone else does either,” Marshall says. “When you’re in the minority, you need to expand in every direction.”

When asked to live up, or down, to his reputation as a lefty-basher, Marshall demurred:

A few decades ago, Marshall helped lead a confident ideological insurgency that reshaped the Democratic Party from top to bottom. Today, he sounds chastened. “We’re not interested in engaging in sectarian battles for control of the Democratic Party’s steering wheel,” he says. “New Democracy isn’t aimed at safe blue districts. The Democratic Party is doing well there. We’re focused on the competitive ground where we need to make big gains.”

Among the current and former elected officials New Democracy has signed up, most are indeed from red and purple states. But they hardly resemble the “southern white boys” the DLC was often accused of representing. Their southern contingent prominently includes two African-Americans from the reddest of red states, U.S. Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama and Columbia, South Carolina, mayor Steve Benjamin. Perhaps their best-known white Southerner is New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose conspicuous stand against neo-Confederate monuments makes the idea this group promotes “white identity politics” a bit absurd. Most typical of the New Democracy supporters is probably former Iowa governor and Obama Cabinet member Tom Vilsack, who has watched his state’s hard-won Democratic majorities unravel rapidly over the last few years, from the top to the bottom of the ballot.

I should note that I was a colleague of Marshall at the DLC back in the day. I almost certainly preceded and exceeded him in the sort of humbled reevaluation of the organization’s tenets that Klein observes, as reflected in my own conflicted assessment of the DLC when it closed its doors, in 2011. But his ecumenical spirit was exemplified by a joint statement on economic policy he co-signed with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner — yes, the same rigorously progressive Robert Kuttner whose commitment to economic “populism” made Stephen Bannon think he might make common cause with Trump in China-bashing — back in 2004. Some of us who knew both men thought this meeting of the Democratic minds could be a sign of the End Times.

In any event, Marshall and his colleagues appear to come in peace, asking for a job some Democrats are loath to do. As Jesse Jackson once said to a DLC gathering, “it takes two wings to fly.” That doesn’t mean party conflicts can be perpetually avoided. As Klein observes, when it comes time to nominate a presidential candidate for 2020, there can only be one winner. And Marshall’s suggestion of a red-state/blue-state division of labor won’t convince populists who believe that their own message, not some squishy business-friendly centrism, is the ideal ice-breaker for white working-class voters. But with Donald Trump still raging around the White House, and Republicans still controlling most of the levers of power in Washington and a majority of the states, a delay in the intra-party fisticuffs as long as possible probably makes sense.

Do the New Democratic Centrists Come in Peace?