What makes a New Democrat?

I had a little chat with Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, the other day. He's the father of the New Democrat movement and, as I see it, the man who has become the idea leader of the party.

Bill Clinton won as a New Democrat. And, as Mr. From points out, "Candidates for president next time will want to be with Clinton and what he stood for. He was the only Democrat elected and reelected president in the last 60 years."

It seems possible that candidates such as Joseph Lieberman, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry will run as New Democrats. And so we'll be hearing "New Democrat" being mentioned again and again. But what does it mean?

I've asked this question of From at a couple of Monitor breakfasts and he answers in rather general terms: To be a New Democrat is to be part of a political movement toward the center.

A long-time Democratic policy-shaper told me recently that the New Democrat movement could best be defined "by what it was pulling away from," rather than what it was. "It pulled away from the liberalism label and the politics pushed by liberals, such as affirmative action and political correctness," he said. "And at the same time it did move toward the center. Indeed, Clinton, as the poster boy for the New Democrats, won over a lot of Republicans when he was reelected."

Mr. From puts Mr. Clinton's achievements this way: "He attracted a lot of moderates and conservatives in 1996, when they saw what he was accomplishing: rapid growth, crime down, poverty down, welfare roles cut down, etc."

At one point in our conversation, I asked From about Al Gore, who, as presidential candidate in 2000, had disappointed From and his followers by failing to carry the New Democrat banner. From said he hadn't talked to Mr. Gore and had no idea what his plans were for 2004. He said Gore was a member of the Democratic Leadership Council and had been invited to its annual meeting in New York in July. "But will he come? Anything is possible," From said. He said Clinton would be there.

Gore's big mistake, which cost him the presidential election in the view of New Democrats, was to turn away from citing the accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore years and, instead, to stick to a theme of class warfare – a theme that no longer has any application to the American political scene.

The New Democrat movement to the right has upset many old-time Democratic liberals. Reflective of this was Sen. Ted Kennedy's speech at the National Press Club early during the Clinton administration's stay in Washington in which he heatedly criticized Clinton's moves: "We don't need another Republican Party," he shouted.

Asked about Mr. Kennedy's speech, From said: "He's probably mellowed. I don't think he would take that same position toward Clinton anymore."

Actually, Clinton's philosophical approach to governing was never clear-cut and easy to follow. With the help of his first lady, he pushed forward a high-cost healthcare program that failed to get through Congress.

Then, after meeting with mixed success with some liberal programs, Clinton sat down with the Monitor breakfast group of journalists at the White House and announced that the era of big federal spending was over. He talked of balancing the budget and of putting a welfare-reform program in place.

It was this new, more conservative approach that Kennedy had been responding to in his speech.

One veteran Democratic politician said this of Clinton's political beliefs when I asked him: "Yes, Clinton called himself a New Democrat. But, at core, he was a pragmatist – a super pragmatist."

Isn't this New Democrat approach really, at base, pragmatism – an approach to winning? But then doesn't every political-party approach have, at base, a pragmatism that focuses chiefly on beating the other side?

I asked Mr. Gephardt if he were a New Democrat, and he replied, "We better be New Democrats now because we have to constantly update our ideas to meet new circumstances." In the past, Gephardt hasn't always agreed with the Democratic Leadership Council on labor and some other issues.

When I asked Mr. Daschle about the New Democrats, he said with conviction that he was one of them.

The political center is very popular these days.

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