Group for centrist Democrats runs out of money. Does it matter?

The moderate Democratic Leadership Council suspends operations. Liberals rejoice, others say the DLC succeeded in moving the party to the middle.

Andy Nelson / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Bruce Reed (l.) and Al From (r.) of the Democratic Leadership Council spoke with reporters at a 2007 Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington, D.C. Mr. From announced Monday that DLC has suspended operations over funding woes.

Chances are, the closure of the Democratic Leadership Council doesn’t mean much to most people. Though it had state chapters, it was a distinctly inside-the-Beltway phenomenon – an organization founded by moderate Democrats in 1985 to steer the party away from its left-wing image and philosophies, and make it more viable on the national stage.

The DLC’s biggest achievement was the presidential election of member Bill Clinton in 1992 – no small feat.

Now, retired DLC founder Al From confirmed Monday night, the DLC has suspended operations over funding woes. In a statement, he said the DLC is convinced it will continue to have an impact in the future.

But does the DLC’s demise tell us anything about the larger future of centrist politics? In the actual business of governing the country, after all, President Obama is now all about a shift to the center, trying to compromise with the newly empowered Republicans where possible and dropping his populist rhetoric in favor of a more business-friendly approach.

And there are plenty of other centrist Democratic organizations picking up the slack. The Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank that spun off from the DLC in 2009, is alive and well. So is the New Democrat Network and Third Way. The Center for American Progress, founded by Clinton White House alumnus John Podesta, also qualifies as centrist and has the benefit of close ties to the Obama White House. The last DLC-er who could make that boast – the group’s CEO, Bruce Reed – just left the organization to become Vice President Biden’s chief of staff. He had just completed a stint as executive director of Mr. Obama’s fiscal commission.

On Capitol Hill, the ranks of the moderates have thinned in recent elections. The resignation of centrist Rep. Jane Harman (D) of California, to become president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington, means the departure of yet another centrist “Blue Dog” Democrat from the House. The Blue Dogs have gone from 54 members in the last Congress to 25 now. Republican moderates have taken a similar beating, either through retirement or election losses.

But that hollowing out of the center on Capitol Hill is more a sign of the continuing polarization of Congress, not that there’s no possibility of action in the center – especially when the president and congressional leadership want to go there. In addition, notes Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett, a lot of the centrist Democrats who lost last fall held seats that were in traditionally Republican areas.

Mr. Bennett speaks charitably of the DLC’s accomplishments, noting that the group helped develop Clinton’s brand of welfare reform and his approach to free trade.

“They were enormously influential for 2-1/2 decades,” says Bennett. “They really had a huge impact on the way the country is governed and, more immediately, on the way the Democratic Party operates. So the end of that is not insignificant.”

Some liberals are crowing over the demise of the DLC. They argue that the group made some critical mistakes in positioning, including its backing of the Iraq War and support for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary.

But just as likely, analysts say, the DLC simply wrote themselves out of a job.

“It was a great platform for Bill Clinton; it probably helped him get elected president,” says William Klein, a Democratic publicist in Silver Spring, Md. “But that was a long time ago. Since then, it’s just a group that nobody’s thought about too much. You could say, more charitably, that they won the revolution. The Democratic Party moved to the center.”

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