Where have all the New Democrats gone?

 

One might think that the Democratic Party, anticipating the chance to leverage the massive unpopularity of President Donald Trump in order to win big gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections, could just for once get out of its own way and present a modest, centrist agenda to the country. Just promise that you'll do your best to govern responsibly and keep Trump in check -- that's all!

Nope. Just like the Republican Party caught the Donald Trump Virus, the Democratic Party has caught the Bernie Sanders Virus. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is out with a promise to pass a $15 minimum wage in the first hundred hours if she can take back the Speakership.

It's one thing to say that the minimum wage ought to be raised, or ought to track along with inflation. It's quite another to say it should be doubled, and to make that a "first 100 hours" pledge. And it shows just how far the Democratic Party has drifted away from the "Third Way" or "New Democrat" principles that got it into the White House under Bill Clinton.

I just finished reading a book on the subject -- "The New Democrats and the Return to Power". There have only been two Democratic Presidents since 1980: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama, in many ways, was an exception: He campaigned as an outsider in every way -- an outsider to Washington, an outsider to "politics as usual", and significantly, as an outsider to the Democratic Party.

If one acknowledges Barack Obama less as a Democrat and more as a singular and exceptional candidate, then the only true Democrat to have won the White House in the course of 40 years was Bill Clinton. And Clinton won as a "New Democrat" -- breaking with classic left-leaning Democratic orthodoxy, and recasting "progressive" policy goals as things to be achieved via a "Third Way" in politics.

"The New Democrats" captures the historical currents that led to the New Democrat movement, through the eyes of Al From, the founder and head of the Democratic Leadership Council. From's perspective -- that the Democratic Party needed to abandon identity politics and the narrow reshuffling of interest groups in order to win in 1992 -- ought to resonate strongly with anyone who wonders about the future of the Democratic Party today.

From's inside story of the DLC and the Third Way agenda is an intriguing modern history of politics, and it's overflowing with warning signs for the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era. The fundamental math of America's electoral system will almost always produce a two-party system, so it's in the national interest that those two parties each produce good ideas and thoughtful leaders. When they don't, the nation suffers. 

If the reader can accept the premise that Barack Obama and his message of post-partisanship was likely to be a once-in-a-generation exception to the normal rules of Presidential politics, then one might conclude the book wondering why the DLC was closed in 2011. There are still "New Democrats" in office today, but they're a struggling breed. Clearly, former Speaker Pelosi doesn't think they're the path back to power. She might want to revisit her history first. The harder her party turns to the left, the harder their path back to electoral victory.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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