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Rothenberg: For DLC, 2004 Presidential Race a Defining Event

On May 2, a few hours before the South Carolina Democratic presidential debate, the state’s centrist Democratic Leadership Council held a luncheon in Columbia. While all of the presidential hopefuls were invited to the event, only one made the effort and took the time to attend: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

The irony of Dean’s appearance is hard to miss, now that he has become the nemesis of DLC founder Al From.

Dean’s success in the Democratic presidential race — and the fact that the Vermonter received a very cordial response from DLC members who attended the luncheon — ought to have From rethinking his vocal criticism of and opposition to Dean.

Dean has been successful in his bid for the nomination by criticizing the Bush administration’s policies on the war in Iraq, arguing for a rollback of the Bush tax cuts and backing civil unions. And it is exactly those views, and Dean’s general positioning on the ideological left, that have both made From an outspoken opponent and put the DLC founder in an awkward, uncomfortable position.

Indeed, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Dean’s success has threatened From’s position of influence in the Democratic Party.

Whether the party wins or loses next year, you can bet that the AFL-CIO will remain a crucial player in national politics and within the Democratic Party. The same cannot be said about the DLC, an organization established in 1985 to battle liberals and organized labor and to advocate moderation and free trade within the party.

From built an organization that achieved its greatest influence last decade, when former DLC Chairman Bill Clinton served two terms in the nation’s top office. As long as Clinton was in the White House, From could get his calls returned and the DLC was seen as a player.

But if Howard Dean wins the White House next year, the DLC’s rationale for existence will be sorely tested. From’s argument that a liberal can’t win the presidency will be disproved. And if a DLC-backed candidate wins the Democratic nomination but loses the general election, Democratic liberals will argue that the results support their view that their party can’t win by nominating a “Republican lite” candidate.

DLC leaders have been very clear about the dangers of Dean. In May, the DLC released a memo suggesting that the governor was not a “mainstream” candidate, and From and DLC President Bruce Reed warned in an op-ed about Democrats who want their party to “veer left.”

Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), the DLC’s current chairman, has also expressed concern that “the far left” is trying to take over party, and presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), also a former DLC chairman, warned during a speech at the National Press Club that his party needs to avoid “outdated extremes of our own,” a clear reference to the former Vermont governor.

For From, in particular, a Dean nomination is a nightmare.

Given From’s comments about Dean, it is difficult to imagine him working energetically to support the Vermonter. But the “D” in DLC stands for “Democratic,” so his refusal to support Dean would be seen as a “defection” and a sign of disloyalty to his party.

Ironically, From would also have a tough time supporting another presidential hopeful, one-time DLC Chairman Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.). While Gephardt once chaired From’s group, the Congressman has become close to organized labor, and, like Dean, he supports a full rollback of Bush’s tax cuts. Unlike Dean, however, Gephardt supported the war in Iraq.

But the prospect of the Democratic Party nominating Dean would also put From, Reed and a handful of other high-profile DLCers in a precarious place institutionally, since many rank-and-file Democrats who identify with or are members of the DLC would likely embrace Dean enthusiastically as the party’s standard bearer.

Remember, Dean’s record in Vermont is different from his positioning in the 2004 presidential race. The former governor can talk about his years of balancing budgets and his commitment to fiscal responsibility. On gun issues, he wasn’t a typical liberal Democrat. He can claim to have a more moderate record that should be appealing to DLC members.

Even if more moderate Democrats are nervous about some of the governor’s positions, they are likely to become enthusiastic supporters of him if they believe that Dean is looking like a winner.

Ultimately, all Democrats want to win next year, and that applies no less to DLCers than to liberals. And DLC founder From would be under great pressure to embrace the Vermonter to guarantee a place for himself and his group at the Democratic Party’s table. “Clearly, Al would have to eat some crow,” predicted one supporter of the DLC.

Of course, nominee Dean might lose in the fall, making the DLC’s case for From. Or, the Democrats might end up nominating retired Gen. Wesley Clark or one of the other Democratic hopefuls. But whatever ultimately happens, the next few months will be challenging for Al From and his DLC.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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