After struggling to make it in the hardware business, Reubin From hit pay dirt in the early 1950s in suburban South Bend, Ind.
A local housing developer neglected to add garages to its tracts of pre-fabricated homes, a critical oversight in an area where winter temperatures frequently dip into negative digits.
So From — who arrived in America from what is now Poland as a boy in 1914 — started From Building Co., a small construction firm specializing in after-market garages to shelter the neighborhood’s countless Buicks, lawn mowers and other post-war suburban accouterments.
The entrepreneurial lesson was not lost on his young son, Al, who three decades later saw a similar opening in politics as a staffer to then-Democratic Caucus Chairman Gillis Long (La.).
In the mid-1980s, Democrats appeared to be on the brink of a permanent excursion into the political wild following Walter Mondale’s 49-state drubbing by incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984. From, along with moderate Democratic leaders, set out to erase the lingering scars of Lyndon Johnson’s and Jimmy Carter’s presidential administrations.
“We believed that if we came back with a set of ideas that moved the party back to the center, that connected with voters, that honored the principles of the Democratic Party and if we had good candidates, we could have people support us again,— From said in an interview with Roll Call.
After licking their wounds, moderate Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Lawton Chiles (Fla.), Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.), Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt set out to reclaim the party from liberals by enlisting From to head the Democratic Leadership Council, a Capitol Hill-based skunk works for moderate — or “new— — Democratic politics.
But nowadays, notes one observer, the DLC’s original ideas are “so baked into the cake— of the now-majority party, “it’s hard to say what [moderate] is.
“Al is one of the 20th century’s most successful political entrepreneurs. He really coalesced a faction within the Democratic Party and founded an institution that was well-suited to its strengths and then made real impact,— the source said. “The DNA of the New Democrats is embedded in the Democratic Party.—
Now, after what From calls “the equivalent of four Senate terms,— he is stepping down from the DLC this spring and passing the reins to his longtime No. 2, Bruce Reed, President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser who co-authored a book with President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), himself a member of the House New Democrat Coalition, a moderate 68-member House centrist group.
“With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress — and with a majority of state Houses, as well — the majority of what we’ve tried to do, and what I wanted to do when I founded the DLC, has been completed,— From said. “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to drive change in the Democratic Party, and I look back and see that the DLC has achieved a lot of what I tried to do.—
But From’s departure also highlights the possible chaos, infighting and battle for relevancy that various left-of-center Democratic organizations — one-time From-affiliated groups that another observer called the “children of the DLC— — now face in a crowded marketplace.
The challenge for the disparate groups also is particularly acute, given Obama’s admission during a closed White House meeting this week that he’s a “New Democrat.—
“Like everyone else, we’re adjusting to meet this new reality,— said Matthew Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist group Third Way, the youngest DLC spinoff. “So far it hasn’t been a problem, but the Obama administration is only a month old.—
“That’s going to be something that’s going to be tricky for everybody,— Bennett continued. “It’s going to be a long administration. … Someday, we’ll differ with the White House, but our hope is that we can work with them on the front end.—
Bennett, whose group was first unveiled at a From-initiated donor event during the 2004 Boston convention, said that Third Way already has “stepped into— the DLC’s role as the go-to think tank for moderates. Bennett said the organization will soon have 27 full-time employees and its budget will go up by 30 percent this year,
“The DLC as we know it is ending,— Bennett said. “I don’t know what Bruce has in mind, but it’s not going to be the DLC as it’s been for the past couple of decades — we have stepped into that role.—
“In our view, the DLC, led by Al — and Bill Clinton, of course — really represented the first generation of Democratic moderates,— he continued. “That next generation is led by Third Way. … That next generation is interested less in those old battles than with how do you make transformational change.—
From said he expects Third Way and the DLC to continue to be “complementary— under Reed’s leadership, “but I’m sure there’s always been competition for donors.—
Another group trading on its centrist ties is the NDN, a group previously known as the New Democrat Network that was started and is still run by former DLC field director Simon Rosenberg.
His organization, now a think tank focusing on demography, technology and the media, was once a political action committee engaged in trying to elect moderate Democratic candidates. NDN has since retooled, Rosenberg said, although not entirely.
“There is no question our origins come out of the New Democrat movement and NDN has been long affiliated with the New Democrats,— Rosenberg said.
“But we’ve also charted our own course. We’ve really tried to make sure that we’ve tried to understand the changes in America and build ideas and strategies and arguments around what is a very dynamic and fast-changing time.—
For NDN, a “fast-changing time— in 2003 meant engaging with the net roots, the activist wing of the Democratic Party that raises money and interacts primarily on the Internet — and became a thorn in the side of more established players such as From.
Rosenberg said a fissure within his party cropped up in recent years over how moderates should align themselves on the issues with Republicans, whose centrist ranks in recent elections have been gutted. Rosenberg said that once Republicans “became unreasonable, the whole construct of the third way started to weaken.
“There were elements of the New Democrat movement that became leaders in the opposition to [President George W.] Bush and there were others who were slow to recognize how much damage they were doing to the country,— he continued. “That became a huge dividing line in the family.—
Finding common ground with people “whose ideas are wrong and bad for the country,— Rosenberg said, “is not a virtuous act.—
Rosenberg wrote the forward to Jerome Armstrong and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas’ best-selling 2006 book “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.—
As evidence of the rift that still exists between From and others perceived as the party’s establishment — a divide originating with moderate Democrats’ support for the Iraq War — Moulitsas dismissed the idea of compromise.
“The notion that splitting the difference makes an issue moderate is patently absurd,— he said.
From countered that unlike bloggers, “our business has not been to have partisan fights. … We were in business to help the Democratic Party have ideas that would help govern the country effectively.
“We criticized Bush as much anybody,— he added, “but we tried to do it in a constructive way.—
One close observer said the legacy of From’s era at the DLC will be recruiting, grooming and later, electing Clinton.
A former DLC chairman, Clinton championed two top DLC-initiated programs during his presidency, welfare reform and community policing, which had a “deep effect on America,— the observer said.
From, who traveled the South for Sargent Shriver’s “War on Poverty— and was a staffer on the Senate District of Columbia Committee prior to home rule, said the Clinton administration “changed the way America dealt with its poor people in a very fundamental way.
“Welfare reform the late 1980s and early 1990s was as big an issue as health care now,— he said. “People think that was easy.
“It wasn’t easy,— he recalled. “It was very hard.—
The close observer agreed that From can rightfully claim credit for some of the Clinton administration’s legislative victories, and that he played a key role in starting the Democratic moderate movement.
But if Democrats remain fragmented, critics may rightfully look to From for leaving the movement that way, the source said. For years, From consolidated power around his group and the wonkish Progressive Policy Institute, and he was not supportive of newer groups like Third Way or NDN.
“The DLC got conflated with the Washington establishment,— the close observer said.
From, who insists the DLC has always been an insurgent group, is now heading for the exits, where he expects to spend his time consulting and serving on the board of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in his hometown — and undoubtedly, waiting for his next opportunity.
“One of the things you learn in life is when something is finished and you’ve done what you’ve set out to do, don’t try to recreate it,— he said. “Go on to a different challenge.—
Correction: March 13, 2009
The article incorrectly referred to the Progressive Policy Institute as the Public Policy Institute.