Jonathan Chait

Did The DLC Have A Philosophy?

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I've always believed that Bill Clinton's "Third Way" and the Democratic Leadership Council from which it sprang offered some pretty good policies but virtually nothing in the way of a coherent philosophy other than "do stuff that works and/or is popular." Here's Ron Brownstein's summary of the opposite view:

Clinton blended the DLC’s centrist reformism with his own Southern populism to produce a distinctive governing philosophy that lastingly shifted the political debate within his partyand the nation.

Drawing heavily on DLC thinking, Clinton argued that economic policy should prioritize growth over redistribution; that social policy should link opportunity and personal responsibility (most notably by requiring welfare recipients to work but providing them education and child care); and that fiscal discipline was compatible with government activism. Challenging his party’s retreat from global engagement since Vietnam, Clinton embraced both free trade and a robust U.S. international role. Rejecting “false choices” of the Left and Right, he insisted on a “third way” between them. The DLC “made a major contribution to breaking out of the old Right-Left debate and formulating the debate the way it should beas tomorrow versus yesterday,” Clinton said in an interview.

As president, Clinton sometimes strayed from these DLC-influenced ideas (especially during his chaotic first two years).

Let's consider these three elements of the DLC's distinctive governing philosophy. First, growth over redistribution. This isn't the same thing as saying Clinton opposed redistribution. Indeed, his DLC-inspired platform emphasized raising taxes on the rich and reducing them on the middle class. That is pure redistribution. Now, it's true that Clinton favored growth, and in the latter part of his term he chose to reduce the national debt over more redistributive activist government alternatives. But I think the better way to characterize this mix is that Clinton, like traditional liberals, favored both growth and redistribution, and he crafted policies that blended the two goals effectively.

Second, Clinton and the DLC believed "social policy should link opportunity and personal responsibility (most notably by requiring welfare recipients to work but providing them education and child care)." "Responsibility" was a big slogan for Clinton and the DLC. But I think welfare reform was not merely the most notable element of this philosophy, it was the entirety of this philosophy. What other ways did Clinton, but not traditional liberals, demand responsibility? I think welfare reform had both a strong substantive and political justification. It's the attempts to define it as stemming from a philosophy that don't persuade me.

Finally, they argued "fiscal discipline was compatible with government activism." Sure. But dread paleoliberals Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis believed the same thing, and they also had plans to reduce the deficit.

Again, Clinton did move his party to the center, for both substantive and political reasons, and generally with success. The issues on which he moved to the center, the party hasn't moved back. But the efforts to define that move as a coherent philosophy struggled at the time, and continue to struggle, which is part of the reason the DLC failed to adapt itself to the post-Clinton world and ultimately died.

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