Are Centrist Democrats an Endangered Species?

Political fashions may enjoy slightly more longevity than clothing fashions but they too are evanescent. During the 1990s, “3rd Way politics” was the rage and its most successful practitioners were President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The recent decision by the Democratic Leadership Council to close shop together with the disappearance of Blair’s New Labor marks the end of an era.

Jane Harman
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Jane Harman

The DLC was the vehicle that Clinton rode to get to the White House. The Democrats from 1968 to 1992 had occupied the White House only 4 years under Jimmy Carter and it was less the attractiveness of the Democratic Party and more the Watergate scandal that was responsible for Carter’s 1976 election victory. The Democrats were saddled with the twin albatrosses of being soft on crime and too generous with welfare recipients and they were effectively losing core Democratic voters to the Republicans.

The DLC hoped to change that . It favored a more centrist Democratic Party that could convince voters that the party had taken to heart its electoral defeats and was willing to move towards the American electorate on certain issues. As American politics became increasingly polarized in recent years, and the left wing of the Democratic Party became increasingly energized, the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council waned. The key issue was the war in Iraq and those who had supported it and the DLC such as Senator Joe Lieberman increasingly felt themselves unwelcome in the Democratic Party

Now, Congresswoman Jane Harman has resigned from the House of Representatives to take a post with the Woodrow Wilson foundation. Harman had supported the Iraq war at the outset and although she captured the Democratic primary last year for her house seat, it was by a substantially reduced margin. Likewise, she found herself shortchanged in committee assignments when the Democrats commanded a majority in the House of Representatives between 2007-2010.

As an echo of the past, 23 members of the Democratic Blue Dog group in the House of Representatives met with Bill Clinton to tap his experience on how bipartisanship can be achieved in Congress. The Blue Dogs are Democratic representatives from conservative states who find themselves increasingly vulnerable and losing numbers. On the one hand, their party moves to the left while conservative Democrats increasingly jump ship to the Republican Party.

In the bloodbath of last November’s elections, the Blue Dogs lost more than half their strength. The Blue Dogs praised Clinton for his deft handling of the budget and getting debt under control during his office. Now the issue of spending restraint has been monopolized by the Republicans and the Blue Dogs are already nostalgic for the Democratic Leadership Council.


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