A Fleeting Victory For Conservative Democrats?

The good times should be rolling as members of the Democratic Leadership Council gather on Apr. 30 for their annual meeting in New Orleans. Their pragmatic ideas about education, welfare, and economic development are pushing traditional Democratic notions of social engineering and income distribution off the party's platform. And Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, a DLC founder and former chairman, is about to be anointed the Democratic Presidential nominee. Says the current chairman, Senator John B. Breaux (D-La.): "Bill Clinton's success means a new message for this party."

So why aren't DLC members bubbling with confidence and pride? Perhaps because of their sense that while their policy ideas get plenty of lip service in party rhetoric, many Democratic activists remain unconverted. Worse, Clinton's triumph looks to some like a hollow victory: National polls show him locked in a fight for second place with independent Ross Perot and far behind George Bush. Indeed, some Democratic centrists fear that if their prescriptions go anywhere in the next four years, it will be because Bush has shown a sudden fondness for such DLC notions as a national youth apprenticeship program and a new college-loan program for middle-class parents.

REPUBLICANS IN DISGUISE? The DLC was formed seven years ago by a small group of mainly Southern moderates in the wake of Walter F. Mondale's 1984 Presidential catastrophe. They were convinced the party needed a forum where elected officials could develop a pragmatic philosophy with appeal to business and suburbanites. Continued allegiance to Mondale's labor-backed brand of liberalism, they feared, would keep the Democrats permanently out of the White House and would eventually jeopardize control of the House.

At the core of DLC thinking are ideas radical only in their departure from Democratic orthodoxy: an emphasis on fiscal restraint and middle-class values, a preference for cautious pilot projects and state experiments, government-business-labor partnerships to enhance competitiveness, and use of market-based incentives to help the poor. The group also cooked up such innovations as Super Tuesday, the Southern regional primary that gave Clinton a vital boost this spring.

But when campaigning in big cities, Clinton edged away from the DLC agenda to enhance his appeal to traditional Democratic constituencies. "Tacking left has had a certain cost," says Democratic activist Michael McCurry. "There is clearly disgruntlement among the hard core in the DLC about Clinton's circuitous path to the nomination." They worry that Clinton will find it difficult to move back to the center for the fall campaign.

Meanwhile, the Democratic left wing, still potent within the party's councils, hasn't relented in its hostility to the DLC. Jesse Jackson derides it as "Democrats for the leisure class." Jerry Brown says it's "as close to Republicanism as you can get and still be able to use the label Democrat." Liberals aren't surprised that Bush is picking off DLC ideas. And they're outraged by the group's reliance on such giants as Philip Morris, Atlantic Richfield, and TRW for more than two-thirds of its $2.5 million annual budget.

But aside from the bleats of liberals, the best evidence that the DLC has arrived is found in Bush's campaign rhetoric. Struggling to convince voters that he has a domestic vision, the President boasts of his education and health plans. Blasting the political status quo, he declares: "I am the leader that's trying to change it." Such appropriation of DLC ideas leaves the group at the mushy middle of U.S. politics, wondering whatever happened to its goal of creating a new, innovative Democratic Party with broad appeal to middle-class voters.

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