"The New Democrats and the Return to Power" by Al From

Brian Gongol

One-paragraph review: It's fairly routine to declare the death of one political party or the other. But if one is willing to step back and look at the big picture in Presidential politics, there have only been two Democratic Presidents since 1980: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama, in many ways, was an exception: He campaigned as an outsider in every way -- an outsider to Washington, an outsider to "politics as usual", and significantly, as an outsider to the Democratic Party. If one acknowledges Barack Obama less as a Democrat and more as a singular and exceptional candidate, then the only true Democrat to have won the White House in the course of 40 years was Bill Clinton. And Clinton won as a "New Democrat" -- breaking with classic left-leaning Democratic orthodoxy, and recasting "progressive" policy goals as things to be achieved via a "Third Way" in politics. "The New Democrats" captures the historical currents that led to the New Democrat movement, through the eyes of Al From, the founder and head of the Democratic Leadership Council. From's perspective -- that the Democratic Party needed to abandon identity politics and the narrow reshuffling of interest groups in order to win in 1992 -- ought to resonate strongly with anyone who wonders about the future of the Democratic Party today. From's inside story of the DLC and the Third Way agenda is an intriguing modern history of politics, and it's overflowing with warning signs for the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era. The fundamental math of America's electoral system will almost always produce a two-party system, so it's in the national interest that those two parties each produce good ideas and thoughtful leaders. When they don't, the nation suffers. If the reader can accept the premise that Barack Obama and his message of post-partisanship was likely to be a once-in-a-generation exception to the normal rules of Presidential politics, then one might conclude the book wondering why the DLC was closed in 2011.

Verdict: Worthwhile reading for students of both American political history and political strategy


"By the beginning of the 1980s, it was clear that the Democrats had run out of ideas -- and liberalism was in great need of resuscitation. Liberals confused expanding government with expanding opportunity. They forgot what John Kennedy had taught -- that opportunity and responsibility must go hand in hand." - page 13

"As Muskie eloquently said in testimony before the 1976 Democratic Party Platform Committee: 'Some Democrats seem to accept waste and inefficiency as a cost of helping people -- a commission we pay for a Faustian bargain to protect what little we have gained -- and that attacking waste somehow amounts to a repudiation of the New Deal. Well, all I can say is, what's so damn liberal about wasting money?'" - page 27

"The key to any successful reform effort is to avoid being crushed before you even get to the starting gate. That means picking early battles and battlegrounds carefully." - page 35

"Because first impressions matter, I picked a first battle I could win, and I created my own playing fields so that I would always have a home field advantage." - page 35

"Third, and perhaps most important, we maintained message discipline. While all of our members didn't agree on every policy detail, we kept a laserlike focus on the themes of change, hope, growth, and strength. We stayed away from controversial social issues that divided us and hammered away on the economy, competitiveness, and national security." - page 65

"In the aftermath of the 1988 Presidential election, it didn't take a genius to figure out that th eAmerican people weren't buying what the Democrats were selling. If Democrats wanted to begin winning national elections again, we needed to stand for ideas and beliefs that the American people would support." - page 101

"First, we needed an intellectual center, because without a candidate to rally around, we needed a set of compelling ideas. Just as it was clear that we needed to paint the mural, it was also clear that we needed to beef up our capacity to paint it. We needed more substantive help. We needed a political think tank with the capacity to develop politically potent, substantive ideas that our elected officials and political supporters could embrace." - page 101