Republicans may not much care for Bill Clinton, but they'd be smart to follow his example by offending some true-believers and winning over moderates. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Republicans wondering if their party can recover from its current flirtation with obsolescence should find interesting Al From’s just released memoir, “The New Democrats and the Return to Power,” which tells the story of the Democrats’ recovery after Walter Mondale lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Ronald Brownstein’s of From’s book describes longtime Democratic operative From’s creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was “…dedicated to recasting the Democrats’ agenda and restoring its political competitiveness.”
That last line should ring a bell with Republicans today. From’s and the DLC’s efforts were spectacularly effective, culminating in the ascendancy of Bill Clinton, who had chaired the DLC as Arkansas’ governor.
Democrats before the DLC and Clinton’s rise were in as bad a shape as the GOP today.
DLC policies, adopted by Clinton, included welfare reform and free trade positions that alienated many liberals. But through DLC guidance, Clinton was able to capture right of center, pro-business voters formerly committed to the GOP. A sacrifice was made: Some liberal disaffection was accepted in return for the right-of-center gains.
The relevance to the GOP of this history should be obvious. Just as the Democrats prior to Clinton had lost the right-of-center business oriented vote and needed to win it back, the GOP today has lost the urban middle and upper middle-class white and minority votes, and needs to win these back. The sacrifice required should be obvious as well. Why did Mitt Romney lose a presidential election many thought was winnable? Most impartial observers agree what did him in was his association with the amorphous “Tea Party,” as exemplified in the statements of Romney’s GOP rival Rick Santorum. I’ve written about the draconian, neo-Puritanical and historically ignorant Santorum positions elsewhere (e.g., Contraception reduces sex to "mere pleasure") so suffice it to say that polls show those positions to be popular with no more than about 30% of the electorate, and highly distasteful to the rest. Romney and his advisors feared losing that 30% and so kept quiet on Santorum’s platform, allowing people to assume he was in agreement with it. That was a big mistake.
It is here that From’s memoir offers the crucial lesson for the GOP today. As described by Brownstein, “…[the DLC] adopted a strategy of picking fights with liberal leaders to convince doubting voters that the party was truly changing course.”
Yes, the Democrats deliberately picked fights with prominent liberals, to make a point to the voters they wooed. Brownstein elaborates that this approach “…generated high-octane collisions, most memorabley with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who derided the group [the DLC] as ‘Democrats for the Leisure Class.’”
The Democrats, then, sacrificed the extreme Jackson base for the larger base it sought. The GOP needs to do something similar. It is not enough for the party and its candidates to remain silent about unpopular platforms from Santorum and others. A fight must be picked, and played out before the public and the media. A logical venue for such a fight would be a state or national convention. It may be too much to expect a GOP platform to endorse gay marriage, for instance, but it could certainly leave the subject alone, and drop all rhetoric opposing acceptance of gays into society. Leadership would be required, but as Al From’s memoir shows, there is historical precedent of success from such leadership.
Doug Lasken is a retired LA Unified teacher.