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The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton
Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton. By Kenneth S. Baer (Lawrenceville, University Press of Kansas, 2000) 361pp. $29.95
Bill Clinton exited the presidency in January 2001 as the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve eight years and as the most popular chief executive since John F. Kennedy. So strong was Clinton's revitalized Democratic party that, were it not for a fervid Miami protest and five resourceful Supreme Court justices, Al Gore would now be presiding over a third consecutive term of Clintonism.
How did Clinton rebuild the party, which as recently as 1991 some analysts had judged as moribund? In Reinventing Democrats, Baer assigns [End Page 339] credit to the Democratic Leadership Council (dlc), a group of moderate and conservative Democrats, mostly from the South, that was formed in 1985 to wrest control of the party from its liberal chieftains. Both a history of the organization and a schematic study of politics, issues, and institutions, Reinventing Democrats claims that the dlc sputtered in its early years when it shunned conflict with the liberals, thrived in the early 1990s when it embraced conservatism, and triumphed when it planted Clinton--its hand-picked standard-bearer--in the White House. The dlc, Baer contends, made the Democrats newly viable, but as a centrist rather than a liberal party.
Baer's methodical vetting of "electoral," "issue," and "institutional" problems at each stage of the dlc's development provides a helpful structure for charting the group's progress. His historical research, drawing on the papers of the dlc and its leader, political operative Al From, is solid and original. As a work of interdisciplinary history, it successfully combines a political science schema with a relatively fluid narrative. Yet, Baer's reflexive sympathy for the dlc as an organization fatally distorts his analysis.
Baer's main assumption is that Clinton was the dlc's candidate in 1992, its vehicle for electing a "New Democrat" as president. But the reverse was true. Clinton used the dlc's imprimatur to gain favor with the right-wing Dixiecrats who were at the body's heart, such as Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and Virginia Senator Chuck Robb (From's preferred candidates). Clinton relied equally (or more) on other networks, such as the National Governors Association, African-American groups, and, most important, the celebrated "Friends of Bill" ensconced in political and intellectual power centers nationwide. Since these networks included as many liberals as moderates, Clinton's election represented a vindication not for the dlc but for Clinton's own distinctive blend of old-Democrat liberalism and dlc-style conservatism (which he managed, with his inimitable political skills, to get everyone to accept). Because Baer examines only the dlc's archives, and not those of other organizations, he fails to see the organization's relative unimportance in the Clinton coalition.
Baer similarly blunders in equating the dlc's conservative ideology with that of Clinton's so-called "Third Way." In fact, the Third Way constituted an alternative to both mainstream liberalism and Nunn-Robb conservatism, appropriating aspects of both and combining them alchemically. Clinton's insight (and that of advisers such as Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, who, like him, were neither liberals nor dlcers) was to nudge the Democratic party rightward but not as far right as From and company wished. Clinton's policy solutions creatively blended liberal and conservative elements in ways that shored up Democratic vulnerabilities without undermining progressive values. On the economy, he embraced fiscal discipline, turning budget deficits into surpluses, while protecting Social Security and Medicare. On crime, he outflanked the Republicans by allocating more money for local police and making gun control a national priority. He chose to "mend, not [End Page 340] end" affirmative action. Foreign policy, welfare, and other losing issues for the Democrats also became winners because the Clintonite New Democrats devised policies that appealed to a wider political spectrum than...