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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001) 326-328
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Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton
Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton. By Kenneth S. Baer. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000; pp. xi + 361. $29.95.
Kenneth S. Baer has made a timely and intriguing scholarly contribution to the seemingly endless quest for identity on the part of the Democratic Party. That quest is an impossible one, as no major political party in the United States has ever been much more than an uneasy journey undertaken by temporarily like-minded fellow travelers. Nonetheless, Baer tackles a good question as he explores the history of the Democratic Leadership Council (DNC) and its efforts to moderate New Deal liberalism: Is it possible for a group of elites to change the public philosophy of a major American political party absent a cataclysmic event or a powerful constituency? He answers with a qualified and temporary yes. The DLC, particularly because its most famous member captured the White House in 1992 and 1996, has changed the Democratic Party in particular and American politics in general. But, as Baer notes, traditional liberals remain strong in the party and the story is not yet over.
The primary strength of this volume rests in the prodigious research of the author. Given access to DLC archives and members, Baer constructs what will stand as the most authoritative account of the DLC that we are liable to see for quite some time. Baer carefully supplements this material with a wide variety of other sources. In general, probably as an inevitable by-product of the research, Baer appears quite sympathetic to those who created the DLC and to their ends. I think it rather hard to spend so much time and effort on a group of people and then to turn on them in print. In addition, the requirements of the narrative form he adopts inevitably align him with his subjects; after all, how can one tell the inside story of this sort of quest without some sort of identification with those on the quest? On a tactical level, however, Baer can be severely critical of their choices as they pursued change. In short, the research that Baer has done should be of interest to students of contemporary history, rhetoric, and politics. Those with a distaste for the goals of the controversial Democratic Leadership Council, however, should not expect any sort of close or even casual critique of those ends.
Baer roots his story in history, recounting the rise and fall of New Deal liberalism in the first chapter and then picking up the scent of what would become the DLC in the second chapter with a discussion of reform efforts in the House Democratic Caucus. Chapter three turns to the founding of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985 and it, as well as the subsequent two chapters, details the efforts of moderates to gain power in the party through alterations in party rules and influence in party councils. The final three chapters focus on the DLC's turn to the presidency, tracing their initial nurturance of then-Governor Clinton and their eventual love/hate relationship with the Clinton administration.
In general, the story that Baer tells is a familiar one. Moderates, particularly southerners, gradually discovered that affiliation with the national Democratic [End Page 326] Party was something akin to political suicide amidst their constituencies. It also seemed increasingly apparent to these people that the party as it was would not win the White House either. Determined to change the course of their party, they formed the DLC, lobbied for changes in the party rules (especially for the establishment of Super Tuesday and the inclusion of elected officials at the Democratic National Convention), and finally fixed upon Governor Clinton as their ticket to power. The power of the narrative, however, comes from interviews and archives. The uneasy and often conflictual relationship between the Democratic National Committee and the DLC is documented at great length; the constant and public conflict...