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Hillary Clinton’s Ghosts: A Legacy of Pushing the Democratic Party to the Right

Progressive voters should remember Hillary Clinton’s record of fighting against populism within the Democratic Party.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Photo: stocklight /

Part of the Series

A discussion about how the Democrats could be compromised by their relationship with the financial institutions that fund their campaigns was unthinkable in past presidential debates. Such a discussion falls way outside the narrow parameters of debate that have dominated political discourse in the mainstream media for decades. But at the Democratic debate in Iowa this November, this issue was front and center: Hillary Clinton was forced to defend her financial relationship with Wall Street numerous times on network television.

Within the DLC, populism was not merely out of favor; it was militantly opposed.

Clinton’s response to populist attacks on her Wall Street connections has largely been to adopt similar language and policy positions as her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. In many ways she is trying to minimize the differences between her and Sanders, rather than emphasize them. “The differences among us,” she said of her opponents at the Iowa debate, “pale in comparison to what’s happening on the Republican [side].”

Clinton, currently the front-runner, is now making “debt-free” college tuition, minimum wage hikes (to $12 per hour) and measures to bring “accountability to Wall Street” major talking points in her campaign. The language of populism – at least for now – is seen as a viable electoral strategy.

But the party’s latest generation of “New Democrats” – self-described “moderates” who are funded by Wall Street and are aggressively trying to steer the party to the right – have noticed this trend and are now fighting back. Third Way, a “centrist” think tank that serves as the hub for contemporary New Democrats, has recently published a sizable policy paper, “Ready for the New Economy,” urging the Democratic Party to avoid focusing on economic inequality. Former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley, a Third Way trustee, recently argued that Sanders’ influence on the primary “is a recipe for disaster” for Democrats.

This “ideological gulf” inside the party, as The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus describes it, is not a new phenomenon. Before there was Third Way, there was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). And before there was Bill Daley, there was Hillary Clinton – a key member of the DLC’s leadership team during her entire tenure in the US Senate (2000-2008). As Clinton seeks progressive support, it is important to consider her role in the influential movement to, as The American Prospect describes it, “reinvent the [Democratic] party as one pledged to fiscal restraint, less government, and a pro-business, pro-free market outlook.” This fairly recent history is an important part of Clinton’s record, and she owes it to primary voters to answer for it.

The Reign of the DLC

A lot has happened since the last time the Democrats had a contested primary. The 2008 economic crisis, the growth of the Occupy movement, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the consequent increase in public attention to the ongoing killings of Black people by police, and the Bernie Sanders campaign have all played major roles in shaping the political consensus of primary voters. None of these existed when Barack Obama won the nomination over Clinton in June 2008.

But before all of these events shaped public opinion, the party was largely guided by the ideas of the Democratic Leadership Council. Founded by Southern Democrats in 1985, the group sought to transform the party by pushing it to embrace more conservative positions and win support from big business.

Clinton adopted the DLC strategy in the way she governed.

The DLC’s goal was to advance “a message that was less tilted toward minorities and welfare, less radical on social issues like abortion and gays, more pro-defense, and more conservative on economic issues,” wrote Robert Dreyfuss in a 2001 article in The American Prospect. “The DLC thundered against the ‘liberal fundamentalism’ of the party’s base – unionists, blacks, feminists, Greens, and cause groups generally.”

Within the DLC, populism was not merely out of favor; it was militantly opposed. The organization had virtually no grassroots supporters; it was funded almost entirely by corporate donors. Its executive council, Dreyfuss reported, was made up of companies that donated at least $25,000 and included Enron and Koch Industries. A list of its known donors includes scores of the United States’ most powerful corporations, all of whom benefit from a Democratic Party that embraces big business and is less reliant on labor unions and the grassroots for support.

The organization’s influence was significant, especially in the 1990s. The New York Times reported that during that era “the Democratic Leadership Council was a maker of presidents.” Its influence continued into the post-Clinton years. Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt and countless others all lent their names in support of the organization. The DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), were well financed and published a seemingly endless barrage of policy papers, op-eds and declarations in their numerous publications.

“It is almost hard to find anyone who wasn’t involved with [the DLC]” said Mark Schmitt, a staffer for the nonpartisan New America Foundation think tank, in an interview with Truthout. “This was before there were a lot of organizations, and the DLC provided a way for politicians to get involved and to be in the same room with important people.”

The height of the DLC’s triumph may well have been in the 1990s, when it claimed President Bill Clinton as its most prominent advocate, celebrating his disastrous welfare cuts (which were supported by Hillary Clinton as the first lady), his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and his speech declaring that the “era of big government is over.” These initiatives had the DLC’s footprint all over them.

The DLC’s prescribed Third Way also found a home on Downing Street in England. Tony Blair, a major Clinton ally, was a staunch advocate of the DLC, adopted its strategies and lent his name to its website. According to the book Clinton and Blair: The Political Economy of the Third Way, he said in 1998 that it “is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an Old Left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests.”

As recently as 2014, Blair has continued to urge the UK’s Labour Party to remain committed to these ideals. “Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has urged Labour leader Ed Miliband to stick to the political centre ground, warning that the public has not ‘fallen back in love with the state’ despite the global financial crisis,” according to the Financial Times, which noted that the left-wing base of his party has rejected his centrist leanings. “His decision as prime minister to join the US in its invasion of Iraq – as well as his free-market leanings – have made him a hate figure among the most leftwing Labour activists.”

Hillary Clinton as a New Democrat

When Bill Clinton left the White House, Hillary Clinton entered the Senate. She quickly became a major player for the DLC, serving as a prominent member of the New Democratic Caucus in the Senate, speaking at conferences on multiple occasions and serving as chair of a key initiative for the 2006 and 2008 elections.

She was even promoted as the DLC’s “New Dem of the Week” on its website. (It would be remiss not to note that Martin O’Malley also served as a “New Dem of the Week,” and even co-wrote an op-ed on behalf of the DLC with its then-chair, Harold Ford Jr.)

New Democrats were never really about popular support; they were about bringing together big business and the Democrats.

More importantly, Clinton adopted the DLC strategy in the way she governed. She tried to portray herself as a crusader for family values when she introduced legislation to ban violent video games and flag burning in 2005. She also adopted the DLC’s hawkish military stance. The DLC was feverishly in favor of Bush’s “war on terror” and his invasion of Iraq. Will Marshall, one of the group’s founders, was a signatory of many of the now infamous documents from the Project for the New American Century, which urged the United States to radically increase its use of force in Iraq and beyond.

The DLC led efforts to take down Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq as an example of his weakness. Two years later, the organization played a similar role against Ned Lamont’s antiwar challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman, which the DLC decried as “The Return of Liberal Fundamentalism.”

However, the DLC’s influence eventually waned. A formal affiliation with the organization became something of a deal breaker for some progressive voters. When Barack Obama first ran for the Senate in 2004, he had no affiliation with the DLC. So, when they wrongly included him in their directory of New Democrats, he asked the DLC to remove his name. In explaining this, he also publicly shunned the organization in an interview with Black Commentator. “You are undoubtedly correct that these positions make me an unlikely candidate for membership in the DLC,” he wrote when pressed by the magazine. “That is why I am not currently, nor have I ever been, a member of the DLC.”

The DLC’s decline continued: A growing sense of discontent among progressives, Clinton’s loss in 2008 and the economic crisis that followed turned the DLC into something of a political liability. And in 2011, the Democratic Leadership Council shuttered its doors.

When the DLC closed, it records were acquired by the Clinton Foundation, which DLC founder Al From called an “appropriate and fitting repository.” To this day, the Clinton Foundation continues to promote the work of the DLC’s founding members. In September 2015, the foundation hosted an event to promote From’s book The New Democrats and the Return to Power. Amazingly, O’Malley provided a favorable blurb for the book, praising it as a “reminder of the core principles that still drive Democratic success today.”

The 2016 Election and New Democrats

The DLC’s demise was seen as a victory by many progressives, and the populist tone of the 2016 primary is being celebrated as a sign of rising progressivism as well. But it is probably too soon to declare that the “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is coming to an end,” as Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, recently told the Guardian.

Consider the way Marshall spun the closing of the DLC. “With President Obama consciously reconstructing a winning coalition by reconnecting with the progressive center, the pragmatic ideas of PPI and other organizations are more vital than ever,” he said in an interview with Politico.

His reference to “PPI and other organizations” refers to the still-existing Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way. These institutions have the same Wall Street support and continue to push the same agenda that their predecessor did.

New Democrats’ guns are aimed firmly at Sanders, and they are quick to defend Clinton.

Many of these “centrist” ideas lack popular support these days. But New Democrats were never really about popular support; they were about bringing together big business and the Democrats. The group’s board of trustees is almost entirely made up of Wall Street executives. Further, in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, these same moneyed interests have more influence over the political process than ever before.

“These organizations now are basically just corporate lobbyists today,” Schmitt said.

So while the DLC may be a dirty word among many progressives, this didn’t stop Obama from appointing New Democrats to key posts in his White House. The same Bill Daley who works for a hedge fund and is on the board of trustees for Third Way was also President Obama’s White House chief of staff. And, as was noted above, he is now actively trying to influence the Democratic Party’s direction in the 2016 election.

The remaining champions of the DLC agenda have been increasingly active in trying to push back against populism. On October 28, 2015, Third Way published an ambitious paper, “Ready for the New Economy,” that aims to do just that. The paper falsely argues that “the narrative of fairness and inequality has, to put it mildly, failed to excite voters,” and says “these trends should compel the party to rigorously question the electoral value of today’s populist agenda.”

The report attacks Sanders’ proposals for expanding Social Security and implementing a single-payer health-care system directly, making faulty claims about both proposals. It also advises Democrats to avoid the “singular focus on income inequality” because its “actual impact on the middle class may be small.”

“Third Way and its allies are gravely misreading the economic and political moment,” said Richard Eskow, a writer for Campaign for America’s Future, in a rebuttal to the paper. “If their influence continues to wane, perhaps one day Americans can stop paying the price for their ill-conceived, corporation- and billionaire-friendly agenda.”

Eskow is right to use the word “if” instead of “when.” Progressives ignore these efforts at their own peril. Despite their archaic and flawed ideas, Third Way’s reports and speakers still get undue attention in the mainstream media. For instance, The Washington Post devoted 913 words to Third Way’s new paper, describing it as part of a “big economic fight in the Democratic Party.” The article provided a platform for Third Way’s president Jonathan Cowan to attack Sanders. “We propose that Democrats be Democrats, not socialists,” he said. This tone is the status quo for New Democrats in the media. Their guns are aimed firmly at Sanders, and they are quick to defend Clinton.

When Clinton was attacked for working with former Wall Street executives, The Wall Street Journal quoted PPI president Will Marshall, defending her. “The idea that you have to excommunicate anybody who ever worked in the financial sector is ridiculous,” he said.

When Clinton announced her tax plan, Dow Jones quoted Jim Kessler, a Third Way staffer, praising the plan. On social media, Third Way staffers are routinely cheering on Clinton and attacking Sanders and O’Malley.

“The Necessities of the Moment”: Will Clinton Run Back to the Right?

Of course, the New Democrats’ preference for Clinton shouldn’t surprise anyone. She has been an ally for years. And while they have expressed concern over her leftward tilt, they are confident, as the Post reported, that “she’ll tack back their way in a general election.” For instance, her recent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which Third Way is supporting aggressively – has centrists “disappointed” but not worried.

“Everyone knew where she was on that and where she will be, but given the necessities of the moment and a tough Democratic primary, she felt she needed to go there initially,” New Democratic Coalition chairman Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) told the Guardian (emphasis added).

Politics isn’t a sporting event. It is important to be critical, even of candidates for whom you will likely vote.

If New Democrats aren’t worried that Clinton’s populist rhetoric is sincere, progressives probably should be worried that it isn’t. As DLC founder Al From told the Guardian: “Hillary will bend a little bit but not so much that she can’t get herself back on course in the general [election] and when she is governing.”

Some, however, are confident that if elected, Clinton will have to spend political capital on the very populist ideas she is now embracing.

“When you make these kind of promises it will be difficult to just go back on them,” said the New America Foundation’s Mark Schmitt. “She will have to work on many of these issues if she is elected.”

Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told Truthout that his group’s emphasis is to make any Democratic candidate responsive to the issues important to what he calls the “Warren wing” of the party, which espouses the more populist economic beliefs of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Like Warren, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the race as of now.

“It is not about one candidate; it is about trying to make all the candidates address the issues we care about,” Green said, citing debt-free education, expanding Social Security benefits and supporting Black Lives Matter as key issues.

Liberals, Clinton and Partisan Amnesia

It is understandable why some progressives are hesitant to be critical of Clinton: They fully expect that soon she will be the only thing standing between them and some candidate from the “Republican clown car,” as Green described the GOP field.

But voting pragmatically in a general election is one thing. Ignoring or apologizing for Clinton’s very recent and troubling record is another. Too many progressives are engaged in a sort of willful partisan amnesia and are accepting the false narrative that Clinton is “a populist fighter who for decades has been an advocate for families and children,” as some unnamed Clinton advisers told The New York Times.

Consider the case of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Dean’s reputation as a fiery progressive has always been wildly overstated, but there was a rich irony about Dean’s endorsement. His centrist record aside, Dean was once the face of the party’s progressive base. During his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2003 and 2004, Dean used his opposition to the war in Iraq to garner progressive support. He attracted a large group of partisan liberal bloggers, who coined the term “Netroots” in support of his candidacy. For a time, Dean was leading in the polls during the primary.

Remember: The Dean campaign was taken down by the DLC, who attacked him for running a campaign from the “McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Democratic Party, “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.” The rift between the DLC and Dean’s supporters was so intense that Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas described it as a “civil war” between Democrats. Of course, when Dean announced his support for Clinton, he made no mention of the fact that she was the leader of the same group that ambushed his candidacy precisely because it appealed to the party’s left-leaning base.

Once the primary is over, the chance to force Clinton to respond to left critiques will likely not come again soon.

Yet Moulitsas recently endorsed Clinton in a column for The Hill. Moulitsas was one of the key bloggers who supported Dean in 2004 and helped create the Netroots in its infancy. His goal, he said often, was “crashing the gate” of the Democratic establishment. But his uncritical support for Clinton, the quintessential establishment candidate, has turned much of his own blog into evidence of how some progressives are dismissing recent history for partisan reasons. In the last contested Democratic primary, Moulitsas was extremely critical of Clinton. Now, he is helping her do to Sanders what the DLC did to Dean.

Why are the likes of Dean and Moulitsas so quick to embrace Clinton after years of battling with her and her allies in the so-called “vital center?” Only they know for sure. In the case of Dean, it may well be because he was never a real populist to begin with. In 2003, Bloomberg did a story asking Vermonters to talk about Dean’s ideology. “Howard is not a liberal. He’s a pro-business, Rockefeller Republican,” said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. This sentiment is shared by many Vermonters, on both the left and right.

But for other self-identified progressives who have embraced the establishment candidate, such as Moulitsas, the answers may be simpler: partisan loyalty and ambition. The fact is the odds of Clinton winning the nomination are very good. And for the likes of Moulitsas – who now writes columns for an establishment DC paper and is a major fundraiser for Democrats – being on the side of the winner will certainly make him more friends in DC than supporting the self-identified socialist that opposes her. Moulitsas argues that Clinton has dismissed “her husband’s ideological baggage” and is “aiming for a truly progressive presidency.” He is now a true believer, he claims. It is up to readers to decide if they find his argument to be credible, especially compared to the conflicting statements he has made for many years. Many on his own blog are skeptical.

But, lastly, the main reason many progressives are willing to overlook Clinton’s record is simply fear. They are afraid of a Republican president, and it is hard to blame them. The idea of a President Trump – or Carson or Cruz – is extremely frightening for many people. This is entirely understandable. But even if one feels obligated to vote for Clinton in the general election, should she win the nomination, that does not mean her record ought to be ignored. Politics isn’t a sporting event. It is important to be critical, even of candidates for whom you will likely vote.

The Historical Record: “The Only Antidote”

The tendency of some progressives to downplay, ignore or deflect populist critiques of Clinton’s record was observed by Doug Henwood in his 2014 Harper’s piece “Stop Hillary.”

In the article, he describes the “widespread liberal fantasy of [Clinton] as a progressive paragon” as misguided. “In fact, a close look at her life and career is perhaps the best antidote to all these great expectations,” Henwood writes. “The historical record, such as it is, may also be the only antidote, since most progressives are unwilling to discuss Hillary in anything but the most general, flattering terms.”

Cleary, Clinton’s historical record reveals much to be concerned about, including her long career as a New Democrat. For the first time in recent memory, however, progressives actually have some leverage to make her answer for this record.

Clinton has a reasonably competitive opponent who has challenged her on her record of Wall Street support, her dismissal of the Glass-Steagall Act and her vote for war in Iraq. She should also be challenged vigorously on her role with the DLC.

Circumstances have created a unique moment where Clinton has to answer these tough questions. But it may be a fleeting moment. Once the primary is over, the chance to force Clinton – or any major establishment politician – to respond to left critiques will likely not come again soon.

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