Back in 1985, after being trounced in the general election, Washington strategist Al From and a group of Democratic elected officials founded the Democratic Leadership Council. Its stated purpose was to move the Democratic Party to the middle — particularly to deal with the influence of the ideologues and caucuses (and there were many of them) who dominated the presidential nominating process. Co-founders included then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, among others.
It was not popular with everyone, including yours truly. We called it the “White Boys Caucus.” We laughed when the “successful” effort to encourage more Southern states to move their primaries earlier in the calendar to “Super Tuesday” resulted (according to the law of unintended consequences) in a victory for Jesse Jackson, the most liberal candidate in the race.
Black voters dominated the primaries, much as Tea Party voters often do on the other side.
But three losses in a row at the presidential level convinced even the likes of me that we needed to put electability ahead of ideological purity, a conclusion that was easier to reach since the DLC candidate in 1992 was our friend, Clinton. By 2011, the DLC had dissolved, donating its papers to the Clinton Library.
The DLC could be seen as something of a model for the controversial group that former White House chief of staff Karl Rove has put together with the support of big-money Republicans. The stated goal of the Conservative Victory Project is to regain control of the Senate and build a winning Republican Party, notably by pumping money into primary races to assure that the most electable candidate is the one who is nominated. Critics complain that it was created to counter the Tea Party, and they are even unhappier — and more vocal — about that than we were with the DLC.
Unlike the DLC effort, which was led by elected officials themselves, the Victory Project is seen as solely a Washington money group. Unlike the DLC, which from the beginning had a policy arm and by the end was led by Bruce Reed, Clinton’s top policy guy, the Victory Project is seen as solely poll-driven. Most important, unlike the Tea Party, liberals in the Democratic Party, many of us Washington insiders who did not hold elective office, had already come to the conclusion that winning was more important than ideological purity. And the DLC, as far as I can remember, never pumped money into contested primaries. That wasn’t the point.
Conservative talk radio, cable hosts, activists and party leaders are in full attack mode. Chris Chocola, president of the more conservative Club for Growth, which has taken an active role in Republican primaries, has pointed reporters to the losses in Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wisconsin to make the point that candidates selected by D.C. insiders often don’t appeal to conservative activists, those “pesky voters” who get to decide on the nomination. David Bossie, president of the conservative Citizens United, went so far as to declare, “The civil war has begun.”
No one doubts that money matters in primaries. But as long as the primary electorate is dominated by those most committed to voting, who tend to be the ideologues and activists, Rove and his supporters may face an uphill battle. That is why moderate Republicans in California, in an effort to shift the balance, pushed so hard against the establishment of both parties to “open” primaries to all voters.
I will never forget sitting in the nearly empty suite of Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, clearly the Republican most likely to defeat Gov. Gray Davis, as we calculated just how few voters had made the difference in the Republican primary, picking probably the only candidate who couldn’t defeat Davis. Two years later, Davis was recalled. In most people’s view, the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger won only because it was an open recall election in which everyone — Republicans, Democrats and undeclared voters — could participate.
Rove has his work cut out for him. But if anyone has proved himself capable of playing this game, it’s him. Meanwhile, my friends on the Democratic side, more united than in the bad old days, can’t help but witness the infighting with a sigh of relief. Been there, done that.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.