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Al From | Speech | November 10, 2020
William Jefferson Clinton: "New Democrat" From Hope
11th Presidential Conference, Hofstra University

The Hofstra Cultural Center is hosting their 11th Presidential Conference, William Jefferson Clinton: The "New Democrat" From Hope, November 10-12, 2005.

DLC Founder and CEO Al From is speaking at the conference (his remarks can be found below). If you would like to watch the event, you can do so through the conference webcast.

Remarks of DLC Founder and CEO Al From

Remarks as prepared for delivery

I am honored to be here. To me the title of this event -- Bill Clinton: New Democrat from Hope -- encapsulates in just six words what the Clinton Presidency is all about. It is about the realization of the American Dream -- about a boy from a small Arkansas town who with vision, hard work, determination, talent and hope became President of the United States.

And, it is about the political philosophy he shaped to restore that dream for all Americans -- the New Democrat philosophy -- that provided the foundation for his presidency, modernized progressive politics all over the globe, and remains a living legacy of his good works.

I'm going to focus this morning on the New Democrat philosophy -- about what it is and what it is not -- about its origins and its place in Democratic Party history -- about its core principles and what it accomplished -- and about why I'm convinced it is both Bill Clinton's greatest legacy and can serve as a blueprint for future leaders to follow.

Clinton's New Democrat philosophy is the modernization of liberalism. It is a modern day formula for activist government: progressive policies that create opportunity for all, not just an entitled few; mainstream values like work, family, responsibility, and community; and practical, non-bureaucratic solutions to governing. It reconnects the Democratic Party with the its first principles and grandest traditions by offering new and innovative ways to further them.

It is not an effort to move the Party to the right, not a compromise between liberalism and conservatism, not triangulation.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers -- with new ideas to fit their times -- modernized the Democratic Party for the Industrial Era, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats modernized their party for today. In the same Democratic tradition of innovation, the New Dealers brought America back from economic depression and the New Democrats led an economic resurgence in the 1990s. By tempering the excesses of capitalism, Roosevelt saved capitalism. By modernizing progressive governance, Clinton saved progressive governance.

The New Democrat philosophy began to take shape before Bill Clinton -- and it will long outlast his years in office -- but Bill Clinton crystallized it and made it a living, powerful, and enduring governing philosophy.

At the core of Clinton's New Democrat philosophy is a set of beliefs that can be distilled from his speeches over the years, his defining work as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, and his actions as President. They are principles that have always been at the center of the American progressive tradition.

The New Democrat movement began as an effort to revitalize the Democratic Party as the New Deal coalition broke apart.

For three-quarters of a century before 1932, Democrats were, in a sense, the remainder party in American politics. They were largely a confederation of disgruntled constituencies, which seldom won the White House, and had little sense of national purpose.

Franklin Roosevelt changed that. Under FDR, Democrats offered a broad agenda for economic and social progress. Policies begun under the New Deal -- and boosted by the war effort -- rebuilt the American economy, created the great American middle class, conquered fascism, and saved the free world. The New Deal message was crystal clear: economic progress and upward mobility for the greatest number of Americans and anti-totalitarianism on the global scene.

As the 1960s passed into the 1970s, the liberal agenda -- largely because of its success -- ran out of steam, and the intellectual coherence of the New Deal began to dissipate. The Democratic coalition split apart over civil rights, Vietnam, economic change, and culture and values, and the great cause of liberal government that had animated the Democratic Party for three decades degenerated into a collection of special pleaders. Not surprisingly Democrats began losing Presidential elections again -- five out of six between Johnson's victory in 1964 and Clinton's in 1992.

The first seeds of a New Democrat movement were sown by Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine in the mid-1970s. In two groundbreaking speeches -- to the Liberal Party of New York in October 1975, and to the Democratic Party platform committee in May 1976 -- Muskie delivered a blunt message to his fellow liberals: To preserve progressive governance, we had to reform liberalism.

"Why can't liberals start raising hell about a government so big, so complex, so expansive, and so unresponsive that it's dragging down every good program we've worked for?" Muskie asked. "Our challenge is to restore the faith of Americans in the basic competence and purposes of government... Well managed, cost-effective, equitable, and responsible government is in itself a social good...Efficient government is not a retreat from social goals...simply a realization that without it, those goals are meaningless."

The first organized effort that led to the New Democrat movement began in the House Democratic Caucus after the 1980 Republican landslide. Faced with a Republican President, a GOP Senate, and a sharply diminished majority in the House, a group of young members -- including Al Gore, Geraldine Ferraro, Tim Wirth, Dick Gephardt, and Les Aspin -- gathered weekly in a windowless room on the top floor of the Longworth House Office Building to discuss policies and strategies to revitalize their sagging party. First, in April 1981 and again in September 1982 and in January 1984, they issued policy manifestos aimed at modernizing their party.

Their themes were strikingly New Democrat -- to expand opportunity for all, to rekindle private enterprise, to regenerate our sense of community and mutual commitment, and to reaffirm our commitment to a stronger America. "Our program amounts to a clean break with the recent rhetoric -- but not the traditional values -- of the Democratic Party," Caucus Chair Gillis Long wrote in the introduction to the 1984 effort.

In early 1985, many of these House members joined with about a dozen Senators and another group of reformers -- innovative Democratic Governors, including Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton -- to form the Democratic Leadership Council. New age governors, particularly in the South, were reforming their state governments -- and Bill Clinton was a leader among them. It was Clinton's work as governor and as chairman of the DLC in 1990 and 1991 that more than anything else shaped his New Democrat philosophy.

To understand the impetus behind the DLC and the New Democrats, it is important to understand the plight of the Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Democrats had run out of ideas -- and liberalism was in great need of resuscitation. Liberals confused expanding government with expanding opportunity. They forgot what John Kennedy had taught -- that opportunity and responsibility must go hand in hand. They worried more about police power than public safety at home and more about American power than America's enemies in the world.

In the minds of too many Americans, government -- once an engine of opportunity -- had become an obstacle to opportunity. Theodore H. White summed up the situation in his book America In Search of Itself. "By the time of the 1980 election," he wrote, "the pursuit of equality had created a system of interlocking dependencies, and the American people were persuaded that the cost of equality had come to crush the promise of opportunity. These ideas struggled with each other all through the campaign, and one idea prevailed over the other."

Still reeling from the aftermath of the party's split over Vietnam, in the 1980s Democrats stood for weakness abroad and for equal outcomes, entitlements for favored constituencies, and big government at home.

The American people said, "No, thanks." Democrats lost at least 40 states in each of the three presidential elections during the decade. In 1984, the party hit bedrock -- losing 49 states for the second time in four national elections. Many experts said the Republicans had a lock on the Presidency. Politically, like intellectually, the Democratic Party was in a state of near collapse.

Writing in The New Republic after the 1984 vote, analyst Bill Schneider described the Democrats' plight: "Large numbers of Democrats seem to have abandoned their party this year, some by voting Republican, some by rejecting the Democratic label, and some by staying home. These shifts did not happen suddenly. Beginning in the mid-1960s, two streams of voters began leaving the Democratic Party -- white Southerners and Catholic 'ethnic' voters in the North. The first stage of this realignment occurred in 1968 and 1972, when race and foreign policy were the major issues of contention....The second stage, 1980-84, has been much more devastating because the party has lost its credibility on economic issues."

The harsh consequences of both stages of realignment were evident again in 1988 when Democrats lost a Presidential election that they thought they would win.

"The Democratic Party's 1988 defeat demonstrated that the party's problems would not disappear, as many had hoped, once Ronald Reagan left the White House," wrote Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck in their landmark 1989 study The Politics of Evasion: Democrats and the Presidency. "Without a charismatic President to blame for their ills," they continued, "Democrats must come face to face with reality: too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security."

The Democrats' dilemma after 1988, according to Schneider, was that there was no alternative between "those who want to reaffirm the party's old-time religion and those who want to turn to the right." But by moving to the left Democrats were going to make things worse for themselves, he said, and because they were a liberal party, it was unlikely that they would nominate a candidate unacceptable to liberals.

What the Democrats needed, Schneider wrote, was a "tough liberal" in the mold of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson -- tough guys who "couldn't be pushed around by the Russians or the special interests in Washington."

Into that breach stepped Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. In April 1989, I traveled to Little Rock to recruit Clinton to become chairman of the DLC. Clinton was absolutely the most talented political leader I had ever come across. At DLC conferences in Williamsburg and Philadelphia, he set the room on fire. What made Clinton stand out was not just his political charisma, but his passion for the issues -- his ability to make even the most complex policy idea easily understandable to ordinary citizens.

By the end of the 1980s, it was evident that conservatism like liberalism was bankrupt of ideas, creating what Clinton and the New Democrats saw as a false choice between two tired, old approaches that no longer worked.

Forging a third way was the challenge facing Democrats when Clinton assumed the DLC chairmanship in New Orleans in March 1990. His first act as chairman was to issue the DLC's The New Orleans Declaration, a seminal document that laid out 15 core New Democrat beliefs and served as the philosophical foundation for the third way approach and the Clinton presidency.

Here are those core beliefs:

We believe the promise of America is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

We believe the Democratic Party's fundamental mission is to expand opportunity, not government.

We believe in the politics of inclusion. Our party has historically been the means by which aspiring Americans from every background have achieved equal rights and full citizenship.

We believe that America must remain energetically engaged in the worldwide struggle for individual liberty, human rights, and prosperity, not retreat from the world.

We believe that the U.S. must maintain a strong and capable defense, which reflects dramatic changes in the world, but which recognizes that the collapse of communism does not mean the end of danger.

We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.

We believe the right way to rebuild America's economic security is to invest in the skills and ingenuity of our people, and to expand trade, not restrict it.

We believe that all claims on government are not equal. Our leaders must reject demands that are less worthy, and hold to clear governing priorities.

We believe a progressive tax system is the only fair way to pay for government.

We believe in preventing crime and punishing criminals, not in explaining away their behavior.

We believe the purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the nation's economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence.

We believe in the protection of civil rights and the broad movement of minorities into America's economic and cultural mainstream, not racial, gender or ethnic separatism. We will not tolerate another decade in which the only civil rights movement is backward.

We believe government should respect individual liberty and stay out of our private lives and personal decisions.

We believe in the moral and cultural values that most American's share: liberty of conscience, individual responsibility, tolerance of difference, the imperative of work, the need for faith, and the importance of family.

Finally we believe that American citizenship entails responsibility as well as rights, and we mean to ask our citizens to give something back to their communities and their country.

During the next 14 months -- with time out to get re-elected as Governor of Arkansas in 1990 and for a legislative session in early 1991 -- Clinton traveled across the country meeting with elected, party, business, labor, and civic leaders as well as ordinary citizens to discuss those beliefs and innovative ideas for furthering them. During that period Clinton shaped much of the agenda on which he was to run in 1992 -- the first New Democrat agenda.

He called that agenda "The New Choice" and presented it for ratification in May 1991 to the DLC's Convention in Cleveland. That Cleveland meeting turned out to be a pivotal event for the New Democrat movement. The New Choice resolutions broke new ground, calling for ideas like national service, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, welfare reform, charter schools, community policing, expanded trade and re-inventing government. Those ideas may not seem radical or even particularly bold today, but in 1991 they provoked plenty of controversy. Jesse Jackson protested outside the convention hall. So did other Democratic interest groups. A rival group of liberals led by Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, called the Coalition for Democratic Values, met in Des Moines that same weekend, arguing that Democrats should reject Clinton, the DLC and the New Democrat approach.

The highlight of the Cleveland convention was Clinton's keynote address. In it he first coined the three words -- opportunity, responsibility, community -- that became the mantra of the New Democrats and their center-left allies all over the world. "This is the New Choice we offer: opportunity, responsibility, choice, a government that works and a belief in community," Clinton said. "Our New Choice plainly rejects the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn't liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans' attack on our party, and the Democrats' previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives."

"People don't care about the idle rhetoric that has paralyzed American politics. They want a new choice and they deserve a new choice and we ought to give it to them," he continued. "I want my child to grow up in the America I did. I don't want her to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents did. I don't want her to be part of a country that's coming apart instead of coming together. That is what the New Choice is all about. That is what we are here to do. We're not out to save the Democratic Party. We're out to save the United States of America."

In his book, My Life, Clinton called the Cleveland speech "one of the most effective and important" he ever gave. He wrote: "It captured the essence of what I had learned in seventeen years of politics and what millions of Americans were thinking. It became the blueprint for my campaign message, helping to change the public focus from President Bush's victory in the Gulf War to what we had to do to build a better future. By embracing ideas and values that were both liberal and conservative, it made voters who had not supported Democratic presidential candidates in years listen to our message. And by the rousing reception it received, the speech established me as perhaps the leading spokesman for the course I passionately believed America should embrace."

Throughout the summer, in more DLC travel and in other forums, Clinton continued to hone the New Democrat message. When he announced his candidacy on October 3, 1991, in Little Rock, the New Choice became the New Covenant, but the themes -- opportunity, responsibility, and community -- remained the same. Because he believed that ultimately Presidential campaigns boil down to a battle of ideas, message, and issues -- and Clinton was determined to win the battle of ideas -- he began his campaign with three speeches at Georgetown University in which he fleshed out the New Covenant with specific proposals.

The principles and proposals he advocated in those speeches, he wrote in My Life, "helped to modernize the Democratic Party and later would be adopted by resurgent center-left parties all over the world, in what would be called 'The Third Way.' Most important, the new ideas when implemented, would prove to be good for America."

The 1992 Democratic Party platform incorporated Clinton's New Democrat message. It called for a third way -- a New Covenant "that will expand opportunity, insist upon greater individual responsibility in return, restore community, and ensure national security in a new era."

In five ways, this New Democrat platform was fundamentally different than Democratic Party platforms of the previous quarter century.

First, its centerpiece was economic growth, not redistribution. It declared that the Party's first imperative was to revive the American Dream of expanding opportunity by fostering broad-based economic growth, led by a robust private sector generating high-skill, high-wage jobs.

Second, the policies it proposed were grounded in the mainstream American values -- personal responsibility, individual liberty, faith, tolerance, family and hard work.

Third, it emphasized a new spirit of reciprocity to replace the old politics of "every man for himself" on the one hand and "something for nothing" on the other. It called both for activist government and for those who benefit from government to give something back to their country and community.

Fourth, it rejected calls for a new isolationism from both political extremes and committed Democrats to an internationalist foreign policy that defends American interests and promotes democratic values in the world. And, it declared in unequivocal language: "The United States must be prepared to use military force decisively when necessary to defend our vital interests."

Finally, it called for a revolution in government to take power away from entrenched bureaucracies and narrow interests in Washington and put it back in the hands of ordinary people by making government more decentralized, more flexible and more accountable, and by offering more choices in public services.

The choices Clinton made in his New Democrat message and the 1992 platform reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and grandest traditions.

By choosing to emphasize growth over redistribution, Clinton reconnected the Democratic Party with Andrew Jackson's credo of opportunity for all, special privileges for none. By choosing reciprocity over entitlement, he reconnected his party with John Kennedy's ethic of mutual responsibility. By choosing tough-minded internationalism over isolationism, he reconnected Democrats to the progressive internationalism of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. And, by choosing empowering government over bureaucracy, he reconnected his party with Roosevelt's tradition of innovation and reform.

Every one of those choices was difficult for a Democrat in 1992. But the toughness to go against party orthodoxy and the political tide distinguished Clinton from three straight losing Democratic candidates.

Gillis Long once said that the Democratic Party must demonstrate both the compassion to care and the toughness to govern -- and few doubted our compassion. Running as a "different kind of Democrat" in 1992, Clinton demonstrated that toughness to govern -- and that was essential to both his election to the White House and the success of his presidency.

In essence, Clinton's New Democrat formula offered what Bill Schneider said Democrats needed after their 1988 defeat -- a candidate who couldn't be pushed around by special interests in Washington and who offered an alternative to the unacceptable choice between those who wanted the party to reaffirm its "old time religion" and those who wanted to turn it to the right.

Put into place, Clinton's New Democrat policies were extraordinarily successful for our country. When he left office, Americans were enjoying the best economy in our lifetime and the longest period of sustained economic growth in American history. Twenty two and a half million jobs were created, employment was at an all-time high and unemployment at a three-decade low. Inflation remained under control, and the budget was in surplus. Incomes and wages were going up, child poverty was down, and the welfare rolls had been cut by 60 percent.

Minorities and women achieved record gains. The violent crime rate was the lowest in a quarter century, and the federal government the smallest since the Kennedy administration. Clinton had the best environmental record of any President since Theodore Roosevelt and moved a hundred times more people out of poverty than Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Because his ideas worked, Clinton not only redefined progressivism in this country, but served as the model for the resurgence of center-left political parties from Europe and Latin America to Asia and Africa. That is his true legacy.

Bill Clinton will be remembered as the modernizer of progressive politics -- for his insistence upon new means to achieve progressive ideals.

That is a living legacy because for decades to come Democratic elected officials across our country and around the world will emulate his approach to governing.

In June of 2000, leaders of center-left governments from more than a dozen nations including Britain's Blair, Germany's Schroeder, Chile's Lagos, and South Africa's Mbeki signed a progressive manifesto defining their common progressive approach to governance. At the heart of their Third Way philosophy were the New Democrat principles of opportunity, responsibility, and community. The leader of that pack was Bill Clinton. President Clinton's legacy lives not only in our country but in democracies in all corners of the globe.

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Related Links ''The New Orleans Declaration''

''The New Choice''

Bill Clinton's Cleveland Keynote Address

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