Al From, the Founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and a close advisor to President Bill Clinton shared his experience helping to reinvent the Democratic Party after suffering huge losses in three consecutive presidential elections in the 1980s. The Democratic Party (and progressive government) had grown out of touch and lacked a successful governing philosophy. The DLC, under From's leadership, became an idea movement -- not simply a strategy -- to find an agenda that would resonate with voters. Mr. From recounted how the DLC in its early years met opposition from Democratic Party leadership, but forged ahead, challenging party orthodoxy and using the conflict it created within the party to actually expand it. He shared interesting and funny anecdotes about traveling around the country in the early 1990s with a then little known governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who Mr. From told early on that he could help make president. Working together, Mr. From and President Clinton engaged in a four-prong strategy of what he called first, reality therapy -- facing the truth of the problem with the Party. Second, they issued a declaration of ideas -- opportunity, responsibility, community, private sector growth, and a robust foreign policy -- that resonated with the American people and redressed areas where the party had failed. Third, they found policy initiatives to go with the ideas, such as Americorps, welfare reform, workfare, community policing, charter schools, and reinventing government initiatives. Finally, Clinton took these ideas and traveled the country testing them out.
Mr. From applied some of these same strategies and insights to the modern day Democratic and Republican Parties, and what principally ails our politics today, which is so much partisanship. Mr. From stressed how the health of our democracy depends on having two competitive parties, and even conflicts within the two parties. For example, he noted that not one Republican voted for Obamacare, leaving the healthcare reform without buy-in from Republicans, who thus will have no interest in making it workable long after Obama is out of office. In addition, both parties, he observed, have become highly ideological parties, which does not work well in the American system of democracy. It would be better to have a place for conservative and liberals in both parties, to create balance and compromise and greater openness to workable solutions. (He used the example of Republican Jack Kemp, whose ideas on empowerment zones had resonance with both parties). His fascinating talk was followed up by some great questions and further discussion. For those interested in learning more about Mr. From's work, his book, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, is available here on amazon.com.