It has never been easy here to sit at the political center. And now it just became a little lonelier.
The demise of the Democratic Leadership Council, a symbol of centrism for more than a quarter of a century, has been viewed by some as an acknowledgement that Democrats, coming off an election-year rout, have lost their compass too.
The DLC, which promoted moderate Democrats with business-friendly policies, was best epitomized by the presidency of Bill Clinton, who made the stratagem of “triangulation” — adopting policies from his political adversaries --- a household word.
President Obama’s perceived shift to the center of the spectrum on issues such as earmarks and a wage freeze for federal workers, as well as this week’s address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been viewed in some circles as an attempt at the same kind of maneuver.
This week, the DLC said it was shutting its doors because of financial problems. The move was hastened by the departure of its leader, Bruce Reed, who was hired by Vice President Joe Biden as his chief of staff.
Some Republicans greeted the news as a sign that the DLC’s brand of centrism had been rendered irrelevant after the results of last year congressional elections.
“This collapse … has been a long time coming,” said the National Republican Congressional Committee Tuesday in a statement. Moderate Democrats, the NRCC said, were led “into the extreme wing of their party by President Obama and Nancy Pelosi” -- and were routed for it.
Almost half of the so-called “Blue Dog” coalition, a group of Democratic moderates in the House, weren’t returned to their posts by voters in November.
In the Senate, some of the remaining moderates are growing nervous. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, both of whom were elected in 2006 and both of whom could face difficult re-election battles, are talking about modifying the Democrats’ signature healthcare overhaul, particularly the mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance.
Last week, both McCaskill and Tester voted against a GOP Senate amendment to repeal the entire healthcare bill.
Voters in McCaskill’s home state, a hotbed of “tea party” activism, overwhelmingly passed a referendum in November opposing the individual mandate. An aide to the senator said Tuesday that McCaskill is open to examining alternatives to the mandate that would still encourage healthy Americans to purchase health insurance, such as an extended open enrollment period that would offer financial incentives to enrollees.
McCaskill’s position is opposed by another centrist group, one that, ironically, she co-chairs.
“We do not think opening the healthcare bill is a wise choice at this moment,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, a Democratic think tank in Washington that had largely eclipsed the DLC as a driver of policy even before the DLC said it was shutting down.
Countering the NRCC and other critics, Bennett maintained that Democratic centrism remains a viable force in modern politics, one that Obama has embraced. He pointed to the recent appointment of William Daley, a Third Way trustee, as the new White House chief of staff — and argued that only by hewing to a moderate course, rather than trying to appeal to the more-aggressive progressive elements of the party, can Democrats hope to retain the White House and control of the Senate next year.
“For Democrats, the liberal base is 17% of the electorate. That can’t be your base. You can’t build pyramids that way,” Bennett said. “The base of the Democratic Party are moderates. When we win pluralities of moderates, we win elections.”