With unemployment hovering at nearly 8 percent and most Americans believing the country was on the wrong track, the Republicans expected to win the 2012 presidential election. Instead, President Obama’s reelection marked the fifth time in the last six national elections that the Republicans lost the popular vote for president. Voters have come to see the Republicans as out of ideas and out of touch with a changing America. Much of the political discussion during the next three years will focus on what the Republicans need to do to reverse their fortunes in 2016.
Political memories tend to be short, but just 25 years ago the fortunes of the two parties were reversed. In 1988, the Democrats lost an election they expected to win, their fifth defeat in six presidential elections. Twice, in 1972 and in 1984, the Democratic candidate lost 49 states.
Today’s Republicans will have to find their own formula. But they would be wise to start by rebuilding their party intellectually. Until they begin standing for ideas the American people want to support, voters are unlikely to return them to national power.
That is a lesson they can learn from us. The New Democrat movement was an idea movement that reconnected the Democratic Party with its first principles and grandest traditions:
- Jackson’s credo of equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none;
- Jefferson’s belief in individual liberty and the capacity for self-government;
- Kennedy’s ethic of civic responsibility;
- Truman’s tough-minded internationalism; and
- Roosevelt’s thirst for innovation.
Based on those core Democratic beliefs, the New Democrat approach was fundamentally different from what had become Democratic orthodoxy over the previous quarter century.
At its best, the Democratic Party was the party of upward mobility. Democrats believed that social and economic progress in America is built on the talents and efforts of all Americans, not just the wealthy elites.
As Democrats, we believed in tolerance and inclusion. We were proud of our heritage as the party that helped tens of millions of immigrants, including my father, to work their way into the economic and social mainstream. We were the party of civil rights and equal rights and human rights.
As New Democrats, we understood that tolerance and inclusion in an era of rapid change can best be preserved by a common civic culture grounded in the values most Americans believe in: work, family, responsibility, individual liberty, and faith. We anchored our policies in these mainstream American values.
As New Democrats, we understood that living in a community is a two-way street. We rejected the Right’s ethic of every man for himself and “if you don’t make it, so be it.” But we also rejected the Left’s ethic of something for nothing. We believed in an ethic of mutual responsibility—that government has a responsibility to its citizens to create opportunities, and that citizens have an obligation to their country to give something back to the commonwealth.
As Democrats, we believed that America has a special responsibility to lead the world, by example and diplomacy, toward political and economic freedom.
As New Democrats, we understood that the most important challenge to our role in the world today is to continue and strengthen America’s leadership in the global economy, showing the world that freedom can work to our mutual benefit, and that peaceful competition can lift the standard of living in every part of the globe. We rejected calls for a new isolationism from both political extremes and committed Democrats to an internationalist foreign policy that defended American interests and promoted democratic values in the world.
As Democrats, we believed in activist government, that government can and should play a positive role in our national life. Unlike the Republicans, we don’t believe government is an alien institution: It is the agent of our collective will and our instrument for helping Americans help themselves and each other.
As New Democrats, we understood that government must be modernized constantly to deal with the fast changing circumstances of the information age. We believed, as Franklin Roosevelt did, that “new conditions impose new requirements on government and those who conduct government.” That’s why we must consistently modernize government to make sure it equips people with the tools they need to get ahead.
As New Democrats, we 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 less centralized, more flexible, and more accountable, and by offering more choices in public services.
Finally, the electorate was much different than it is today. White voters were nearly 90 percent of the electorate, blacks about 10 percent, and Hispanics barely voted at all. For Democrats, the key to their political comeback was to win over the working and middle-class white voters—Clinton called them the forgotten middle class—who had deserted the Democratic Party in droves in the three previous presidential elections.
America has seen dramatic changes demographically, socially, and technologically in the last two decades. The challenges today are different than those in the 1990s, and so the policies must be different to meet them. But the core principles of the New Democrat movement—opportunity for all, an ethic of mutual responsibility, the core value of community, a global outlook, an emphasis on economic growth and empowering government—and its embodiment of values such as work, family, faith, individual liberty, and inclusion are as viable and useful for meeting today’s challenges as they were for meeting the challenges of the 1990s.
In those principles and in the history of the New Democrat movement, there are lessons for both political parties today. I believe that if either party—and I certainly hope it will be the Democrats—would put together an agenda for the future that furthered those principles, it would both break today’s polarized political gridlock and build an enduring political and governing majority. And America would be the better for it.
Excerpted from The New Democrats and the Return to Power by Al From. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, December 2013. Al From is the Founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and Principal of The From Company, LLC. He is also an advisor to Republic 3.0.
Image credit: Clinton Presidential Library