ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Elect who you want; the DLC will press on. With President Clinton espousing its New Democrat ideals, the Democratic Leadership Council has enjoyed the past eight years. But will the DLC be silenced if Bush takes the White House?

Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) must have thought they’d finally made it when chattering class publications started paying homage to their influence with President-elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Actually, that clout wasn’t there during the administration’s early years, but the DLC-promoted and Clinton-implemented ’Third Way’ philosophy of government has been a successful one over the past five years.

Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) must have thought they’d finally made it when chattering class publications started paying homage to their influence with President-elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Actually, that clout wasn’t there during the administration’s early years, but the DLC-promoted and Clinton-implemented ’Third Way’ philosophy of government has been a successful one over the past five years.

Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) must have

thought they’d finally made it when chattering class publications

started paying homage to their influence with President-elect Bill

Clinton in 1992. Actually, that clout wasn’t there during the

administration’s early years, but the DLC-promoted and

Clinton-implemented ’Third Way’ philosophy of government has been a

successful one over the past five years.



But now that success may exact a price, given that Vice President Al

Gore, another From ally, is currently trailing Gov. George W. Bush,

whose centrist appeals can sound quite similar to those favored by the

DLC.



Significant challenges may lie ahead for the Washington-based DLC,

particularly if Bush wins. But the DLC has already succeeded in helping

the Democratic Party embrace messages appealing to what it calls the

’vital center’ of American politics. A research and education foundation

(with no formal ties to the Democratic Party), the DLC melds together

the three P’s - politics, policy and PR - in the hope of exercising

clout.



Capitol Hill aide Alixandria Weise sees the confluence. ’It’s impossible

to distinguish between policy and message with the DLC. Their policy is

their message,’ insists Weise, legislative and communications director

for Rep. Adam Smith.



Kenneth Baer, author of Reinventing Democrats, a history of the

15-year-old DLC, considers it to be an ’advocacy think tank’ given its

close relationship with elected leaders, most notably the symbiotic

alliance with Clinton and its unceasing promotion of a centrist ’Third

Way’ that transcends the old left/right debate.





A very democratic PR structure



That departure from orthodoxy is present in PR operations at the DLC,

which has not had a communications director for some time. Chuck Alston

held the role until 1996, when he became executive director. Now, DLC

press secretary Matt Frankel says, ’We have specific people in charge of

specific things.’ Frankel and his six-person press shop serve the DLC

and its sister think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).



Alston views the DLC’s management structure to be ’nonhierarchical,’

with co-founder and president From providing the organization’s overall

direction and Alston keeping close tabs on day-to-day

implementation.



But former DLC press secretary Lisa Davis, now acting communications

director at the American Association of Retired Persons, notes that

there is no micromanaging. ’They let people do their jobs,’ she says of

From and Alston.



Adds Frankel, ’Everything we do is as a team. It’s unlike Capitol Hill,

where the press secretary, scheduler and legislative assistant are all

doing different functions.’ Strategy is created together in meetings, he

says, but then staffers have the freedom of managing the

implementation.



The DLC’s communications efforts attempt to reach several audiences.



’Not only do reporters use us to get an understanding of ideas, but so

does a whole network of elected leaders,’ says Frankel. ’We make sure

the elected leaders (and their staffs) know the issues that we are

working on.’



To do so, the press shop issues a weekly fax promoting an ’Idea of the

Week,’ which Congressional members read and discuss with their

constituents.



While the tone of the DLC’s and PPI’s work is ’serious,’ Weise adds,

’Everything they do is put in a way that’s easily understandable.’



Dan Gerstein, press secretary to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, views the fax to

be helpful ’in reinforcing the message and occasionally highlighting a

new idea or interesting article and piquing interest.’ Frankel and his

aides also work the phone, intently pitching stories to the national

news media.





Turning ideas into policy



The DLC has sharpened the focus of its communications efforts in recent

years, according to Morton Kondracke, executive editor of Beltway bible

Roll Call. ’A number of us used to harangue them that they had ideas but

they were not getting them out into legislation. Ideas translated more

visibly into bills are important to getting attention in Washington.’

Aiding this is the fact that the DLC’s Capitol Hill ally, the New

Democrat Coalition, has boosted its membership, providing the

legislative venue needed for the ideas the DLC promotes and the

Progressive Policy Institute develops. (By law, the DLC is limited in

the amount of lobbying it can do.)



Kondracke cited an education bill introduced by Sen. Lieberman as

exemplifying the new approach. PPI provided significant technical

assistance on the concept, while the DLC press staff promoted the idea,

staging several press briefings and a breakfast for education reporters.

Bush had introduced a proposal that had some similarities to the PPI

plan, but the DLC and PPI argued that it was really a pale imitation,

particularly given that it contained vouchers for private schools, which

they oppose. Although Lieberman’s bill failed to pass when offered as an

amendment, it should be reintroduced next year.



Jim Grossfeld, speechwriter for House Minority Whip David Bonior, admits

to harboring ’sharp disagreements’ with the DLC on some important

issues.



But he says the DLC is ’very effective in creating conferences and

forums that are settings for discussions of issues. They do it more

effectively than a lot of think tanks.’



But there’s more to the DLC’s PR apparatus than faxes and press

breakfasts.



It is currently revamping its Web site, with a marketing push planned

for this fall. The site will build a resource bank that permits sharing

of information and ideas online among local and national New Democrat

leaders. The DLC also puts out two publications - the bimonthly The New

Democrat and the heftier, quarterly Blueprint Policy Journal - that help

promulgate its agenda and ’crystallize’ ideas, says Kondracke.



Events are another part of the DLC’s PR arsenal. Recent meetings

discussing how America must prepare for the New Economy have been held

in Austin, Boston and San Jose. Last fall the DLC sponsored the first

presidential town hall meeting in conjunction with Excite@Home. ’It was

a way to reach people who normally do not have access to the president,’

Frankel notes.



And after last year’s NATO summit in Washington, Clinton, British prime

minister Tony Blair, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Dutch

and Italian prime ministers appeared at a DLC forum, testifying to the

importance of the Third Way.



But will the Third Way carry on in the White House next year? The DLC is

using The New Democrat and its just-concluded ’National Conversation’

meeting in Baltimore to delineate the differences between New Democrats

and Bush’s ’compassionate conservatism.’



If Bush prevails, the DLC message machine can still rely on its friends

in Congress and the states to get the word out. But if Green Party

nominee Ralph Nader takes substantial support from the VP, it could

re-ignite debates over the Democratic Party’s core values. For now,

Frankel thinks the DLC message is right for the times, noting that the

Democrats emerging victorious in hotly contested areas are New

Democrats. Win or lose come November, the DLC’s Third Way should carry

on unabated.





DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP COUNCIL



PR officers: press secretary Matthew Frankel; communications manager

Debbie Boyland; deputy press secretary Jordan Matyas; production manager

Leo Ming



Size of PR staff: six



PR budget: dollars 1.5 million (estimated).



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.