The “Center” Where Pols and Lobbyists Go to Cut Deals

Molly Ball’s characterization of Mary Landrieu as “the last southern Democrat” wasn’t the only thing in her Atlantic piece that raised my blood pressure. There was this, too:

The day after the debate, at Landrieu’s rally in Baton Rouge, she is joined by John Breaux, a former Democratic senator who left office in 2005 and is now a Washington lobbyist. Landrieu, when I ask her about what happened to Democrats nationally on November 4, does not want to talk about it—”My focus has been here in Louisiana,” she says. But Breaux interjects. “A lot of Republican candidates for Senate have been able to convince people of their state that if you don’t like President Obama, you should somehow not vote for your own incumbent senator, even though they’ve done a great job for your state,” he says. “And that’s the case here.”

To bring the party back, he believes Democrats need a new Bill Clinton who can reposition the party toward the center. The day after the election, Breaux tells me, he called Clinton to suggest restarting the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “The perception now is that the Democratic Party is too far to the left and the Republican Party is too far for the right,” he tells me. “The majority of Americans are somewhere in the middle.”

Many Democratic partisans believe otherwise, and have been insisting since the election that the party needs to become more progressive, not less. Breaux disagrees. “That’s a serious mistake,” he says. “We didn’t lose these elections because we weren’t liberal enough. We lost these elections because we were perceived as being a party that was not a centrist party.”

This concept of “centrism,” and of the Democratic Leadership Council, is a signature John Breaux tenet, one that made a lof of us at the DLC itself very unhappy back in the day. Here were some of us claiming (perhaps with less merit than we thought at the time, but still sincerely) we stood for a modernization of the progressive tradition, not some meeting-conservatives-halfway or lets-get-our-lobbyists-and-their-lobbyists-together-and-cut-deals gambit. For Breaux, however, it was always about the deal. He was seriously estranged from the DLC for a good while after 2001 because the organization vocally opposed Bush’s tax cuts while Breaux “cut a deal” and found a way to support them. And he tended to just shake his head when the DLC lost donors for supporting cap-and-trade legislation or opposing the Bush administration’s version of Medicare Rx Drugs or opposing corporate tax subsidies.

Back then I used to look at Breaux and a whole lot of other deal-cutting pols who “played” with the DLC as not “getting it.” Now I realize they had as much or more right to call themselves “the DLC” as any of us, and by relying on them for political and fundraising help we forfeited any right to look down on them. Having said all that, and having myself written an obituary of the organization as well-buried, I have to say if there’s any form of the DLC that it would be useful to bring back, it’s sure as hell not Breaux’s version, which veers from “Republican Lite” to “Republican Heavy” on an awful lot of issues.

It’s probably not a complete coincidence that the two pols–one Breaux and the other ex-Democratic former governor Mike Foster–who tell Ball Democrats have to repudiate their current president and recent policy legacy to win elections in Louisiana were also the two men most responsible for Bobby Jindal being a political figure and not just some wise-ass academician or corporate consultant. Clever and unprincipled cynicism may be one way back for Democrats in the Deep South, but sometimes you just have to say Hell No.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.