The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was a non-profit 501(c)(4) corporation founded in 1985 that, upon its formation, argued the United States Democratic Party should shift away from the leftward turn it took in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. One of its main purposes was to win back white middle class voters with ideas that addressed their concerns. The DLC hailed President Bill Clinton as proof of the viability of Third Way politicians and as a DLC success story.
The DLC's affiliated think tank is the Progressive Policy Institute. Democrats who adhere to the DLC's philosophy often call themselves New Democrats. This term is also used by other groups who have similar views on where the party should go in the future, like NDN and Third Way.
On February 7, 2011, Politico reported that the DLC would dissolve, and would do so as early as the following week. On July 5 of that year, DLC founder Al From announced in a statement on the organization's website that the historical records of the DLC have been purchased by the Clinton Foundation. The DLC's last chairman was former Representative Harold Ford of Tennessee, and its vice chair was Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware. Its CEO was Bruce Reed.
The DLC was founded by Al From in 1985 in the wake of Democratic candidate and former Vice President Walter Mondale's landslide defeat by incumbent President Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Other founders include Democratic Governors Chuck Robb (Virginia), Bruce Babbitt (Arizona) and Lawton Chiles (Florida), Senator Sam Nunn (Georgia) and Representative Dick Gephardt (Missouri).
The model on which the Democratic Leadership Council was built was the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. Founded by "Scoop" Jackson Democrats in response to George McGovern's massive loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, the CDM was dismayed by two presidential election losses and the organization's goal was to steer the party away from the New Left influence that had permeated the Democratic party since the late 1960s and back to the policies that made the FDR coalition electorally successful for close to 40 years. Although Senator Jackson declined to endorse the organization, believing the timing was inappropriate, future DLC founders and early members were involved, such as Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Charles S. Robb.
In the early 1980s, some of the youngest members of Congress, including Representative William Gray of Pennsylvania, Tim Wirth of Colorado, Al Gore of Tennessee, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and Gillis Long of Louisiana helped found the House Democratic Caucus' Committee on Party Effectiveness. Formed by Long and his allies after the 1980 presidential election, the CPE hoped to become the main vehicle for the rejuvenation of the Democratic Party. The CPE has been called "the first organizational embodiment of the New Democrats."
The DLC started as a group of forty-three elected officials and two staffers, Al From and Will Marshall, and shared their predecessor's goal of reclaiming the Democratic Party from the left's influence prevalent since the late 1960s. Their original focus was to secure the 1988 presidential nomination of a southern conservative Democrat such as Nunn or Robb. After the success of Jesse Jackson, a vocal critic of the DLC, in winning a number of southern states in 1988's "Super Tuesday" primary, the group began to shift its focus towards influencing public debate. In 1989, Marshall founded the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank which has since turned out policy blueprints for the DLC. Its most extensive series of papers is the series of New Economy Policy Reports.
It is the opinion of the DLC that economic populism is not politically viable, citing the defeated Presidential campaigns of Senator George McGovern in 1972 and Vice-President Walter Mondale in 1984. The DLC states that it "seeks to define and galvanize popular support for a new public philosophy built on progressive ideals, mainstream values, and innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions."
The DLC has supported welfare reform, such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, President Clinton's expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the creation of AmeriCorps. The DLC supports expanded health insurance via tax credits for the uninsured and opposes plans for single-payer universal health care. The DLC supports universal access to preschool, charter schools, and measures to allow a greater degree of choice in schooling (though not school vouchers), and supports the No Child Left Behind Act. The DLC supports both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The DLC has both supported and criticized the policies of President George W. Bush. The DLC opposed the partial birth abortion ban, the expiration of the 1994 assault weapon ban, the Clear Skies Initiative, and what they perceived as a lack of funding of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. In 2001 the DLC endorsed the idea of tax cuts for the middle class, but opposed the Bush tax cut since it favored the wealthy and was perceived by the DLC as fiscally irresponsible. The organization supports some forms of Social Security privatization but opposes financing private retirement accounts with large amounts of borrowed money.
The DLC gave strong support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Prior to the war, Marshall Wittmann, Sen. Joe Lieberman's press secretary and a senior fellow with Will Marshall's DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute think tank, co-signed a letter to President Bush from the Project for the New American Century endorsing military action against Saddam Hussein. During the 2004 Primary campaign, Wittmann attacked Presidential candidate Howard Dean as an out-of-touch liberal because of Dean's anti-war stance. Wittmann dismissed other critics of the Iraq invasion such as filmmaker Michael Moore as members of the "loony left".
Even as domestic support for the Iraq War plummeted in 2004 and 2005, DLC co-founder Will Marshall called upon Democrats to balance their criticism of Bush's handling of the Iraq War with praise for the president's achievements and cautioned "Democrats need to be choosier about the political company they keep, distancing themselves from the pacifist and anti-American fringe."
Some critics claim the strategy of triangulation between the political left and right to gain broad appeal is fundamentally flawed. In the long run, so opponents say, this strategy has resulted in concession after concession to the opposition and promotion of a free-market economic agenda favorable to corporations and entrepreneurs, including those seeking to privatize public services, while alienating traditionally-allied voters and working-class people.
Other critics cite that the low turnout of organized labor in the 1994 election after Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law resulted in the Republican Party gaining a majority in the 1994 House of Representatives elections and 1994 Senate elections that would last for twelve years until 2006.
Author and columnist David Sirota has strongly criticized the DLC, who he claims have sold out to corporate interests. In 1980, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) founded the Democratic Business Council to compete with the Republican National Committee for donations from businesses and corporations. Sirota has also argued that the term "centrist" is a misnomer in that these politicians are out of touch with public opinion. Sirota's article "The Democrats' Da Vinci Code" argues that truly progressive politicians are more successful in so-called "red states" than the mainstream media have previously reported.
Others contend that the DLC's distaste for what they refer to as "economic class warfare" has allowed the language of populism to be monopolized by the right-wing. Many argue that the Democrats' abandonment of populism to the right-wing, shifting the form of that populism from the economic realm to the "culture wars", has been critical for Republican dominance of Middle America. (See, for instance, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?.)
Still other critics believe the DLC has essentially become an influential corporate and right-wing implant in the Democratic party. Marshall Wittmann, a former senior fellow at the DLC, former legislative director for the Christian Coalition, and former communications director for Republican senator John McCain, and Will Marshall, a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, are among those associated with the DLC who have right-wing credentials.
Finally, detractors of the DLC note that the DLC has received funding from the right-wing Bradley Foundation as well as from oil companies, military contractors, and various Fortune 500 companies. However, the DNC proper has also benefited from funding by corporations like these via the Democratic Business Council.
A Gallup poll of Democratic National Committee members (in February 2005) showed that, by more than two-to-one (52%-23%) the DNC members wanted the party to become more moderate, rather than more liberal. That view was shared by Democrats nationally; in a January 2005 survey, Gallup found that 59% of Democrats wanted the party to take a more moderate course.
Although progressive critics argue the DLC's centrism has led the Democratic party to multiple electoral defeats, DLC candidates, office holders, and their moderate policies have been generally favored by the American electorate. When the Democratic party won majority status in the Senate in 1986, it was done with centrist and DLC affiliated candidates Barbara Mikulski (a participant in the DLC's National Service Tour), Harry Reid (who recently said Democrats have to "swallow their pride" and move toward the middle), Conservative Democrat Richard Shelby, DLCer Bob Graham, DLCer Kent Conrad, and DLCer Tom Daschle. When Bill Clinton, former Chairman of the DLC, made up his mind to run for the presidency in 1992, the DLC spotted the right candidate to promote its mission. Bill Clinton ran his 1992 and 1996 campaigns as a New Democrat and (prior to Obama's 2012 presidential re-election) became the only twice elected Democratic president since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. New Democrats made significant gains in both the 2006 midterms and the 2008 elections. While explicitly denying any direct connection to the DLC in 2003, in May 2009 President Obama reportedly declared to the House New Democrat Coalition, "I am a New Democrat."
Some political analysts like Kenneth Baer contend the DLC embodies the spirit of Truman-Kennedy era Democrats and were vital to the Democratic party's resurgence after the election losses of liberals George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Simon Rosenberg, a long time Democratic campaign operative and strategist, said recently, "there is a strong argument to be made that the DLC has been the most influential think tank in American politics over the past generation... the DLC helped set in motion a period of party modernization that has helped the Democratic Party overcome the potent and ultimately ruinous rise of the New Right."
In May 2003, as the Democratic primary of the 2004 presidential campaign was starting to pick up, the organization voiced concern that the Democratic contenders might be taking positions too far left of the mainstream general electorate. Early front-runner Howard Dean, who attracted popular support due in large part to his anti-war views despite his reputation as a centrist governor of Vermont, was specifically criticized by DLC founder and CEO Al From. From's criticism of Dean was also likely due to the former governor's opposition to the Iraq War, which most party centrists, including From, endorsed. Dean's claim to hail "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" (a phrase originally used by Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota) has been interpreted by some as subtle(?) criticism of the DLC and the New Democrats in general. Indeed, Dean once described the DLC as the "Republican wing of the Democratic Party."  The DLC countered that Dean represented the "McGovern-Mondale wing" of the Democratic Party, "defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home."
Senator John Kerry won the Democratic primary and chose primary contender Senator John Edwards as his running mate. Both Senators were members of the Senate New Democrat Coalition, and the DLC anticipated that they would win the general election. In a March 3, 2004 dispatch, they suggested voters would appreciate Kerry's centrist viewpoints, imagining voters to say "If this is a waffle, bring on the syrup." 
The 2008 Democratic Primary pitted New York Senator Hillary Clinton, a prominent DLC member, against Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who had previously stated that his positions on NAFTA, the Iraq War and universal health care made him "an unlikely candidate for membership in the DLC." However, President Obama has since surrounded himself with DLC members, appointing Clinton herself as Secretary of State. In May 2009, President Obama reportedly declared to the House New Democrat Coalition, the congressional arm of the DLC, "I am a New Democrat." President Obama has also called himself a progressive, in addition to being endorsed by Howard Dean's progressive political action committee Democracy for America.
Joe Lieberman, another notable member of the DLC, endorsed Republican Senator John McCain for the presidency in 2008, citing his agreement with McCain's stance on the War on Terrorism as the primary reason for his support. Later in the campaign, Lieberman was mentioned as a possible Vice Presidential nominee for John McCain's ticket. However, Lieberman denied any interest in this role and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was ultimately selected to be McCain's running mate.
(Titles listed are those held at time of assuming chair.)
On the Republican side of the aisle another centrist organization was founded by moderate and some left of center Republicans with the same purpose for the Republican Party. The Republican Leadership Council was founded by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Missouri Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth.