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DLC & CPAC: Intra-Party Divisions a Bi-Partisan Affair

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Word that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was closing up shop drew chants akin to “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” from liberals across America. The DLC – a self-styled centrist, pro-business group – has been a bogeyman to the Left, from its successful efforts encouraging Democratic officials to embrace big lobbyists to its high-profile fights with Howard Dean and other progressive leaders. Liberals felt more than a little schadenfreude that this major combatant in intra-party strife was laying down its swords and laying off its staff. However, beyond some playful and pointed posts, liberals aren't really celebrating.

Not that it was a bad week for the Left.  The Republicans were revealing their internal divisions – and their old-fashioned bigotry – as prominent partisans boycotted CPAC, the major conservative conference, over the inclusion of the gay group GOProud. The House Leader John Boehner lost a vote on extending the Patriot Act in a turn that showed insurgent Tea Partiers aren’t ready to play nice with their caucus.  Liberal hero Keith Olbermann will be back and bolder than ever on Current TV.  The purchase of the Huffington Post by AOL showed mainstream affirmation of the value – at least financially – of a liberal-leaning community.  And there was of course a largely-peaceful democratic uprising that toppled a dictator.

However, the bigger picture for progressives isn’t as positive. The DLC’s demise doesn’t mean that the chorus of cautious and compromising centrists is any less central in Democratic politics. Far from its ideas losing steam, the DLC can close up shop because its work is done: its core ideas are already everywhere.

The New York Times highlighted several groups that might take on the mantle of the DLC – the Third Way, a media-savvy group that aggravates liberals at every turn, and the No Labels “movement”, which has embraced many labels: independent, nonpartisan, bipartisan, centrist. 

There is no single heir, though, to an organization with descendents everywhere. This brand of centrism has led to the party’s cozy relationship with Wall Street banksters. The attitude has guided the overly-cautious Senate caucus and allowed conservative concerns to shape policy and stymie progress. The DLC lives in the White House in new Chief of Staff William Daley. It’s in the ongoing deficit hawkishness that obstructs meaningful public investment, in the crisis-mongering that makes Democrats as big a threat to Social Security as Republicans, and in the mindset that extended the nationally unpopular Bush Tax Cuts.

Maybe without the DLC we’ll hear less from Harold Ford, Jr…for a little while anyway. But we’ll hear just as much from Democrats who continue to recite the DLC line.

Coincidentally, another Democratic institution shut down in the past week – an online community that propelled progressive conversation, held Democrats accountable and animated an online readership into a political force (no, not HuffPo). The progressive group blog Open Left announced its final day after four years of pushing for openness in progressive politics. It never hesitated to challenge the elites of its own party, spending far more words criticizing Democrats than Republicans. While its audience was smaller than its better known ally DailyKos, its influential readership took the ideas seriously, found progressive affirmation in its posts, and often joined campaigns to push for Democratic politicians.

Its three founders have moved to other platforms — Matt Stoller to consulting for clients including MSNBC, Chris Bowers to DailyKos and Mike Lux to a range of progressive institutions and causes — all of which will allow them to continue their work. The site’s retirement doesn’t mean the end of the battle to take the Democratic Party out of the hands of the elites. Nor does the DLC’s closing bell signal the elites are done trying to hold onto those reins.

As the CPAC segregation and House uprising demonstrate, there are power struggles within every party. On It’s A Free Country, Karol Markowicz compared these fights to family feuds, promising that in the end the Republican party will coalesce behind a Presidential candidate – just as DLC alums and MoveOn members will likely pull the same lever in November, 2012. But that doesn’t make the fights inconsequential. Who you get to vote for in 21 months is shaped by the intra-party fights happening now. The DLC’s pervasive influence crafted a Democratic nominee that, for all his ability to inspire and orate, was still unashamed about centrist policies and Big Business advisors.

Whether or not the DLC exists, that influence is going to be just as strong in 2012. Whether or not Open Left exists, the progressive movement will fight against it.

Divided Democrats can find a little comfort that conservatives are just as cleaved.  Jim DeMint, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee – all of whom skipped CPAC – will most likely make nice with the rest of the crowd, including the Log Cabin Republicans, during the next general election. In the meantime, a fractious primary will determine what face the Republican Party puts to the nation. And over that time, liberals may even find some unlikely allies across the aisle.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."