How the Koch brothers helped dismantle the Democratic Party

Sam Smith

For over 20 years I have reported on the mostly unnoted role played by the Democratic Leadership Council dismantling the Democratic Party, disconnecting it from its New Deal and Great Society past and turning it into Republican Lite. For example, in a 1992 book on Clinton, I wrote:

In 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings — eventually nearly a hundred of them — were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats.

The play was also being cast by a group that called itself the Democratic Leadership Council. Although lacking any official role in the Democratic Party (and often appearing more a Democratic Abandon Ship Council), the DLC claimed it was the voice of mainstream party thought. In fact, it was primarily a lobby for the views of southern and other conservative Democrats, yet so successful was its media manipulation that it managed with impunity to call its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.

In such places the important Democratic politics of the late 1980s was being made. Clinton may have bored millions of Americans on TV that night, but Clifford, Strauss, Harriman and the DLC found him intensely interesting, extremely intelligent — an appealing pragmatist, willing to compromise, and fully at home with the policy jargon of the capital.

The DLC would later help bring Barack Obama to the fore, although its role this time was carefully concealed so as not to tarnish Obama’s liberal image.

But what I had failed to note in this story, until Green Party Asher Platts mentioned it recently, was the involvement of the rightwing Koch Brothers in this supposedly Democratic organization.

For example, Sourcewatch reported:

An August, 2000 Newsweek story on Joe Lieberman, The Soul And The Steel reveals that some of the early funding came from ARCO, Chevron, Merck, Du Pont, Microsoft, Philip Morris and Koch Industries:

Among the DLC’s biggest benefactors last year (contributions of between $50,000 and $100,000) were ARCO, Chevron and the drug giant Merck. Other big underwriters include Du Pont, Microsoft and Philip Morris … “We’ve been able to have a dialogue with the [Senator Joseph Lieberman] and his staff,” said Jay Rosser, spokesman for another DLC benefactor, Koch Industries, an oil-pipeline firm that is also a big GOP donor.

The fact that these rightwing brothers were successfully interfering in Democratic politics shows how artificial popular and media assumptions about politics can be.

For example, when Obama came along, The DLC already had a bad rap among liberals so its role in his unprecedented rise to power from state senator to presidential candidate in just a few years was best kept quiet. It only cropped up a few times, such as in this Chicago Sun Times story by Abdon Pallasch in 2008:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama may be the most liberal senator by one group’s scorecard, and the Democratic Leadership Council may be a centrist organization trying to pull the Democratic party away from the left.

But with the smell of victory in the air, no one at the DLC convention in Chicago is quibbling with the presumptive nominee’s positions.

Is there any issue on which Obama differs from the DLC agenda?

None, said Chairman Harold Ford, who narrowly lost a race for U.S. Senate in Tennessee two years ago. He said the organization’s main goal now is getting Obama elected president.

It helps that the organization —founded after the 1984 election to move the Democratic Party to the right — has no issue positions it asks members to sign on to. Leaders generally back a more pro-business, pro-trade agenda. Today is the last day of the group’s annual convention in Chicago.

As some of his potential vice presidents participated in break-out sessions here Sunday, Obama played basketball for about three hours just a few blocks away and got a haircut. But not one of the principals here begrudged him not stopping by…

“No, he’s really very, very busy,” Mayor Daley said, making his second appearance this weekend at the convention. “He needs time for his family. It [was] an exhausting primary. We’re all representing Barack Obama. He doesn’t have to be at every meeting. He has to take time out for his family. It’s important for his well-being.”

Some McCain backers decry Obama as the most liberal senator or nominee the Democrats have put up. And the National Journal ranked him the Senate’s most liberal member. But Daley said, “I never looked at him as a liberal” when he worked with Obama on issues in the state legislature.

Bill Clinton was the face of the DLC in 1992. And Obama told supporters four years ago that his inclusion on a DLC list of up-and-coming elected officials four years ago did not mean he was surrendering his progressive credentials on issues such as the War in Iraq.

“Democrats need to be pro-business Democrats again,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, touted by some as a potential vice-president for Obama…

Such a partnership – between something called the Democratic Leadership Council and the Koch Brothers – goes a long way to explaining why our last two Democratic presidents have been so disloyal to their party’s traditions. And why Obama is pushing something as atrocious and anti-American as the secret TPP agreement.

Bipartisanship may be gone on Capitol Hill, but it’s still flourishing in the checks that are written for politicians.

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3 thoughts on “How the Koch brothers helped dismantle the Democratic Party

  1. Unfortunately for you, the exhaustive “Sons of Wichita,” perhaps the definitive account of the Koch brothers out there, mentions not a word about any connection between the brothers and the Democratic Leadership Council. From your piece, it mentions Koch Industries, which is not the Koch brothers, but why ruin a good conspiracy theory,right?

    The truth is BOTH political parties became enamored with the crackpot economic theories of Milton Friedman, called neoliberalism, beginning in the late 1970s, and, after the Dukakis defeat in 1988, some southern Democrats decided to pander more to business types by embracing the poisonous neoliberalism we are still stuck with to this day.

    The Kochs had little or nothing to do with this. Their big concentration was on libertarian outfits and the GOP.

    • Who exactly do you think Koch industries is? Exactly who do you think writes the checks for the private company Koch Industries? Oh that would be the Koch brothers Charles and David Koch…..

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