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The DLC and Me

A look at the latest gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council--from the inside.

10:30 AM, Aug 1, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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JUST TO LET YOU KNOW, I'm not running for president. I feel I have to squash the speculation, which I'm sure is rampant across the land, after I spoke at a political rally following Senator John Edwards and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

Here's how it happened. Every year the Democratic Leadership Council has a big meeting, which, since they are Democrats, they call a "Conversation." They usually bring in a few pundits to give a more or less objective view of the state of politics. I did it last year for them at a meeting in Key Largo, where I told them that I thought the moderate DLC wing of the Democratic Party was waning; that unfortunately the Democrats were reverting to the orthodox liberalism of their Mondale-Dukakis roots.

I think that's true in spades these days. In fact, many elected Democrats and the entire liberal pundit class have flipped their lids, reverting to the sort of corporate-greed and evil-big-business rhetoric they haven't uttered since their college days in the Spartacus Youth League.

This year there was no panel of pundits at the DLC meeting, just me. All the presidential hopefuls showed up except Al Gore, who was wise not to show since I sensed an enormous amount of hostility toward him.

Joe Lieberman bravely warned the party that it shouldn't veer too far to the left. John Kerry substantively attacked U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Tom Daschle spoke but nobody seemed to remember what he said. Hillary Clinton wowed the crowd with an anti-Republican stem-winder. This is a group that is not necessarily friendly to Mrs. Clinton, but they were all raving about her afterwards.

Then came the heavy hitters: DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, Edwards, Gephardt, and me.

I find Terry McAuliffe the most distasteful person in American politics. He screamed at the crowd in a manner that reminds you of the old used car salesmen commercials you see on television. What bugs me about McAuliffe is that he is beyond the normal categories of honesty and dishonesty. Like a lot of political operatives, Republican as well as Democratic, he simply doesn't seem to care what is true. If it is good for his party, he says it and believes it. If it is bad for his party, he doesn't believe it. So everything he said in his speech was a distortion of the truth, yet he's not even aware. Anything to tar the opposition, and degrade American politics.

The crowd ate it up. That disappointed me. DLC types are sophisticated centrists. But they are still partisans, I suppose, and they want the red meat, the pure organization of hatreds.

John Edwards is going to be a strong candidate. He's worked up a stump speech that shows off his skills, his charm and intelligence, while countering his weaknesses, his youth and inexperience. He has a long riff on the need for responsibility in the country, which sounds mature and socially conservative. He goes out of his way to warn us that violent crime is on the rise, which also makes him sound like the candidate of law and order. He also harps on some piece of legislation he is sponsoring that is opposed by the American Bar Association--just to let you know that though he is a lawyer, he's not a venal one.

Dick Gephardt was atrocious. No cliche was left unuttered. He took three or four minutes just to let us know that we are entering an information age and that he is aware of that fact. He went on and on and on, reciting a litany of minor legislative maneuvers that even professional political watchers couldn't bring themselves to care about. The candidates were supposed to speak for about 25 minutes. After about 40, Gephardt was getting around to minor planks of some Department of Education appropriation measure.

When you're up there on that podium, the lights are so bright you only see the silhouettes of the people in the crowd. But there are two TV monitors at your feet showing you your own face. So Gephardt was up there basically alone--talking to himself on TV.

It was a speech that showed a self-absorption and a plodding mind of the sort that simply will not work on the campaign trail. He's finished.

When he finally finished his Castro-length oration and relieved the crowd of the burden of his presence, it was my turn. To say that there was a rush for the exits is merely to state the obvious. I believe I was not the only one left in the ballroom, but I'm not sure. I know my buddies in the press corps fought the incredible desire they must have felt to hear my wisdom. They ripped themselves away so they could attend the Gephardt press conference.

I began my talk with an announcement: That if Al Gore runs for president, I will not challenge him in the Democratic primaries. I owe him that much, for giving me hours of pleasure watching him run so badly last time.