THE MOVERS and shakers of the Democratic Leadership Council have always insisted that the organization was devoted to finding new and innovative solutions to national problems. But no one is kidding the troops. What the DLC is really seeking is not just solutions to problems but -- as the DLC chairman, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, observed here -- a change in the perception of the party among conservative white voters who have been deserting the Democratic line in droves in presidential elections.
The operative question is how they accomplish that goal without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The DLC's convention here suggests that formula is still eluding them.
The convention was, not to put too fine a point on it, a sham. The Cleveland convention center was bedecked with bunting and there were placards on the floor for every state to give the meeting the look of a national political convention. There were 800-odd "delegates" to applaud the speakers and shout their votes on a series of resolutions ostensibly defining the "new choice" the DLC is trying to offer Americans.
But the convention was largely financed by big business, and many of the delegates were lobbyists from Washington, some of them Republicans sitting among other places in the New Jersey and California "delegations" that were supposed to be made up of elected officials. There was even, for heaven's sake, a longtime adviser to former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew last seen at Republican Governors' Association conferences. Qualifying to be a delegate meant paying a fee, not necessarily getting elected to office back home -- or even being a Democrat.
Then there were the resolutions. If anyone cared, the DLC put itself on record as strong on defense (meaning not weak like liberals), against special interests (meaning organized labor) and opposed to racial quotas (just like President Bush). The clearest message was sent in the deliberate exclusion of Jesse Jackson from the conference program.
In terms of tactical politics, it is hard to argue with many of these things. The DLC was organized six years ago in response to the recognition that among many white voters -- particularly but not solely in the South -- the label "national Democrat" had become poison because of the connotation of weakness on national defense and "special interests" such as labor and blacks. The new group was meant to be juxtaposed in the minds of voters with the Democratic National Committee that had just elected Paul Kirk, a longtime political adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, as its chairman.
In a sense, the DLC was trying to define itself by who it was against as well as who it was for. That, in essence, is still the case. Being against Jesse Jackson, for example, is good politics with conservative white voters who believed -- although the facts don't support the belief -- that he was given too many concessions by Democratic nominees Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. In fact, there are many liberals in the party who also would be happy to see the last of Jackson in presidential politics.
But the DLC leaders are naive if they think they can attack the liberal excesses of their party without being seen as playing me-too politics. The charge of DLC critics that the country doesn't need two Republican parties may be exaggerated but it reflects sound political thinking.
That the DLC is playing that game was never more apparent than in the resolution that put the organization on record as specifically opposed to racial "quotas" in employment. The Democrats in Congress who have been pressing the case for the 1991 civil rights act and did the same last year have always insisted that there is nothing in the language that requires quotas and that President Bush's argument in vetoing the 1990 version because it was a "quotas bill" was simply a red herring.
So the DLC, by voluntarily joining the "quotas" argument, was buying into the White House characterization of the issue -- and in a way that could not avoid the inference drawn by some blacks that it was essentially siding against them on the touchy affirmative action question.
The whole argument wasn't intrinsically important; DLC resolutions carry no authority. But the controversy helped define the central problem for the Democratic Party today: How do you become competitive in presidential elections without abandoning the party's history and core constituencies? The one thing clear is you don't do it with resolutions passed by Republican lobbyists.