Al From, party strategist during Clinton years, focuses on ideas and policies



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

What is it about Al From, who founded the Democratic Leadership Council and helped bring President Bill Clinton to power, that allows Republican Red Cavaney to refer to their “enduring friendship” and call himself a “devotee” of From’s ideas?

For starters, From’s centrist Democratic views are not all that far from Cavaney’s centrist Republican views — views From and Cavaney, who currently chairs the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, share with President Ford as well.

Though the two parties may at times be driven by different motivations, it seems that not too many in the G.O.P. would disagree with From’s statement “...private sector economic growth is the prerequisite for opportunity for all.” From attributes that idea to Bill Clinton in a 5/14/2014 article in the  online Huffington Post (, but it was clear when he spoke last Thursday at the Gerald R. Ford Museum that the concept is a cornerstone of From’s own belief system.

Further, it was clear during the presentation that Cavaney, who sat literally on-stage alongside From, their legs dangling over the edge, also “believe[s] ideas and policies matter,” a quote taken from that same article.

Al From is such a believer in the power of ideas and of developing policies that accord with those core ideas that he gambled his entire career on it.

Prompted by the string of three overwhelming Democratic presidential candidate losses in the 1980s, From’s Democratic Leadership Council sought to reinvent the message of the party to appeal to voters who were “in the middle.”

“I usually start my speeches by saying that on election night in 1980 I had a party and nobody came. I was working for Jimmy Carter. Carter lost to Reagan, we lost the Senate, and so everybody who was invited to the party had lost a job. It was not a very good or enjoyable time,” he says.

He regarded Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat  in 1984, when the Dems carried only D.C. and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, as a wake-up call, and when Michael Dukakis lost in 1988, blowing a 17-point lead coming out of the nominating convention, From and others were looking for a candidate who could reinvigorate the party’s message.

“The idea of the Democratic Leadership Council was to try to modernize the Democratic message, to take the core values of the Democratic party historically and find new ways to market them. After Mike Dukakis, in April of 1989, I thought Bill Clinton was the best political talent. So the Council said, we’ll pay you for your travel around the country to start campaigning if you help us put together a think tank to come up with some new ideas, I told him that I think a Democrat can win the White House. And he said, OK, I’ll take that deal,” From explained.

Prior to the development of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1985, From was the Executive Director of the House Democratic Caucus. He worked only briefly for?President Carter as his advisor on inflation in 1979 and 1980, following eight years as the director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations, which Sen. Edmund Muskie chaired.

From’s first job after earning Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University (where he was editor of the Daily Northwestern) was working for the War on Poverty in the region which included Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

His work on the Congressional Budget Act and the stimulus package during the 1973-74 recession, while in the Intergovernmental Relations committee position, earned him the title of “legislative genius” from Washingtonian Magazine.

Another quote praising From’s work at the time is taken from Bill Clinton himself (sourced from his online library archives). In a 2000 speech before a DLC retreat, Clinton said, "It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From.”

Some of the ideas that came out of that time include Americorps, the Earned Income Tax Credit — “We thought nobody who worked full time in the richest country in the world should be poor,” From said — welfare reform, charter schools, and community policing.

Though the DLC engendered criticism, with Dem leader Howard Dean calling it “the Republican wing of the Democratic party,” it was clearly instrumental in the resurgence of the party reflected by Bill Clinton’s political success in the 1990s.

From served as Clinton’s Domestic Policy Advisor, and also worked globally with such candidates as British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the reevaluation process that came to be known as the Third Way.

In 2013, From published The New Democrats and the Return to Power about the factors he sees as shaping that period. At Thursday night’s presentation, attended by more than 50 people, Cavaney praised the book. “There’s a cycle to things, political campaigns or charitable contributions or even your family life,” Cavaney said.
“When you’re on the rise and then get to the top, the temptation is to stay the same, not realize that things are changing around you. Al From was the first person I?know of to write a book about how you recognize when you aren’t where you want to be and evaluate what you need to do – so you go from losing to actually winning.”

His Ford Museum presentation was entitled “What’s Missing in Presidential Politics,” and he had a lot of recommendations based on his perspective as a very young 72-year-old.

These include, first, having a sense of history which allows strategists and campaign organizers to recognize when it’s time to make a change. “There are ups and downs, and our leaders always have to be on the cutting edge of change,” he said.

Second, candidates and their supporters must always search for new ideas, as it is the ideas themselves which garner votes. “We wanted to be a party of opportunity again, and to further John Kennedy’s value that people have an obligation to give back to the country,” he said. “We wanted to bring the country back together like President Ford did.”

And third, political candidates must believe in themselves and have the political courage to buck the conventional thinking within a party. “Whatever you think about President Clinton because of his personal behavior or his presidency,” From told the crowd Thursday might, “he had the courage to stand up to those in his party who said, ‘You can’t do that.’”

Afterward, he said one reason it is difficult to gain support for broad political programs based on ideas is that people do not trust the government. “We tried to change that,” he said.?“And we need candidates who will keep trying.”