New Democrats, also known as centrist Democrats, Clinton Democrats, or moderate Democrats, are a moderate ideological faction within the Democratic Party of the United States. As the "Third Way" faction of the party, they support both social liberalism and economic liberalism. New Democrats dominated the party from the late-1980s through the mid-2010s. They are represented by organizations such as the New Democrat Network and the New Democrat Coalition.
After the landslide electoral defeats to the Republican Party led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, a group of prominent Democrats began to believe their party was out of touch and in need of a radical shift in economic policy and ideas of governance. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was founded in 1985 by Al From and a group of like-minded politicians and strategists. They advocated a political "Third Way" as an antidote to the electoral successes of Reaganism.
The landslide 1984 Presidential election defeat spurred centrist Democrats to action, and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was formed. The DLC, an unofficial party organization, played a critical role in moving the Democratic Party's policies to the center of the American political spectrum. Prominent Democratic politicians such as Senators Al Gore and Joe Biden (both future Vice Presidents) participated in DLC affairs prior to their candidacy for the 1988 Democratic Party nomination.
The DLC espoused policies that moved the Democratic Party to the centre. However, the DLC did not want the Democratic Party to be "simply posturing in the middle." Thus, the DLC declared their ideas to be "progressive," and a third way to address the problems of the 1990s. Examples of the DLC's policy initiatives can be found in The New American Choice Resolutions.
Although the label "New Democrat" was briefly used by a progressive reformist group including Gary Hart and Eugene McCarthy in 1989, the term became more widely associated with the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, who in 1990 renamed their bi-monthly magazine from The Mainstream Democrat to The New Democrat. When the then-Governor Bill Clinton stepped down as DLC chairman to run for the presidency of the United States at the 1992 presidential election, he presented himself as a "New Democrat."
The first wave New Democrats, from the 1980s to 1990s, were very similar to Southern and Western Blue Dog Democrats. Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its leader until 2009, had been a staffer for Gillis Long, a Democratic representative from Louisiana. Among the presidents of the DLC were Al Gore, Senator from Tennessee, and Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas. The first wave New Democrats sought the votes of White working-class Reagan Democrats.
In the 1990s, the New Democrat movement shifted away from the South and West and moved to the Northeast. At the 1992 United States presidential election, Bill Clinton was elected as the 42nd President of the United States; ending nearly thirteen years of Republican dominance.
The second-wave of New Democrats, from the 1990s to 2016, came into existence after the 1994 election. After 1994, the Democrats were much more dominated by urban areas, minorities and White social liberals.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolving New Democrat or "economically liberal" movement was dominated by socially liberal fiscal conservatives on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. These centrist Democrats shifted their base from White working-class Southerners and Westerners and focused instead on winning over former moderate Republicans in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast who combined liberal attitudes on abortion, LGBT rights, and environmentalism, with opposition to "big government" and concern about federal deficits.
Bill Clinton was the single Democratic politician of the 1990s most identified with the New Democrats; his promise of welfare reform in the 1992 presidential campaign, and its subsequent enactment, epitomized the New Democrat position, as did his 1992 promise of a middle class tax cut and his 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. New Democrat and Third Way successes under Clinton, and the writings of Anthony Giddens, are often regarded to have inspired Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and his policies within the Labour Party.
Bill Clinton presented himself as a centrist candidate to draw white, middle-class voters who had left the Democratic Party for the Republican Party. In 1990, Bill Clinton became the DLC chair. Under his leadership, the DLC founded two-dozen DLC chapters and created a base of support. In 1989, there were 219 DLC members. By the spring of 1992, there were 700.
During the 1992 and 1996 Presidential elections, Clinton ran as a "New Democrat." However, based on voters' perception of Clinton's positions on an ideological scale, he was perceived to be just as liberal as 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was in 1988. Thus, the Democratic Party's success based on the New Democratic moniker is inconclusive.
Legislation signed into law with bipartisan support under President Clinton includes:
New Democrats were also more open to deregulation than the previous Democratic leadership had been. This was especially evident in the large scale deregulation of agriculture and the telecommunications industries. The New Democrats and allies on the DLC were responsible for the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
An important part of New Democrat ideas is focused on improving the economy. During the administration of Bill Clinton, New Democrats were responsible for passing the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. It raised taxes on the wealthiest 1.2% of taxpayers, while cutting taxes on 15 million low-income families and making tax cuts available to 90% of small businesses. Additionally, it mandated that the budget be balanced over a number of years, through the implementation of spending restraints. Overall, the top marginal tax rate was raised from 31% to 40% under the Clinton administration.
On March 10, 2009, Barack Obama, in a meeting with the New Democrat Coalition, told them that he was a "New Democrat," "pro-growth Democrat," that he "supports free and fair trade," and was "very concerned about a return to protectionism."
Throughout the Obama administration, a "free and fair trade" attitude was espoused, including in a 2015 trade report entitled The Economic Benefits of U.S. Trade, that noted that free trade "help[s] developing countries lift people out of poverty" and "expand[s] markets for U.S. exports."
Columnist Michael Lind argues that neoliberalism for New Democrats was the highest stage of left liberalism. The counterculture youth of the 1960s matured in the 1970s and 1980s to become more economically conservative, but retained their social liberalism. Many leading New Democrats, such as Bill Clinton, started out in the George McGovern wing of the Democratic Party and gradually moved toward the right on economic and military policy, but did not reach out to a dispossessed white working class. According to historian Walter Scheidel, both major political parties shifted towards promoting free market capitalism in the 1970s, with Republicans moving further to the political right than Democrats to the political left. He contends Democrats played a significant role in the financial deregulation of the 1990s and have pushed social welfare issues to the periphery while increasingly focusing on issues pertaining to identity politics.
Many on the left are critical of New Democrats. Left-wingers argue that New Democrats' supposedly ideological centrism and "Third Way" positions were nothing more than neoliberal and right-wing ideologies being re-branded as "moderate".Noam Chomsky, in a 2017 BBC interview, contended that "the Democrats gave up on the working class forty years ago."
That would bring the caucus' total to 96 members, or about 40 percent of the House Democratic Caucus - by far the largest bloc in the party.