By rights, a group that helped elect Bill Clinton president and counts Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as one of its leaders should be hostile territory for Barack Obama. But members of the Democratic Leadership Council seem ready to embrace Obama rather than risk squandering an opportunity for victory this fall.
"Ultimately, what I care about is putting a strong Democrat in the White House," said Phil Bartlett, a state senator from Maine who backed Clinton in the primary.
But many DLC members, meeting in Chicago on Sunday, argued victory will require following their centrist organization’s philosophy.
They urged Obama to emphasize practical solutions to the problems directly affecting voters — gas prices, inflation, failing schools, job security. He can’t let Republicans define him as a tax-and-spend liberal, they said, and he can’t let the left push him toward a campaign based on retribution against the Bush administration.
"We need somebody who can pull us together," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Md., a DLC vice chairman. "Voters want us to be united and they want us to govern from the middle."
The Democratic Leadership Council was formed in the wake of Walter Mondale’s huge loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. The goal was to change the party’s image and focus by stressing such issues as welfare reform, charter schools and business opportunity.
The group helped Bill Clinton win in 1992, although critics say it ignores Democratic principles and the poor and vulnerable who need the party’s help. The group’s president is a former Clinton aide, and Hillary Clinton heads its "American Dream Initiative."
Some former Clinton backers admit to a little hesitation about Obama.
Peggy West, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, says she’s still "taking inventory" after Clinton’s loss to the Illinois senator in the Democratic presidential primary.
"I’m not, at this point, enthusiastic about Obama, but I am going to be out there doing doors and giving what little money I can," West said. "I’m definitely in his camp."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who endorsed Obama after ending his own run for the Democratic nomination, urged DLC members to put aside any hurt feelings from the long primary race.
"There is still probably a need to heal a little bit," he said in a speech to the group. "It may take a little time — hopefully not too much longer. Everybody needs to find ways to recognize that we have an incredible opportunity to regain the White House."
The DLC meeting took place just across a small courtyard from the building that houses Obama’s headquarters. While the campaign didn’t make any overt effort to woo the group, senior Obama aides did meet with members during the conference, "many of whom are elected officials who have been involved with the campaign for a long time," said spokeswoman Amy Brundage.
Obama won the nomination without help from top DLC leaders, but that isn’t stopping them from taking a little credit.
Al From, who founded the group, argued Obama’s theme of putting solutions ahead of bipartisan bickering matches what the DLC has championed from the beginning. And in the early stages of the general election, Obama shows signs of continuing that theme, he said.
Obama didn’t condemn a Supreme Court decision restricting gun control laws, From pointed out, and he endorsed a congressional compromise on legal protections for telecommunications companies that aided Bush administration wiretapping — two positions that disappoint some liberals.
"He’s shown me that he knows how to be practical," From said.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin argued that on almost any issue, Obama can get voters to listen if he emphasizes results over ideology. He said Obama should make the case that Republicans have failed to get results on health care, government spending, the war on terror and more.
Voters know Obama is smart and inspirational, Manchin said — now they need to know that he has specific plans to make their lives better.