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Are Democrats Better Off Than They Were 25 Years Ago?

The Democratic Leadership Council, a proud and sometimes belligerent group that sought to steer Democratic policy toward the right, will reportedly cease its operations.

The D.L.C. was formed in 1985, in the wake of Walter Mondale’s 18-point, 49-state defeat to Ronald Reagan. The group played off concerns that the Democratic Party had been taken over by interest groups and was doomed to nominate candidates like the liberal Mr. Mondale instead of more moderate, and presumably more electable, ones. Indeed, at the time the D.L.C. was established, the Democrats had lost four of the prior five presidential elections.

The connection that the D.L.C. was drawing was probably more tenuous than it might have seemed at the time, when Democratic morale was very low. Between those five elections, Democrats had nominated two unabashed liberals — Mr. Mondale in 1984 and George McGovern in 1972 — and both had lost very badly. On the other hand, both lost to incumbent presidents with approval ratings in the mid-to-high 50s, which would have all but assured their re-election regardless of the identity of the Democratic candidate. The party’s other nominees during that period — Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Jimmy Carter, who won in 1976 but lost a bid for second term — were not especially liberal, with Mr. Carter having received a vigorous primary challenge from the liberal Edward M. Kennedy in 1980.

Still, when the Democrats nominated another liberal candidate in 1988 in Michael Dukakis, and took another loss — the Southern candidates the D.L.C. would have preferred, like Dick Gephardt and Al Gore, failed to gain enough momentum on Super Tuesday as Jesse Jackson won many Southern states instead — the D.L.C.’s argument became even stronger. And in 1992, they got their man — Bill Clinton, who had been chairman of the D.L.C. in 1990 and 1991.

The D.L.C., and much of the conventional wisdom in Washington, held that Mr. Clinton owed his win to his moderation; with the D.L.C.’s backing, he had run somewhat explicitly to the right of an underwhelming primary field. But this contention is also debatable. The incumbent president, George H. W. Bush, who had been extremely popular 18 months earlier, held an approval rating of roughly 39 percent by the time the election was held, a figure that ordinarily would have made his re-election impossible. Although there are some scenarios under which Mr. Bush might have won in a three-way race because of the presence of H. Ross Perot, odds are that another Democratic candidate like Paul Tsongas or Mario Cuomo (who had decided against running when Mr. Bush’s standing seemed formidable) would have won as well.

The D.L.C., nevertheless, entrenched itself after Mr. Clinton took office, continuing to press the case for moderation, and often involving itself in arguments with traditional Democratic allies like the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Relations between the D.L.C. and Mr. Clinton were sometimes tense, particularly over Mr. Clinton’s health care proposal, which the D.L.C. refused to endorse, preferring a more modest bill. The Democrats, indeed, failed to reach consensus on a health care bill, which died before being reported out of committee.

In the 1994 midterms, Mr. Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 9 in the Senate, costing the party its majority in both chambers, with many of the losses coming in precisely the sort of moderate or Southern districts that the D.L.C. had argued a candidate like Mr. Clinton could help to keep in the fold. But the group, armed with a mountain of polling evidence, argued that the losses had come because Mr. Clinton had tilted too far to his left, breaking with the image he had established during the 1992 campaign. Whether by choice or by necessity, Mr. Clinton tacked more toward the center thereafter and rehabilitated himself to the point that he won re-election fairly easily in 1996.

The D.L.C.’s influence waned some after Mr. Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore — who was then perceived as more moderate than he is now — failed to win the election of 2000, and then further after the group strongly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In more recent years, the D.L.C. has teetered on the brink of irrelevancy, eclipsed on the one hand by other moderate groups like Third Way and the Blue Dog Democrats, and on the other by the Democratic blogosphere, which has provided an alternative infrastructure by which candidates, especially liberals, can gain money and support. In 2007, all major Democratic presidential candidates — including Mr. Clinton’s spouse, Hillary Rodham Clinton — skipped the D.L.C.’s convention, but participated in a debate sponsored by the blog Daily Kos.

Reactions to the D.L.C.’s demise range from those that describe the group as a “victim of its own success” to those that regard the group’s decline as proof that the Democratic Party has lost its ability to appeal to moderates once and for all. I don’t think either reaction is exactly on the mark.

On the one hand, while the election of Mr. Clinton must count as a victory for the D.L.C., he was probably not the only candidate who could have won in 1992, and it is tempered by the enormous losses that Democrats endured in Congress in 1994. Although the Democratic Party did not have much success in races for the presidency in the 1970s and 1980s, it had won an average of 54 seats in the Senate, and 264 in the House, in the elections between 1970 and 1984. Since then, it has won an average of 51 seats in the Senate and 228 in the House. If the group had been successful at securing the standing of moderates and conservatives within the Democratic Party, it seems unlikely that the party would have endured such significant losses in Congress.

In fact, conservative voters have largely left the Democratic Party, although moderates have not. In 1984, the year of Mr. Mondale’s defeat, there were nearly as many conservative Democrats (about 10 percent of the overall adult population) as there were liberal ones (11 percent), according to the General Social Survey. By 2008, however, the most recent edition of the survey, conservative Democrats had declined to 6 percent of the population, while liberal Democrats had increased their share to 15 percent. Much of the decline in the number of conservative Democrats, moreover, occurred during the years when Mr. Clinton was in office. Thus, the D.L.C. either did not have as much influence over the direction of the Democratic Party as it might claim, or it did, but the party looked different to voters than it might have from the inside out.

What about the group’s influence over Democratic policy? This is much trickier to discern. But quantitative analyses, like one published by the political scientists Howard Rosenthal and Keith Poole, suggest that rather than becoming more conservative, Democrats in Congress have become slightly more liberal on balance since 1985:

A number of qualifications can be raised to this. For instance, because Democrats on average have had fewer members in Congress after 1985 than before that year, the remaining ones will tend to be more liberal on balance, since it is usually the moderates in swing districts who will lose in tough years.

Also, the scores compiled by Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Poole are based on thousands of votes in Congress, not all of which are equally important. It could conceivably be that Democrats have grown more liberal on some issues, but more conservative on some of the most important ones.

The D.L.C., for instance, often cultivated wealthy and corporate donors, and from 1985 to 2008, the share of income earned by the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers increased to 20 percent from 10 percent at the same time their effective tax rates declined. I do not necessarily mean to suggest that there is a one-to-one connection between this phenomenon and the direction that the Democratic Party took during the 1990s (instead I would recommend the book “Winner Take All Politics,” which explores this question in much detail). But whether or not one finds the growth in wealth among the richest Americans objectionable, it is one of the more unambiguous trends in American society in recent years, and one that the Democratic Party of the Mondale era might have made a bigger deal about.

At the same time, the Democratic House of Representatives passed, between 2009 and 2010, a health care bill with a public option, a cap-and-trade bill, a large stimulus package and a relatively aggressive bill on financial regulation, although some of these bills were mothballed or watered down in the Senate. So it is hard to argue that the Democratic Party has entirely abandoned its liberal roots, if it has abandoned them at all. President Obama, also, compiled a quite liberal voting record in the Senate and generally did not run away from that record as a candidate in 2008, although one can debate the extent to which he has done so since.

What is more notable, in some ways, is the direction of the Republican Party. It has become much more conservative in recent years, both in terms of its policy objectives in Congress and in terms of the voters who comprise it. Whereas in 1984, according to the General Social Survey, 54 percent of Republicans identified as conservative, that fraction had increased to 70 percent by 2008.

Did the D.L.C.’s positioning have anything to do with the rise of conservatism in the Republican Party? An argument could plausibly be formed around the notion of the Overton window, a theory that suggests that the way that parties define different policy alternatives — as radical, as acceptable, as sensible — can have a profound effect on the way the public comes to view them. If, in their efforts to pivot toward the center, Democrats under Mr. Clinton began to define 1980s-style liberalism as unacceptable, pushing the Overton window toward the right, this might have enabled Republicans to portray policies that once had seemed fairly extreme as instead lying within the mainstream. This argument, however, would have to compete against any number of other explanations for the rise of conservatism in Republican ranks, ranging from the alliance between fiscal and religious conservatives to the aging of the population.

The D.L.C.’s legacy, in short, is quite a complicated matter — one that requires a consideration of the entire course of the Democratic Party, and indeed of American politics in general, over the past quarter-century. At the very least, however, claims that the D.L.C. saved the Democratic Party from oblivion seem dubious. Although it elected Mr. Clinton in 1992, a lot of other Democrats — including more liberal ones — probably would have won that election as well. And Mr. Clinton and the D.L.C. were unable to save the party from a huge defeat in 1994, when it lost control of the House for the first time since 1955 and was unable to regain it until 12 years later.

An alternative to suggesting that the D.L.C. was not all that successful, however, may simply be that it was not all that important. Surely, the D.L.C. had quite a bit of influence on Democratic strategy — the group was constantly in the news, and meetings between the group and Mr. Clinton were usually reported as high-stakes affairs. But political science research suggests that strategy, in general, matters only at the margin, with elections instead determined mainly by the economy, wars, scandals and other major events.

Political science also suggests that, over the long run, both major parties win elections about half the time. Although the Democratic party has had somewhat more success in winning the presidency since the founding of the D.L.C. in 1985, and somewhat less success in winning elections for the Congress, by and large that held true both before and after the D.L.C.’s emergence. And that will probably continue to hold true now that it is gone.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.