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A Block or a Bloc?

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It didn't take long for the left to come out guns ablazin' over the formation of a moderate Democratic working group in the Senate. The Mod Dems, led by centrist Sens. Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche L. Lincoln, were attacked within 12 hours by liberal leader Robert Borosage, who labeled them "obstructionists" who are "trying to undermine" President Barack Obama's agenda.

That is one view of this new group, which is being propagated widely on the left. The other view is that the Mod Dems represent Democrats' best hope to achieve transformational change -- that they are, in fact, the difference-makers on energy, health care, the budget and education. Perhaps it is this realization that is at the root of the left's ire.

The truth remains that there are two intersecting groups of Americans who will ultimately ratify or reject the president's agenda: ideological moderates and the middle class. Both of them voted for the broad brush strokes of transformational change in huge numbers. In fact, Obama won the highest percentage of moderate voters since the ideology question was asked in exit polls. There is no doubt that this represents a tremendous opportunity to build the support for change among the ideological and economic center.

But moderates and the middle class are the devil-is-in-the-details people. They are intrigued by, but not sold on, universal health care. They are open to, but not converted on, cap and trade. They are hopeful, yet skeptical, about a broad expansion of government. They weigh options, shift allegiances and are less inclined toward grass-roots movements and Internet advocacy campaigns. It was they who looked at, but said "no thanks" to, health care reform in 1994, and they still hold both the signing and the veto pen on the sweeping changes Obama and Democratic congressional leaders seek.

Quite simply, if their concerns, aspirations and interests are forgotten or papered over, they are as likely to bolt as not. For example, though Democrats swept the middle class in 2008, they lost the middle class in six consecutive election cycles between 1994 and 2004. This is hardly a base group of loyal progressives.

If they are so fickle, can Democratic moderates in the House and Senate -- particularly those who represent purplish states -- be counted on to hold the center and push through the major legislation we need? To be fair to Borosage and others on the left, some of the scorn and skepticism directed toward moderates is deserved. In 1992, Democrats nominated and the country elected a moderate with an ambitious agenda to lead the nation. After a crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections, the air came out of the balloon. "Moderate" became synonymous with small thinking. Health care reform was replaced by school uniforms. And for the next 10 years, the moderate vision lacked scope and clarity.

Today, a new generation of House and Senate moderates has emerged. They are doers with big plans, not equivocators tinkering around the edges. Bayh and Carper are former governors whose temperaments cotton to getting things done. Lincoln has probably taken more difficult votes than any member of the Senate. They created a moderate bloc in order to pass things, not to block things. In the House, Reps. Ellen O. Tauscher, Melissa L. Bean, Artur Davis, Allyson Schwartz, Steve Israel, Joseph Crowley and Ron Kind are just a handful of aggressive-idea dervishes that populate the moderate New Democrat Coalition (though Tauscher will very likely soon be leaving for a State Department position). And we have a president who calls himself a "new Democrat."

That is not to suggest that achieving transformational change will be easy -- even with committed elected moderates leading the charge from the center. To paraphrase the president, we don't take these challenges because they are easy; we take them because they are necessary. But the task will be more difficult if the left and center snipe at and mistrust each other.

The left and the center ought to put aside their hostilities and take a sober look at what is at stake. The left must understand that for major legislative success to occur, policy prescriptions will have to undergo change. Moderates must acknowledge that the fate of the change agenda rests in their hands. Both must realize that these opportunities come once in a generation.

Jon Cowan is president and Jim Kessler is vice president for policy for Third Way, a moderate think tank that works with progressives.