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The D.C. Centrists' Straw Men

03/04/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

One of the tiredest clichés in all of American politics -- and a favorite of D.C. "centrists" -- is that economic populism is all about beating up on the rich and redistributing income instead of pursuing economic growth.

A note here before I get into the main point of this piece: In that sentence above I put "centrists" in quotation marks because in Washington, D.C., centrism seems to be about being in line with certain kinds of big-money special interests rather than supporting what the center of the country, in terms of voters, believes. D.C. centrists believe in cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits; not taxing Wall Street tycoons at the same levels as their secretaries; weakening regulations on the kinds of financial speculation that caused the 2008 financial panic; bailing out bankers when they get in trouble, and not prosecuting them when they break the law; and doing trade deals that have historically benefited mostly big business and created bigger trade deficits. Voters are in opposition to all those policies by very big numbers, so those positions certainly aren't centrist to them, but that doesn't seem to matter much to the insider D.C. "centrists."

The latest exhibit appears in an article in The Hill, "Centrist Dems ready strike against Warren wing":

Centrist Democrats are gathering their forces to fight back against the "Elizabeth Warren wing" of their party, fearing a sharp turn to the left could prove disastrous in the 2016 elections.

For months, moderate Democrats have kept silent, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) barbed attacks against Wall Street, income inequality and the "rigged economy" thrilled the base and stirred desire for a more populist approach.

But with the race for the White House set to begin, centrists are moving to seize back the agenda.

The New Democrat Coalition (NDC), a caucus of moderate Democrats in the House, plans to unveil an economic policy platform as soon as this week in an attempt to chart a different course.

"I have great respect for Sen. Warren -- she's a tremendous leader," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), one of the members working on the policy proposal. "My own preference is to create a message without bashing businesses or workers, [the latter of which] happens on the other side."

Peters then added this trenchant line: "To the extent that Republicans beat up on workers and Democrats beat up on employers -- I'm not sure that offers voters much of a vision."

Piling on, this gem was added by a veteran corporate-oriented Democrat:

"Democrats ought to avoid the danger of talking about only redistribution and not enough about economic growth," said PPI President and founder Will Marshall, who addressed House Democrats during their Philadelphia retreat in January. "Economic growth is a precondition to reducing inequality. You can't redistribute wealth that you're not generating."

Perhaps most irritating of all, a man who has been bashed for years by a lot of these same "centrists" decided to join them in their critique. Here's Howard Dean quoted in the same article:

"Our program cannot be soak the rich -- that's a mistake and alienates middle class people. But on substance, the Warren wing is correct," said Dean.

"The rhetoric about wealth creation needs to be scaled back because Americans like wealth creation," he added. "The level playing field argument wins it for us. The reason you do not want to talk about 'tax the rich' is because when middle class people hear it, they hear 'they're going to raise our taxes.' Democrats can't do that."

I appreciate Howard Dean saying that on substance the Warren wing is correct. And I know that, having endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, he is now in the uncomfortable place of trying to walk a tightrope between Hillary's politics and the views of his old progressive friends. But let me reassure him and his fellow worriers: Elizabeth Warren and her fellow progressives are not, either in rhetoric or policy, anti-growth or anti-business or out to "soak" the rich (unless by "soak" you mean taxing them at the same rate as their secretaries). And to say that they are is a cliché completely unsupported by anything they are saying.

Let's take a look at the speech where Elizabeth Warren laid out her agenda, at the AFL-CIO's National Summit on Raising Wages. In that speech, and in others she has given, Warren proposes a variety of policy proposals that create jobs, especially making investments in roads, bridges, highways, education, and research and development on new products and technologies that might create jobs, and in promoting manufacturing jobs and small-business opportunities through smart tax policy, anti-trust enforcement, and trade policy. She proposes raising wages in several different ways, including a higher minimum wage, equal pay for equal work for women, reforming overtime rules, and strengthening union bargaining power. She supports finding ways for more retirement income for seniors, including stronger pensions and increased Social Security benefits. She wants to reduce the debt of middle- and low-income folks by reducing both student and housing debt. And she wants to protect the economy from future financial meltdowns and protect middle- and low-income consumers from being cheated by unscrupulous lenders.

Creating new jobs, raising the income of middle-class workers and retirees, investing in the infrastructure businesses need for transportation and a good workforce, investing in the creation of new technologies and products -- these policies are not against economic growth. In fact, they would do more to promote economic growth than any policy proposal I have seen from the corporate-oriented Democrats. All these things Warren talks about -- new jobs, more money for most people to spend, modern infrastructure, promoting manufacturing and small business, R&D -- do in fact create economic growth. Her entire economic program is about creating sustainable economic growth.

And I looked and looked for all the times where Warren bashes the rich or uses negative "rhetoric about wealth creation" that Dean refers to. I went through every recent speech, committee transcript, and floor debate where she spoke that I could find, and I couldn't find any instances where she said there is anything wrong with being rich or wealth creation. I couldn't find them because they don't exist. These are the ultimate "centrist" straw men that D.C. insiders set up in order to knock down: that progressive populists don't care about economic growth, and that they bash the wealthy.

Now, I will admit one thing: There are certain big corporations that Elizabeth Warren has spoken ill of. She didn't like it, for example, that HSBC laundered drug-cartel money but no executive went to jail for those crimes. She's not big into Wall Street banks blatantly cheating their customers and clients and never being held to account for it. She prefers that too-big-to-fail banks no longer be too big to fail, which just makes their bad investments and market failures put the entire economy at risk. She wants to discourage rampant speculation in un- and under-regulated markets. She prefers that hugely profitable megacorporations like Walmart and McDonald's pay a living wage to their workers. And she does think that corporations and wealthy folks could afford to pay a little more in taxes.

She wants a level playing field for low- and middle-income folks with the wealthy and powerful. Is that what is so radical that is scaring all these D.C. establishment folks? Seriously? Come on, guys, this is just silly. You don't want accountability for banks that launder drug money and cheat their customers? Look, if you want to make arguments as to why we shouldn't regulate or prosecute Wall Street, make them. If you think progressive taxation or a higher minimum wage is a bad idea, tell us why. But don't set up these ridiculous straw men and tell us that the Warren message is all about stuff she has never said.

Let me close by saying this specifically to my friend Howard Dean: You are a good man who has spent the last decade-plus courageously standing up to D.C. insiders even when they attacked you in these same ways. Don't let yourself be used by these same insiders when they are trashing Elizabeth Warren and other progressives.

It's time for a new debate in Democratic politics, a debate based on what progressives and their opponents in the Democratic Party are actually saying and proposing. I'll be happy to take our rhetoric and our policies to the American voters and see which they like better.