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Third Way, Elizabeth Warren, and the Real Battle

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There has been a long-term intra-Democratic party battle between progressive populists and the more Wall Street-oriented wing of the party for 3 decades now, one that (full disclosure) I will admit to having been a happy warrior in on the side of the progressives for that entire time. This week has been a big moment in that battle, as the Third Way amusingly picked Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal as the place to launch an attack on progressives generally but most particularly against Elizabeth Warren. Jonathan Martin did a nice job of summarizing the back and forth in this article, where I am quoted a couple of times on why progressives would choose to defend Warren so strongly, which great leaders like PCCC and Markos Moulitsas at Dailykos did so well. However this isn't really mainly a battle between progressives and "centrists" for the soul of the Democratic party, although there is certainly an element of that, and it is certainly understandable for reporters to talk about it in those traditional political battle terms. But what this is more fundamentally about is a battle between the biggest special interest corporations in the world, who tend to have overwhelming sway over everything in Washington, and those of us who want to confront and rein in their power. Those interests know they control the Republicans, because Republicans answer to money first and foremost. But Democrats have DNA and ancient roots from ancestors like Tom Paine, Tom Jefferson, Andy Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, FDR, Harry Truman, and the Kennedys -- people who distrusted the big financial firms based in New York, distrusted big corporate trusts in general -- and that DNA is a continuing problem for these Wall Street conglomerates. The think tanks and political committees they fund on the Democratic side -- in the Clinton era their lead group was the DLC, now it's Third Way -- are asked by the big money guys to come to their defense when the populists start to rise up and upset their apple cart, and they do. Yes, this is undeniably a battle between 2 different wings of the Democratic party, the people wing and the money wing. But it is even more centrally a fight between Wall Street and big business on the one hand, and the politicians who might threaten them like Elizabeth Warren.

I actually feel kind of badly on one level for the leaders of these kinds of DC Centrist groups. Al From and Bruce Reed at the DLC, and Jon Cowan at Third Way, are smart policy wonks who are actually very thoughtful and engaging in the kind of policy discussions they enjoy having, and both groups have come up with some good policy ideas and analysis -- the AmeriCorps idea, the Reinventing Government initiative, and the 100,000 cops on the street piece of the 1994 crime bill were all Third Way proposals, and all good ideas. But what happens to these kinds of groups is that because DC centrism has no broad appeal to regular folks who make the activist and small contributor base of the Democratic party (for some reason, it's hard to raise money through email appeals that call for cutting your grandma's Social Security benefits), these kinds of groups have to rely on corporate special interest contributions. And as politicians who take a lot of money from them know, these special interests expect you to come through for them when they come calling for a favor. And boy do they hate the idea of so many people being excited about Elizabeth Warren's common sense populism, so they really needed their friends at Third Way to try and take her down a couple of notches (and throwing in a shot across the bow at Wall Street's new mayor was an important political message too.) Just like during last year's campaign, when Wall Street was desperate to defeat Warren, so they got Third Way to issue a scathing statement against her that the Chamber of Commerce and other Republican hit groups immediately used against her, Wall Street needed Third Way to come through, and they did.

So Third Way threw in every standard argument that DC Centrists have been throwing at progressives for 30 years. On policy, they were as shrill as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell about the tax and spend liberals. On politics, they said populists could never win outside of NYC and MA. They said the idea that liberalism was dead in swing states was proven by the defeat of one tax initiative in Colorado. They were wrong about it all, the arguments stale and the facts ignored or mangled, but the Wall Street piper needed to be paid, and paid they were.

I'm not going to spend a long time refuting the arguments that Cowan and Kessler laid out in the WSJ, as tempting as that is, because that is not my main point here and others are doing it well, but in each area I want to say a brief word.

On the policy side, as many economists have already pointed out, they ignored the facts about what Warren is proposing to a remarkable degree, but even more importantly is the elephant in the room: their willingness to ignore the fundamental fairness in the policies Warren is proposing. Cowan and Kessler are determined that seniors get their Social Security benefits cut in order to avoid people making over $118,000 a year paying the same percentage of Social Security payroll taxes as people under that income level. They want seniors' Medicare benefits cut in order to keep the health care industry from having to cut back on the uncontrolled profit-making built into the system. When Warren supports students paying the same interest rates on their college loans that the biggest banks do at the Federal Reserve discount window, they cry out in outrage about how unfair that is to the banks. They just don't get what side of the fairness fight that Democrats ought to be on.

On the Colorado ballot initiative, they seem gleeful about the failure of the measure to put more money into education, saying that the result in Colorado is "the true 2013 election day harbinger of American liberalism". You know, in state and local initiatives all over the country over the last few years -- in blue, red, and purple states, on taxes and spending and the minimum wage and corporate regulation -- progressives have won one victory after another, and yet they want you to think that one low turnout odd-numbered year initiative in one state is the harbinger signaling the death of American liberalism. Seems a little overdrawn to me, but I'm sure it sounded good to those corporate funders.

And on the overall politics, their argument about de Blasio being from NYC and Warren being from MA meaning that populism won't play was hilarious to this Midwesterner who did all my early politics in red and purple states. (They also ignore that Warren was the only person to beat an incumbent Senator last year, with an opponent was a popular and charismatic moderate; and that de Blasio started way behind in the polls to Mayor Bloomberg's designated heir but came roaring back as his message was heard, but hey: I guess you just can't mention inconvenient facts.) They ignore the fact that full-throated progressive populist Sherrod Brown had more money spent against him by Karl Rove and the Chamber than any other Senate candidate, yet never trailed and won Ohio by several more points than Obama; they ignore Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin beating a popular ex-Governor with a great populist message; they ignore Heidi Heitkamp running on her record as a big business-suing Attorney General, and the ideological heir to her old Wall Street-bashing boss Byron Dorgan, and winning an upset come-from-behind victory in ND; they ignore Chris Murphy winning against a candidate willing to spend $50 million with an anti-big money message in CT; they ignore the scores of swing state and district victories in elections for Congress and Governor of candidates with populist campaigns over the last decade, including Al Franken (MN), Tom Harkin (IA), Brian Schweitzer (MT), the Udalls in NM and CO, Jeff Merkley (OR); and they ignore Obama winning reelection by running against income inequality, the Republican refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy, the Ryan budget, Bain Capital and Romney's 47% statement.

Regardless of how wrong their arguments were, Third Way served its purpose by writing its love note to DC/Wall Street centrism in the pages of the WSJ. As the leaders of the fight against Elizabeth Warren, their fundraising coffers will be full in 2014 and beyond. And for our part, progressives did a great job in answering the Third Way's challenge by pushing back and drawing some lines in the sand ourselves. But the question now for us now is not just how to defend our allies like Warren and de Blasio in this kind of intra-party battle -- as important as that is, that part is easy, as we have the overwhelming support of Democratic voters and activists. The far more important question is how we win the bigger more consequential war that sparked this little back-and-forth this week: the war that Wall Street and the other powers that be are fighting to defeat the progressive populist ideas of our leaders and our movement. For all that the political sneering about populist politics that the Third Way has been proven wrong by the swing and red state politicians mentioned above, for all that moderate Democrats like Presidents Clinton and Obama have used populist messages tactically when it suited them, there has not been a progressive economic populist in the White House since LBJ in the 1960s, and Congress hasn't had a clear majority that was economically progressive since 1978 (although we came close in 2009-10).

We need a political strategy that has at its heart the kind of clear, compelling, accessible messaging on the core economic issues that matter to low and middle-income Americans that Elizabeth Warren is so good at projecting. We need to stand in solidarity to everyone who is hurting in this economy, and everyone in the modern progressive coalition, which includes young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, unmarried women, union members, the LGBT community, and, yes, working class whites who are being crushed by this economy. And, finally, we need to reach out to the small business people and entrepreneurs who are being squeezed and financially hurt by the big businesses trying to push them out-of-the-way.

The most important thing we need to do in order to win the war and not just a skirmish here or there is to understand the nature of that war. This isn't about the left vs. some kind of phony establishment DC/Wall St centrism. Their version of centrism has little support -- the policy proposals we support on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, trade, taxes, investments in education and infrastructure, breaking up the banks, minimum wage, and other issues are all supported by very big majorities of American voters. Instead, this is a long-term war between a few incredibly wealthy and powerful special interests on one side, and those of us willing to take on those powers that be on the other.