28 October 2010

How the "Third Way" Memo Shows why "Moderates" Are As Dim as They Seem or, How to Make an Ass-Whuppin' Feel Pretty Darned Good

"The idea of a third way is simply the doctrine of the single way, accompanied by the announcement of the intention of moralizing it. . . . Such a project . . . humanization of the inevitable . . . represents little more than the disguise of a surrender." ~ Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Last Sunday The New York Times ran an Op-Ed by Ari Berman calling for the Democrats to stop cozying up to conservatives in their midst. I noted it at the time, but you can find the piece here. Unsurprisingly, conservative mouthpieces among the "big tent" - a phrase I loath - Democrats have their knickers in a knot and have begun a counterinsurgency campaign. Today The Times has reproduced a memo by Jon Cowan and Anne Kim at Third Way that purportedly takes issue with Berman. (You will guess from the quotation above what I think of calls for a "third way.") We'll let the folks from the self-proclaimed "leading moderate think-tank of the progressive movement" state their case. Here is their memo. I highlight passages that need to be challenged but will do so below the text.

The Domestic Policy Program
October 29, 2010

Some liberals have begun to argue that losing the House majority may ultimately be “good” for Democrats by purging the party of Blue Dogs and other moderates. As liberal commentator Ari Berman recently opined in The New York Times, “Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus.”

This small-tent strategy could not be more wrong.

Both politically and substantively, liberals need moderates. By rejecting the big-tent coalition that brought them power in the first place, the only things Democrats will accomplish are permanent minority status and the frustration of their legislative priorities. Here are three reasons liberals need moderates:

1. Liberal members need the votes of moderate colleagues to make legislative progress.

Passing legislation still takes 219 votes in the House of Representatives — a threshold Democrats can’t reach without the very moderates derided by Berman and others as “fake Democrats.”

Liberal members make up nowhere near a majority of the House. Nor do they make up a majority of the current House Democratic Caucus. The Progressive Caucus, the flagship coalition of liberals, has just 78 House members.

In fact, the Progressive Caucus comprises less than one-fifth of the House and just 30% of its 255 Democratic members. In contrast, 105 current House members are Blue Dogs, New Democrats or both. Moderates, not liberals, are the numerical base of the Democratic second (sic).

2. Liberal members need moderate voters to win and keep their seats.

According to Gallup, 42% of Americans now call themselves “conservative,” while 35% call themselves “moderate” and only 20% consider themselves “liberal.” Liberals aren’t just the smallest political constituency in America; they’re outnumbered 4 to 1 by moderates and conservatives. In no state are liberals either a majority or a plurality.

Even in Rhode Island — America’s most liberal state — moderates outnumber liberals 36% to 32%. In purple states such as Colorado, moderates outnumber liberals 33% to 27%. In Nevada, the moderate-liberal ratio is 41%-17%.

Winning moderates is the only way to overcome these numerical disadvantages, which is exactly what Democrats did in 2006 and 2008. The Congressional majority won in those years (thanks to the Schumer-Emanuel big-tent strategy liberals scorn) was a moderate, not liberal, wave involving deeply purple, if not outright red, districts.

Many seats now belonging to such moderate Democratic members as Reps. Jason Altmire, Frank Kratovil and Mike McMahon were wrested from Republican hands. Not surprisingly, 42 of the Democrats elected in the last two cycles are Blue Dogs and New Democrats, while just 14 have joined the Progressive Caucus. (And of these 14, four are also New Democrats.) Call them “fake Democrats,” but they delivered a real majority.

3. Liberals need moderates — from both parties — to forge good policy.

While liberals now find it fashionable to label moderates as obstructionists of a progressive agenda, this ignores historical reality. Most of the signature pieces of progressive legislation passed in the 20th century were the products of broad, bipartisan coalitions, not liberal victories eked out over moderate and conservative opposition.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, was a bipartisan compromise reached after a 54-day filibuster in the Senate led, incidentally, by a Democrat — Georgia Senator Richard Russell. The final bill passed 73-27 after Minority Leader Everett Dirksen rounded up enough Republicans to invoke cloture.

Likewise, the Social Security Act of 1935 passed with 372 yeses in the House and 77 yeses in the Senate, while Medicare passed the House in 1965 with 307 votes in the House and 70 votes in the Senate. Politifact.com rated a longstanding liberal claim that no Republicans supported Social Security and Medicare until the very end as “false.”

According to William Galston of Brookings and Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University, Congress’s most productive period was between roughly 1929 and 1974 — a period that coincided with the existence of a broad bipartisan and moderate coalition. In their view, polarization, not moderation, is what actually leads to gridlock.

Moreover, a more ideologically diverse Democratic coalition ensures vigorous policy debates. Liberals may believe their positions represent the best choices, but many moderates have principled and legitimate policy disagreements with liberals on trade, energy, deficits, education, terrorism and other issues. Challenging often outdated liberal orthodoxies is crucial for Democrats — liberals should not be afraid to battle for their ideas or to forge sensible center-left solutions where necessary.


To believe a small-tent strategy can achieve a big agenda is folly. In the aftermath of expected losses next week, Democrats should reject the purity-test view that moderates are either unnecessary or destructive. Instead of shrinking the tent still further, they should redouble their efforts to expand it.

(1) The Blue Dogs and New Democrats are not moderates, they are conservatives. Think Ben Nelson. Think Bart Stupak. (Or think of any of the "honorary co-chairs" on the Third Way team.) I will return to this matter below. For now, though, it is important to note that these conservatives hardly are "fake Democrats." They are just plain old Democrats, at least as the party is presently constituted.

The problem for progressives in the U.S. is that the Democratic Party is not liberal. So, as I have noted here before, progressives should not be disappointed that Obama and his minions have somehow failed to implement "their" progressive agenda or angry that the administration has been thwarted by the so-called moderates in their efforts to implement it. The Democratic Party does not have a progressive agenda. Neither does the Obama administration.

So, my first objection is that the Third Way-ers are complicit in the bastardization of American political discourse. Call people by what they are. In this instance call the conservatives conservatives.

(2) Notice that the Third Way-ers do not actually respond to Berman. Instead they engage in the standard ruse of ideologists (I come back to that label below) ~ change the subject. Here is what Berman claimed:

"A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of “Democratic infighting” would also diminish.)

Second, in the Senate, having a majority of 52 rather than 59 or 60 would force Democrats to confront the Republicans’ incessant misuse of the filibuster to require that any piece of legislation garner a minimum of 60 votes to become law. Since President Obama’s election, more than 420 bills have cleared the House but have sat dormant in the Senate. It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush passed his controversial 2003 tax cut legislation with only 50 votes, plus Vice President Dick Cheney’s. Eternal gridlock is not inevitable unless Democrats allow it to be."

What the Third Way-ers seek to do is depict the incessant intra-party bickering among the Democrats as "vigorous policy debate." On the health care bill, however, Nelson, Stupak and their ilk did not come out and offer sound policy prescriptions and defend them with reasons and evidence. They extorted positions - extreme anti-abortion positions pushed by the Catholic Church that run contrary to the interests of women in the Democratic party - by simply threatening to withhold their votes. Confronted with that reality (and one might multiply examples nearly endlessly) the Third Way-ers would no doubt just place being pro-choice into the category of what they call "outdated liberal orthodoxies." That is fine, but let's not pretend that that is anything other than what it is - a political assertion, not a reflection of some underlying reality.

As for Berman's second point, so far as I can tell the Third Way-ers never actually confront the matter. They claim that the conservatives are necessary to make progress legislatively without acknowledging the realities that Berman notes. A huge number of bills that are dead-on-arrival at the Senate door. Not only did the Blue Dogs and New Dems not manage to get those bills over the hump in the Senate, arguably the conservative Dems in the House were able to vote for them because they anticipated that the bills would never become law.

The Third Way-ers need to read Tom Schelling. Sometimes it is a good thing, from a strategic perspective, to have fewer resources rather than more. Berman is on solid ground here. The Dems never challenged the Senate Republicans, they never called their bluff on filibusters. And they ought to have done so. A more cohesive group might've had the gumption to make the Republicans filibuster reasonable legislation and then mock them loudly in public for so doing. I am not entirely confident about that, but it is possible; and the Third Way-ers have nothing but their blinkered ideology as evidence to the contrary.

(3) Let's talk sources. And let's be blunt. Screw Politifact.com! By playing fact check lotto, here too the Third Way-ers simply continue to debase political discussion. Facts by themselves are useless. What we need to understand is the way history has moved, the causal story behind the current polarized mess in D.C..

Having said that, let's play fact check. The Third Way-ers invoke "William Galston of Brookings and Elaine Kamarck of Harvard" as though they are independent source of authority and insight. Well not only is Galston a well-known advocate of conservationism among the Dems, but the Third Way-ers somehow neglect to mention that he and his co-author are listed as "contributing authors" on the staff page at "the leading moderate think-tank of the progressive movement." So, invoking Bill and Elaine is sort of like saying "Yeah, and my mom agrees with me too!" As though we should care.

This brings us to the matter of causality. As I have noted here repeatedly, there is good social scientific research demonstrating that the divisiveness in American politics is due primarily to the Republicans running far and fast to the right. That, in turn, reflects the massive increase in political-economic inequality in the country (and in which the Third Way-ers have been complicit!). In other words, the Democrats have not run to the left. And the Third Way-ers want them to stand put or, better yet, move rightwards. The problem is that since the political spectrum is now so skewed in a conservative direction (at the elite level) what looks "moderate" is frankly right-wing nuttiness. The Republicans are setting the agenda and the Third Way-ers don't grasp that at all. Their rhetoric of moderation is, as Unger notes a disguise for defeat.

(4) All that raises the matter of "realism." Third Way-ers have a remarkable propensity to be patronizing - accusing those who disagree with them of insisting on a "purity test" (as though wanting to dump conservatives like Ben Nelson and Bart Stupak who are beholden to the the misogynist, homophobic Catholic Bishops is so blindly ideological?) or of hewing to "outdated liberal orthodoxies" (like equality before the law). That is why they throw up all the "facts" about the electorate and the Democratic caucus - as though those numbers are cast in stone.

What's wrong with that view? Here, in simple terms, is my answer: This is politics people! Try this: lead public opinion instead of capitulating to it! The Republicans go to great lengths to lead public opinion; indeed they shame the Democrats on that dimension. Obama did nothing on that score in his first two years. He was asleep at the wheel because he is not a progressive and is satisfied with a hodge-podge health insurance reform, mediocre, "moderate" judicial appointments, continued military adventures overseas, and so forth. The excuse is that we need to obsess about what is "realistic" - is this bill passable? is that nominee confirmable? - instead of working to make things happen. Given how much the American political spectrum has shifted to the right the Democrats are reactionary in the simple sense. They react instead of shaping an agenda. And this run to the "middle" is getting the conservative Democrats and their Third Way apologists what precisely? Apparently it is getting them an ass-whuppin' in the mid-term elections next week. It surely has gotten them not an iota of "bi-partisan" cooperation from the Republicans. Unrequited groveling and crappy policy.Well done.

Where does all that leave Berman and other progressives? In the position of saying to Third Way-ers - you conservatives need our votes too. You need them in elections and in the legislature. And we will play hardball with you. We will challenge you for leadership positions and withhold our votes if you propose ridiculous legislation. we will leave you hanging (as the unions ought to be doing to the Dems right now but are not). We will take advantage of political opportunities (as in fusion-voting states like New York) and garner support for candidates who support progressive policies but not for those who (like, for instance, Andrew Cuomo) don't. And we will argue out loud and in public when you do stupid things. That means working to mobilize demonstrations and other forms of pressure in the face of government failure to address the needs of regular people. In other words, it leaves progressives in the position of seeking to shape politics and policy rather than simply reacting to the world depicted by putative realists.

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