Third way Democrats preparing to challenge the left for factional control

In South Carolina – the heart of the old Confederacy – Hillary Clinton declared a couple of weeks ago that America has reached a point where “both our democracy and our economy are not working for the majority.” Channeling FDR, she even mentioned the possible need for a “new New Deal.”

Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, of course, regularly denounces an economy that he says is rigged to benefit the wealthiest. He calls for a ‘political revolution’ and tells Republicans who try to rollback voting rights and derail democracy that they are “cowards.”

And let’s not forget Martin O’Malley who has been talking up the immorality of the for-profit prison system and the enduring legacy of racism in the United States.

Each of these three candidates seems eager to prove they will be the toughest on Wall Street. They all strive to explain that theirs is the best plan for raising wages and curbing corporate power. On the whole, the race for the Democratic nomination has become a contest of who can out-progressive the other two.

If you don’t keep in mind the recent history of the Democratic Party, it can be easy to overlook how new such a situation really is. All one has to do is think back to the 1990s and Bill Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government’ was over and it suddenly starts becoming clear that there is a different Democratic Party on display lately.

The days when promising cuts to welfare and brandishing centrist credentials were the path to a Democratic victory seem to be long gone. The Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 of course have a lot to do with that. It is a sign of the times.

And although the attacks in Paris put terrorism and national security back at the top of the discussion when they met in a debate in Iowa this past week, all three of the 2016 Democratic candidates have continued to concentrate much of their fire on America’s growing inequality problem and the need to regulate finance.

Not everyone in the Democratic Party, however, is happy about this leftward shift.

Backlash against the Left

Earlier this month, on the morning right after Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley wrapped up their second debate, a very different type of Democratic meeting convened in New York. In a closed-door strategy conference, members of the conservative faction of the Democratic Party met at Columbia University to map out their agenda for 2016.

The main item up for discussion: how to block the move toward populist economics and turn the national discussion away from inequality.

The meeting was convened by Will Marshall and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), which was the think-tank of policy wizards who engineered the Democratic Party’s move to the center in the 1990s under the banner of the ‘third way’.

Though their star has faded in recent years, the New Democrats (as the centrists have been calling themselves for the last quarter century) are determined to once again take control of the party and its message. They are not holding back in their attacks against the 99 percent movements that are reshaping the Democratic Party.

In a recent column, Marshall wrote that “another rousing round of populism, business-bashing and exhortations by Senator Bernie Sanders to Americans to stop worrying and learn to love democratic socialism” only spells trouble for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton when she eventually captures the nomination.

Bill Clinton’s former guru, Al From of the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), joined in and warned Democrats to shy away from talking too much about inequality. He says it just revs up the base to redistribute golden eggs from a “dead goose.”

Urging the center-left to worry more about growing the pie rather than how it is sliced, the third way New Democrats promote a pro-growth message, but they underplay the extent to which wealth inequality in America has soared over the last three decades. By shifting attention away from the systemic failures exposed by the Great Recession, their hope is that the anti-austerity and social justice movements will be derailed and lose steam.

With the decline of the New Democrats’ influence over the past several years, a number of people on the left side of the political spectrum have rushed to declare victory in the factional battle. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee recently claimed that, “The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is coming to an end.”

The celebrations were commencing as far back as 2011, when From’s DLC closed its doors after 25 years. At the time, the group Progressive Congress said that the DLC’s demise was proof that progressives were winning the battle for the party.

Many other left-liberal writers and organizations toasted the DLC’s demise and are basking in the glow of their own influence in the Democratic Party lately. But their celebrations may be premature.

It is still too early to assume the New Democrats are dead and ready for burial. Such overestimations of the left’s strength could prove problematic once primary season is over and the realities of a general election campaign start changing the political terrain.

Enduring strength of the third way

This is not to belittle what has been achieved so far, of course. It is great to celebrate the fact that Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley are all talking from the progressive playbook.

The current state of the debate is certainly symbolic of how influential a number of popular movements – from Occupy to the Fight for $15 to Black Lives Matter – have become.

Developing a successful strategic outlook that will carry labor and the left beyond the primaries, however, requires a proper comprehension of the current balance of forces in the Democratic Party. This battle between the centrist and left-liberal factions of the party has been going on for thirty years, and it would be shortsighted to think that the third way Wall Street Democrats are just going to slink off in defeat.

Although the DLC is gone and PPI is smaller than it was in the past, there remain a number of other major New Democrat players on the scene.  The New Democrat Coalition of centrist members in Congress still commands the allegiance of some fifty House members, for instance.

And the think-tank Third Way (which takes its name from their ideology) is perhaps even more embedded in big finance and Wall Street money than some of the older groups. It was started with seed capital from billionaire Andrew McKelvey in 2005.

With a highly active policy development staff, Third Way has succeeded the DLC as the intellectual center for Democratic moderates. The agenda it has put forward, which New Democrats are rallying around, forcefully rejects any focus on inequality.

According to Third Way, any predilection that Democrats have for populist measures or taking on the top 1% should be dampened and exchanged for upbeat messages of success. The advice is to not talk about potential grievances or injustices, but rather only emphasize classless concepts like opportunity, responsibility, and community.

Adapt to the new economy – don’t try to challenge it. Globalization and free trade can’t be altered or controlled. That is the core of the third way message. It is an attempt to put a more compassionate face on neoliberal ideology.

The left would be making a serious mistake to underestimate the enduring influence of this outlook among the Democratic establishment. Inside the Obama Administration, the number of third way adherents in top positions continued to grow even while many progressives were already celebrating the supposed end of the third way.

DLCer Rahm Emanuel and Third Way board member Bill Daley both served as President Obama’s chief of staff. Bruce Reed, former head of the DLC, filled the same role for Vice President Biden. Janet Napolitano, Bill Richardson, Ken Salazar, Tom Vilsack, and Kathleen Sebelius were all alumni of the DLC who filled important positions in Obama’s cabinet.

Simply noting the affiliation of such figures and their appointment by the White House is not to paint them all as enemies of progress, of course, but rather to illustrate the enduring strength of the third way faction.

Democratic Party as an arena of struggle

The moderate message is one that could become quite hard for the Hillary Clinton campaign to resist should she become the eventual nominee. There will certainly be a temptation in the general election to tilt away from the emphasis on economic justice that has been necessary when facing liberal Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers.

Many progressives and left activists have long questioned the nature of Clinton’s relation to their movement, and rightfully so. She has solid credentials as a New Democrat and was a key promoter of the third way internationally along with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Al From, and Will Marshall during the 1990s.

But that is not the end of the story.

To be a nationally-viable candidate for the Democratic Party, a certain amount of ideological and political flexibility is needed. Most Democrats – and the Clintons foremost among them – are susceptible to the blowing of the political winds.

That is why the battle for the soul of the electoral center-left has to look beyond the primaries.

If the Sanders-Clinton contest has shown us anything, it is that although the main battle is against the Republicans and the ultra-right, the Democratic Party itself is also an arena of struggle.

Many think of Sanders as the candidate of the progressive, left-liberal wing of the party. He has certainly injected a number of issues and ideas into the debate that probably would not otherwise have been a part of the discussion. It does not correlate, however, that Hillary Clinton is therefore automatically the candidate of big business Democrats.

Does she have an affinity for the third way faction? Judging by history, certainly so. But is she a hard-core ideologue? Certainly not.

The main takeaway from the increasingly contentious Democratic factional battle, then, is that it may be necessary to think of the Clinton candidacy as the next arena of struggle. The third way Democrats clearly do. Their main concern in this race is how they can shape the message and direction of the Clinton campaign. It is perhaps time for the left to think in such terms as well.

If Bernie Sanders isn’t the nominee, then socialists and progressives need a plan for what to do next. Surrendering to the narrative that Hillary is simply another Wall Street Democrat will do nothing but leave us all flat-footed when it comes time to go up against the GOP.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.