The right's hopes are dashed: Why there’s no civil war among Democrats

Hacks and pundits are desperately seeking conflict between the Warren and Clinton “camps.” Democrats shouldn't help

Published February 19, 2014 4:37PM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama                       (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Roberts/AP/Charles Dharapak)
Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Roberts/AP/Charles Dharapak)

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Philip Rucker apparently made it official, for the Beltway, anyway: There’s a split in the Democratic Party that threatens its post-Obama future. The party is supposedly torn between the populism of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, and the centrist caution of President Obama and the current Democratic presidential front-runner (should she run) Hillary Clinton.

Reading the Balz-Rucker piece, you might recognize its central argument: It’s essentially a reported-out version of the Op-Ed penned by centrist Third Way leaders in the Wall Street Journal in December, stigmatizing De Blasio and Warren for their "dead end" populism. Except Balz and Rucker don’t entirely take sides – and they even talk to nominal progressives who sound a little bit like the Third Way folks.

“I think it’s really not helpful for the Democrats to turn this into an attack on the one percent,” former SEIU president Andy Stern told the Post reporters. “I don’t think it’s in the American spirit, or at least the Democratic Party’s future spirit. As Republicans attack immigration, we attack rich people? If you learned anything from the president, selling hope is better than selling hate.”

Personally, I think it’s really not helpful for Democrats to caricature other Democrats as selling “hate” if they point to the disproportionate income, wealth and political power currently enjoyed by the 1 percent. Hell, even some 1 percenters think the pendulum has swung too far. (Not crazy sore winners like Tom Perkins, of course.)

I debated Third Way’s Matt Bennett about this topic on “Hardball.” It was a friendly, civil debate; you can watch at the end of this post. But I was struck by a couple of things. Bennett -- correctly, I think -- insisted candidates and parties win when they have a vision for the future. And yet he – like his centrist comrades in the Balz-Rucker piece – continue to push Third Way’s 30-year-old Democratic Leadership Council approach, on a country that’s crying out for new ideas. It’s Third Way that’s looking backward, not progressives.

In our “Hardball” debate, I gave the DLC credit for one thing, even though, overall, I’m not an admirer. The DLC made a contribution in the '80s and '90s by telling Democrats that they had to talk about economic growth, not just wealth redistribution; that they could admit some government services had become inefficient and/or corrupt; that they shouldn’t be merely the tax and spend party. But Third Way and other centrists also forget that Clinton himself ran and got elected as a populist, with a platform of “Putting People First” and building a “bridge to the 21st century” with investments in education and infrastructure and opportunity. Without Clinton’s populist political instincts, the DLC’s castor-oil approach to politics, heavy on "responsibility" and "sacrifice," especially for the non-wealthy, would have been an electoral dead end.

Ultimately DLC Democrats went too far, trying to outdo Republicans on who could be the pro-business party -- particularly the Wall Street party. By 2008, Barack Obama was the candidate of both Wall Street and the entire FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate), outraising John McCain by 40 percent. Over those same 30 years, we saw top tax rates fall and investment income get ever more special treatment. Banks were deregulated with tragic results. The minimum wage has languished, labor rights have atrophied, and now a quarter of Americans toil in the low-wage work swamp, where they make so little they’re eligible for public assistance.

So a dose of economic populism is sorely needed, and it’s destructive for centrist Democrats to sound like Tom Perkins and suggest that those of us who favor higher taxes for the 1 percent are demonizing them. Advancing economic populism, progressives are using policy, not pitchforks. Why pretend that proposals for raising taxes or expanding Social Security or letting the post office resume small-banking services it used to offer are a scary lurch leftward?

It’s not to say there aren’t differences within the party. Fifteen senators signed a letter this week, penned by Bernie Sanders, asking the president to remove his proposal for the Social Security cut known as the “chained CPI” from his next budget. But they spanned the spectrum from Warren to moderate Mark Begich of Alaska. Begich is not helped by fellow centrists caricaturing him as a wealth-redistributor.

And while Obama finally presided over a tax hike for the top 2 percent, taxes aren’t back to the level of Third Way’s favorite president, Bill Clinton. Just in the last two years, even as Obama has escalated his anti-inequality rhetoric, he’s backed off, some, on higher taxes. There’s no more talk about the Buffett rule, or ending the scandalously low rate for “carried interest,” and he’s even taken higher tax rates for the wealthy “off the table.” That’s beggaring the future.  Building “ladders of opportunity” -- Third Way prefers that term to “fighting income inequality” -- from universal pre-kindergarten programs to expanded higher education funding, are going to require a more progressive tax code with higher taxes on top earners.

I’ve come to believe that the backlash against economic populism from the centrists is a perverse way of making the world safe for a Hillary Clinton candidacy. But with friends like these, Clinton doesn’t need enemies. Sharpening the distinction between economic populists and the presumed platform of Clinton only hurts Clinton. The fact is, we don’t know yet what she’ll run on, if she runs, but it’s wrong for centrists to claim her – and for progressives to cede her.

I’m on record worrying that Clinton is too close to Wall Street. But she can’t be blamed (or credited) for every policy of her husband’s. She was always thought to be the more progressive of the pair. And on economic issues, in 2008 I thought she was marginally more progressive than Sen. Obama – she favored a moratorium on foreclosures that he opposed, and her healthcare plan was more inclusive.

So we’ll see whether Clinton runs, and if she does, whether and how she addresses the surging populist energy of her party. But hyping a conflict between her and Elizabeth Warren is destructive. It ignores two facts: One, Warren insists she’s not running, and two, the Massachusetts senator signed a letter, along with other female Democrats, urging Clinton to run herself.

I think Markos Moulitsas wrote the best take on how progressives should view a Clinton candidacy. It may not even happen. But in the meantime, her centrist allies and other critics of Democratic populism ought to be more concerned with figuring out areas of common ground with progressives than trashing them in the media. I would also say that progressives should sometimes do the same. Those pushing the “It’s Elizabeth Warren’s party” hype are disrespecting both the leadership and the progressive accomplishments of our first black president (however incomplete they may be). That risks the support of African-Americans, the party’s most loyal voters. Not smart either.

In that spirit, Andy Stern was nice enough to reply to my “Hardball” critique with this elaboration of his Balz-Rucker quote.

I totally believe we need to attack income inequality, fairly redistribute the success of a country or company, protect a women's right to choose, provide for universal pre-k, legalization of undocumented immigrants, and national healthcare, close tax loopholes, and stop bad trade deals. I don't think we serve our electoral future well by turning these political and policy differences into broad sweeping personal attacks either on rich people or business or unions or union leaders. People want real change in their lives, and we should offer the ideas, and the organizational structures that provide hope and the chance to fight for change.  Call out people when it is appropriate based on policies not merely politics.

I couldn’t agree more. Here's the "Hardball" debate with Matt Bennett:

By Joan Walsh