E.J. Dionne Jr.: Moderate Democrats own their mistakes
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., argued that Democrats need to pay far more attention to rural America if they ever want to take back the Senate. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., urged his party to be more open to people of faith. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., spoke for new members of Congress from swing districts in insisting that “the loudest voices” are not representative of voters “working two or three jobs.”
And Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., had this advice: “Don’t keep reacting to [President] Trump. Show there are things we can run on and win on.”
Thus went the counsel of the Democratic pragmatists of Third Way, a leading middle-of-the-road think tank at a meeting here this week that was, in part, a running critique of the baleful influence of Twitter on the political debate. Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson, senior officials of the group, devoted separate presentations to showing that Democratic voters who use Twitter regularly are much more left-wing than the party’s primary electorate as a whole. Democrats, in Third Way’s view, could tweet themselves into oblivion.
Jon Cowan, the group’s president, brought the point home by warning that outside “cobalt blue districts and states, we can’t afford a strategy aimed mainly at the furthest-left Democrats. The danger is that we pursue an approach that runs up the score in blue places, but falls short everywhere else.”
This is broadly what you might expect from a group that has long battled the party’s democratic socialist wing and, in particular, supporters of Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator’s loyalists return the favor, denouncing Third Wayers as a coterie of corporate Democrats — especially, of course, on Twitter.
But what came later in Cowan’s speech may have been the larger and more important revelation: that the group is not offering “a warmed-over 1990s centrism.” Cowan’s critique of what were, after all, the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency was not hedged: “Back then,” he said, “we placed too much trust in the market’s ability to provide a reliable and realistic path to prosperity for most Americans. In the last 30 years, we have seen the impact of globalization and automation on our workers. And it is clear that a rising tide will not lift all boats.”
Those sentences speak to a quiet revolution in the thinking of Democrats across the board since the 2008 economic downturn, and especially since Trump’s election. It can fairly be described as a leftward movement in the entire party. Sanders is often credited with moving the party left, and his proposals such as Medicare for All and free college (which came under sharp criticism here this week) have entered the mainstream conversation. But the language of “left” and “center” is imperfect in capturing the change. The new attitude toward the economy’s shortcomings is as much about the realities on the ground as it is about any ideological awakening.
“After 2016, it was imperative for everyone in the party to sit back and ask: What have we done wrong?” Matt Bennett, Third Way’s executive vice president for public affairs and a veteran of the Clinton administration, told me. He vigorously defended both the Clinton and Obama presidencies, dismissing as “preposterous” the idea that they were failures.
Nonetheless, he added: “We have to own some of the mistakes of the New Democrats” of the Clinton era. Among them, he said, was underestimating the impact of trade liberalization on a significant number of blue-collar workers and “the speed and ferocity with which technology would decimate certain sectors of the American workforce.” A particularly negative effect of this was the “concentration of opportunity” in certain regions as large parts of the country were left behind.
“We need to be working to tame capitalism at this moment because it is not functioning well,” he concluded. “We need to do in this century what the progressives and New Dealers did in the last century.” No wonder that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is getting far better reviews from Third Wayers these days than she did a few years ago.
As some of the sharp-edged comments from Cowan and others about the dangers of an inward-looking (and Twitter-inspired) Democratic debate suggested, the party’s ideological tensions have not been miraculously healed. Most here still leaned toward presidential candidates other than Warren and, especially, Sanders.
But Bennett’s mea culpa pointed toward a new, implicit party consensus: You don’t have to be a democratic socialist to believe that today’s capitalism needs a spell in the repair shop.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.