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Agitated by 'Pathetic Centrists,' Progressive Populists Strike Back

Real story isn't the tired antics of the "corporate centrists" but the "sustained feistiness among progressives" increasingly on display

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Senator Elizabeth Warren. She may not run for president, but as one of the Congress' leading proponents of fighting economic inequality, her role has become increasingly important in the battle of ideas. (Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)Progressives on the march? Perhaps a bit premature, but a string of DC-based headlines this week suggest that the "corporate-friendly centrists" in Washington policy circles are losing the rhetorical battle when it comes to the national discussion surrounding economic populism:

"It’s just so tired and tiring. If being a “centrist” means fact-free denunciations of progressives for not being willing to cut entitlements, who needs these guys?" –Paul Krugman

Adding evidence to the notion that progressives are willing to go on offense against the forces of the "establishment's faux centrism"—represented by former public officials, corporate-funded Beltway pundits, and the mainstays of the mainstream media—a series of scathing attacks against the group "Third Way" have continued nearly a week after two prominent members of the group published an op-ed calling for cuts to Social Security and a rejection of the populism that is bubbling up across the nation.

In just the latest hit on the Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal at the beginning of the week, economist Paul Krugman called the so-called "centrism" of the 'Third Way' representatives "pathetic." Describing their arguments as intellectually bankrupt, Krugman concluded:

It’s just so tired and tiring. If being a “centrist” means fact-free denunciations of progressives for not being willing to cut entitlements, who needs these guys?

The Economic Policy Institute's Joshua Smith wrote in response to the op-ed:

In poll after poll after poll, huge majorities of Americans want no part of cuts to either Social Security or Medicare—and by percentages much larger than those who voted against Colorado’s tax hike. (These results were concurrent with polls that show majorities of Americans support raising taxes on high earners.) If we’re truly listening to the American public, and not simply cherry-picking from off-year election results, the question becomes how to strengthen the social safety net and not, as Cowan and Kessler advise, how to deal with the programs’ “undebatable solvency crisis.”

And Joan Walsh, editor-at-large for Salon (though she acknowledgeed she was "very late to the Third Way-trashing party"), said the real story isn't the tired antics of the "corporate centrists"—which have become painfully familiar—but the "sustained feistiness among progressives" that is becoming increasingly evident.

"Sen. Warren sent a letter to six big banks urigng them to dislcose the think tanks and lobby shops they fund—the implication being that much of the backing for groups advocating the kind of business-friendly economic policies supported by Third Way comes, undisclosed, from Wall Street." –HuffPo

That so-called "feistiness" was explored in an article in the New York Times on Thursday which reported how the "left’s new aggressiveness" was on display as DC progressive groups, including the Campaign for America's Future and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, coalesced around the Cowan/Kessler op-ed in order to assert the strength (and political wisdom) now represented in the rhetoric of progressive populists.

As MSNBC's Zachary Roth analyzed the developments:

Cowan and Kessler’s argument, on both the policy and the politics, has already been thoroughly demolished (see here and here, among other places). But what’s fascinating is the swift and decisive pushback their op-ed generated.

As the Huffington Post reported, Warren sent a letter to six big banks urigng them to dislcose the think tanks and lobby shops they fund—the implication being that much of the backing for groups advocating the kind of business-friendly economic policies supported by Third Way comes, undisclosed, from Wall Street. 

And a group of progressive Democratic organizations called on Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Pennsylvania Democrat who’s running for governor, to drop her affiliation with Third Way, where she is listed as a “co-chair”. A spokesman for the congresswoman said she wouldn’t resign, but called the op-ed “outrageous,” and said Schwartz “strongly disagrees with it.”

It’s Schwartz’s response that’s most telling of all. Democrats running for office feel they simply can’t afford to be on the conservative side of this split.

In fact, subsequent to that reporting, Schwartz came out in support of a progressive House bill calling for the strengthening of Social Security, a move interpreted as the congresswoman trying to strengthen her support on the left.

In comments made directly to the Huffington Post, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the 'Third Way' was just "flatly wrong" on their policy prescription for Social Security.

"We could make modest adjustments and make the system financially stable for a century, and we could make somewhat larger adjustments and make the system pay more for seniors who rely on it," she said. "The conversation for too long has been about whether to cut Social Security benefits a little bit or a lot. And that is flatly the wrong debate to have in mind."

"The Social Security system is not adding to the debt at all," she said. "More importantly, if we made no changes at all, Social Security would pay out at its current level for about 20 years, at which point it would drop by about 25 percent and pay out forever into the future."

In his assessment this week, Campaign for America's Future senior fellow Richard Eskow, lumped the political thinking of 'Third Way' supporters with the worst inclinations of the Democratic Party represented by President Bill Clinton's pro-corporate policies in the 90's, subsequently upheld by the "Blue Dog" Democrat coalition in Congress. Eskow writes:

Theirs was the real “we can have it all” fantasy – one where politicians could receive fat campaign contributions from Wall Street firms, look forward to a post-political life of ease in the corporate world, and still enjoy the adoration of a grateful nation. The country can’t afford that fantasy anymore.

Times have changed. The Clinton era was a bubble-fueled illusion. Deregulation crashed the economy. And Third Way policies are political poison, which is why Barack Obama quickly shifted back to populist rhetoric in 2012 – a move that ensured his reelection.

True, it’s too early to count the Third Way crowd out. They have powerful connections and vast reservoirs of funding. But the world is different now, as the country begins to understand that the Third Way leads only to a “dead end.” They had their day, and their self-centered dream, but eventually the “centrists” will have to face reality:

The dream is over.

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