In the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, two moderates made a completely predictable "provocative" argument: the sort of populist, anti-corporate, anti-wealthy policies favored by progressive Democrats will never work. The argument was flawed, but it's precisely the sort of argument that D.C. loves and embraces. So it got loved and embraced.
Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler are the president and senior vice president of Third Way, one of the several D.C.-based organizations focused on promoting a middle path in American politics, which, as we've noted in the past, means that they're pro-business, anti-deficit Democrats and not amenable to rousing the low-rent rabble. Their op-ed ("Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats") tries to come off as the sort of thoughtful analysis of politics that think tanks — which is what Third Way calls itself — are supposed to produce. Instead, it reads a little desperate, rehashing old arguments and using one election in Colorado to dismiss two in New York and Massachusetts. It comes off as concern-trolling, or, better, like a guy who very much doesn't want you to look in his closet insisting with an increasingly sweaty brow that you can go ahead and look in the closet since there's nothing there but you'd really be a jerk if you looked in it anyway.
So the arguments. Mayor-elect de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Warren have pledged to push for progressive reforms: increasing taxes on high wage earners and increasing Social Security benefits, respectively. To de Blasio, the Third Wayers offer a Colorado referendum in which tax increases were rejected. To Warren, the now-hoary Social Security "solvency crisis," which they call "undebatable" — a particularly cheap way to skip over the fact that the program's long-term solvency in fluctuating economic circumstances is very much in debate.
Why is a Colorado referendum important? "This is the type of state that Democrats captured in 2008 to realign the national electoral map," they write, "and they did so through offering a vision of pragmatic progressive government, not fantasy-based blue-state populism." Colorado also elected an apparent moderate, John Hickenlooper, to be governor in 2010. Since taking office, he's moved strongly to the left, and remains very popular. Also, Democrats won a lot of races in various states in 2008, thanks to a very-friendly electorate. More Democrats came to the polls in most states, sweeping Obama into office and affecting down-ticket races. In the referendum, about half as many people voted as in 2008 — which almost always means a more Republican electorate. The referendum lost big, but the two electorates are hardly comparable.
Not that their other political arguments are terribly sound. Both de Blasio and Warren are dismissed as political actors because New York City and Massachusetts pols don't win other races. To wit: "While New Yorkers think of their city as the center of the universe, the last time its mayor won a race for governor or senator—let alone president—was 1869. For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple." And "midnight-blue" Massachusetts hasn't had a president since 1960! You know, nine presidents ago. By this logic, of course, the far-right policies of politicians from Nebraska, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho, Alabama, Utah, South Carolina, Kentucky and so on — states that have never had a native elected president — should be dismissed out-of-hand. Sorry, Sen. Mitch McConnell. None of those Social Security cuts you want until a Kentuckian gets to the White House.
This Journal essay is precisely what Third Way is supposed to say. It is supposed to say, no, we need to trim spending and, no, we must enact moderate policies. Those things are in the organization's mission statement. This is the equivalent of an anti-tax editorial from Grover Norquist.
That didn't prevent Politico's Mike Allen from highlighting the piece in his daily newsletter. "GAME CHANGE," Allen dubbed it, for some truly inexplicable reason. "Game change," it might as well have read, "President Obama calls John Boehner to discuss policy." This changes nothing. Allen, however, is part of the D.C. firmament that literally and figuratively houses fruitless moderate organizations like Third Way and the completely unsuccessful No Labels. The core appeal of moderates to D.C. players like Allen is that they embrace a let's-all-get-along attitude that allows the media to walk straight down the middle of the road, befriending all comers.
Third Way appreciated Allen's declaration that the article was a game change, of course, and tweeted to that effect.
Allen then retweeted their tweet. Sorry, economic populism. The home team is going up against you. Game, changed.