Leading moderate Democrats forcefully argued this week that the party can embrace a robust agenda of change while still praising capitalism and downplaying income inequality.
In other words, everything the empowered liberal base has spent a year and a half mobilizing against.
Democrats gathered here in Ohio’s capital city on Thursday and Friday in what was an opening salvo of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, part of a conference organized by the center-left think tank Third Way.
The longtime Washington-based group was unveiling the findings of a year-long assessment launched after the 2016 election, hoping to convince potential presidential contenders that they don’t have to adopt the hard-left agenda and style of a Bernie Sanders progressive.
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Included in its report were a dozen big-picture policy recommendations — such as adopting a robust apprenticeship program and expanded unemployment insurance to help workers find new jobs — and encouragement to bypass talk of income inequality for an emphasis on creating opportunity.
Third Way officials even attempted to remove the “moderate” moniker from the event, encouraging those in attendance to call themselves “opportunity Democrats.” (The event itself was labeled “Opportunity 2020.”)
“Once again, the time has come to mend, but not end, capitalism for a new era,” said Jonathan Cowan, Third Way’s president, in a sweeping speech outlining his group’s study.
The group’s recommendations will be met with skepticism — if not outright derision — by many Democrats and liberals, who argue the party has been ill-served by a more modest, incrementalist approach. (Third Way officials counter that although their platform is different than a Sanders-style agenda, ideas like a proposed employer-funded pension system would be radical changes in their own right.)
And indeed, even many of those on hand in Columbus — a few hundred congressmen, Democratic officials, and local politicians — needed convincing that the rest of their party was interested in this approach.
“There is no question there is a lot of volume and emotion and energy around the more activist wing of our party,” said Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut and chairman of the New Democrats, a coalition of business-oriented party members on Capitol Hill.
The party’s more moderate voices, he told reporters, were at risk of being “drowned out” if they didn’t start speaking out more.
Few Democrats would disagree with Himes’s assessment: Just last month, the victory of avowed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked longtime Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in New York shocked the party and ushered in a wave of predictions that future Democratic candidates would mimic Ocasio-Cortez’s platform and style. On a policy front, once-fringe issues — such as the adoption of single-payer health care and a federal jobs guarantee for every citizen — have moved into the party’s mainstream.
Poll data from 2016 would suggest Third Way’s approach has some merit: A Gallup poll from October 2016 found that voters thought Trump was actually less less conservative than prior GOP nominees. Clinton, meanwhile, was seen as as liberal as former President Barack Obama.
Of course, liberals argue that energizing the party’s base is of paramount importance, especially in the age of Donald Trump.
The more centrist approach advocated at the conference, those in attendance acknowledged, will face skepticism for many reasons. A party left devastated after the last presidential election is dead-set on looking for big, bold ideas, and Third Way officials say it’s hard to compete on that front with liberals advocating a total overhaul of the health care system.
Any effort to rebrand the party reminds Democrats of the approach advocated by former President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, when he pulled the party in a more moderate direction on social and economic issues. Third Way rejects the idea that it’s trying to do the same thing now, arguing that they are instead advocating for an entirely new approach.
“Let’s be clear,” Cowan said. “80s supply-sidism, 90s centrism and 60s socialism will not cut it for the era we’re in. We need something new and different.”
Many of those in attendance were careful not to directly criticize Ocasio-Cortez, saying they welcomed the new energy she was bringing into the party. But they also made clear that they thought her style of politics would be a difficult sell outside of her New York City congressional district, where the party must try to win over more conservative voters.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, said a poll conducted by the group found voters — including many Democrats — responded more positively to a message that emphasized creating economic opportunity over income inequality. The opportunity message, she said, “trounced the other Democratic approaches on the table with the voters we need to win in a general election.”
Other Democrats in attendance were harsher in their assessments of the party’s liberal wing.
“A small but vocal subgroup that is unhinged from evidence will be wrong in the long run, regardless of how loud they are,” said Iowa state Sen. Jeff Danielson, in an interview.
Danielson hails from a conservative-leaning district in northeast Iowa and says he’s managed to win re-election there by adopting an approach similar to the one advocated by Third Way. Many of his constituents would see Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda and think it amounted to nothing more than a “grievance list,” he said.
But he’s not sure other members of his party will listen to his advice.
“We don’t know what we want,” he said. “We haven’t found our sea legs as a party.”