The Democratic Primaries Have One Clear Loser: Third Way Centrism

March 3, 2016

It’s worth taking a break from watching the implosion of the Republican Party to pay attention to intra-Democratic fighting. Liberal economics has had a pretty great run in the 2016 primary, and I’m optimistic about its chances going forward. I’m even more optimistic after reading this thrown-together op-ed from Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way, titled “3 Ways Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday Wins Upend Democratic Conventional Wisdom,” in which he tries to prove my optimism wrong.

Super Tuesday, to Cowan, shows that “the implications of Hillary Clinton’s winning streak are significant: Liberal populism can’t possibly be the future of the Democratic Party.” Even better for centrism, “Mrs. Clinton has not tacked left to beat Mr. Sanders; she is beating him because she has attacked his core premises.” (If Clinton goes on to lose in 2016, he’ll blame centrism for that loss, right?)

This is clearly wrong, both as a read of the campaign and as a claim about where the future of the party is. If this were simply a matter of an op-ed being wrong on the internet, we shouldn’t care, but the question of how Democrats understand what has happened has consequences for their general election strategy—a strategy in which liberal economics must play a central role.

The primary has shown us that young voters, the future of the party, are very liberal, and that the debate is centered around liberal economic goals, excluding traditional centrist concerns. It has also shown us where the limits currently are in liberal economics—limits that are important to know so we can continue to push past them.

A note on terminology. Liberal economics, populism, paleoliberalism, whatever: The core features are that inequality and stagnation are political choices, and those choices are made based on how we structure the rules of the economy. The right way to handle the challenges and opportunities of increasing globalization and technology in the future is through the government providing robust economic security while also ensuring economic power at the top doesn’t become entrenched. Concerns about the macroeconomy, such as full employment and keeping the financial sector in check, take a more central role in the analysis, rather than individual “nudges.” With that in mind…

Young Voters Are Liberal

If anything stands out in the primary, it’s that young people are very liberal. Sanders has been winning them by overwhelming margins. And it makes sense. A 25-year-old voter right now was negative three years old when Michael Dukakis lost in 1988. They simply aren’t of an era in which the old Reagan battles are relevant. They don’t know that being a liberal (or a socialist!) is obviously a dirty thing in D.C. circles. A place like Third Way makes no sense to them. They’ve grown up in a world of war and economic stagnation, and they think a more expansive version of liberalism is crucial to challenging this. Polling work we’ve done here at Roosevelt shows that a robust liberal message is the best way to increase enthusiasm among these key groups, enthusiasm that will be necessary for the general election.

These voters are the future of the Democratic Party, and it’s essential that there’s liberal infrastructure to guide this generation into power, directing its energy into local, state, and national elections. (I hope Sanders has a way to keep this base active and growing after the primary.) But the future, as of now, is clear: The party must choose between liberal economics ideas and arguments to engage and sustain them or centrist ones if it wants them to stay home on election day.

The Debate Has Been Liberal

The idea that Hillary Clinton won on Super Tuesday by engaging centrist ideas is wrong. She is running on a $12 minimum wage, paid family leave, universal pre-K, expanding financial reform, higher taxes on the rich, and more.

More important for this discussion is what’s missing. Imagine constructing a “food pyramid” of centrist ideas. None of the daily servings of deficit hysteria, Social Security cutting, and business-friendly accommodations have been present in this campaign.

Clinton is running against cuts to Social Security in the form of cost-of-living adjustments or raising the retirement age, two centrist lodestars. There’s no talk about financial regulations decreasing our competitiveness and having to be rolled back. There’s no worry about a debt crisis that has never come; even Doug Elmendorf is arguing that the debt is not important now. There are no demands for a chimeral Grand Bargain, which had centrists destroying the Democratic Party in 2011, leaving us with the noxious sequestration.

The Debate Has Been Tactical

Cowan argues that Super Tuesday was about Sanders’s “proposals for single-payer health care, expanding Social Security, and free college” being “fantastical and flawed.” But most of the actual disagreements weren’t about the goal, but about the tactics. Sanders wants to expand Medicare rather than the ACA, but both he and Clinton want universal health care. Sanders wants really free higher education while Clinton wants “debt-free” college, but both want to change the momentum towards cheaper colleges. The relative strengths of the different approaches launched a thousand think-pieces (I personally love really free higher education), but even here it’s the path, not the direction, that is at stake. The direction is more liberal, across the board.

And, personally, I find these fights, though heated, encouraging. They’re forcing liberals who don’t want to start again with Medicare for All to think critically about how to expand the ACA. My colleague Richard Kirsch is doing just that. Sanders has brought the Federal Reserve into the discussion in a way it hasn’t been before, with helpful and fascinating dialogue with Larry Summers. Even the Gerald Friedman paper got everyone talking about the output gap again. Simply put, all the interesting discussions are taking place on the liberal side, not the centrist side.

Limits of Paleoliberalism

Liberal economics should be thinking in terms of decades, not years, and the surprise success of Bernie Sanders has provided fantastic data on where the limits currently are. If these are the firewalls centrists are excited about, they should actually be very worried, because the current boundaries of the debate are far away from their vision, and we’ll break them soon enough.

First, there’s a push and pull between fighting the “millionaires and billionaires” and simply providing a more generous state with higher taxes. We need stronger arguments and campaigns about the simple message that we should all pay more in taxes to provide better economic security and goods, and that as the economy changes further in the 21st century this will become even more necessary. This argument doesn’t evolve naturally from the focus on the 1 percent, and President Obama cut off the chance to make it earlier by dealing with the Bush tax cuts. But there’s time and space to do so.

Second, we need to make liberal economics more inclusive for black voters. There’s no Democratic Party without black people being a central part, and if liberal economics doesn’t benefit and engage them there’s little point. The Clintons have a very strong and long-lasting relationship with black voters that contributes to Sanders’s weaker numbers with them, which is bad for him in 2016 but an opportunity to broaden the project going forward.

Third, welfare reform is hegemonic in the Democratic primary. Neither candidate talked about creating some form of a universal child allowance, and the absence of this idea was noted by commentators like Annie Lowrey and Clio Chang and Samuel Adler-Bell. So that reform, which weakened automatic stabilizers that could have helped fight the Great Recession and has increased deep poverty among children, is a definite win for Third Way. Congratulations.

There Was a Third Way Candidate

If there were a Third Way candidate in this primary, we could have tested Cowan’s theory further. That candidate would have had to focus on the debt, not wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy, and been designed to appeal to “Reagan Democrats” or some similar political strategy fanfiction written in the early 1990s. They’d have had to cast a frowny face on any talk of a more liberal America. Perhaps they could have had a weird quirk that was meant to be relatable but was actually unnerving, like bragging about killing a person out of nowhere.

Oh wait, we did have that Third Way candidate. His name was Jim Webb, and he didn’t make it to the second debate.