article

02.08.11

DLC Shut Down: The Democrats’ New Power Base  

The Democratic Leadership Council may be shutting down, but the progressives haven't won. Centrism is alive and well in the think tank Third Way, whose advice on health care and the economy has swayed the White House.

Reports of the death of centrism in the Democratic Party have been greatly exaggerated.

Monday’s news that the Democratic Leadership Council is folding after three decades was greeted with glee by those on the left who see it as evidence that centrism has gasped its last breath.

Progressive Congress president Darcy Burner declared to Politico that the demise of the DLC was proof that “progressives are winning the battle” for the Democratic Party.

Not so fast.

The truth is, the DLC’s position as the leading centrist Democratic think tank was long ago overtaken by a group called Third Way, which has been growing more influential by the day.

Before joining the White House, Bill Daley, President Obama’s new chief of staff, was a board member of Third Way.

In an interview before the news of the DLC’s shuttering, Ken Baer, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget and a longtime fan of Third Way, told me: “Their power is rising. They put out original policy ideas that are rooted in reality and relevant to the moment. They are really the only organization owning the reform space in the Democratic Party.”

Third Way was launched in 2005 with four employees and has since has grown into a serious player within the party, with 37 staffers and a budget of $7.5 million. It was founded by veteran Democratic politicos—Jon Cowan, Jim Kessler, Matt Bennett, and Nancy Hale—who previously launched and ran a successful centrist gun control organization, Americans for Gun Safety.

These are no mere hacks. They are as steeped in the policy as they are wise about the political realities that Democrats face in a country where liberals are a distinct minority. They don’t deign to tell Americans what they should believe—the favorite game of too many liberals—but instead craft realistic policy proposals that have a chance of gaining some sort of popular support.

It also doesn’t hurt that Kessler and Cowan have direct lines to their former employers—New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Chuck Schumer, both rising stars in the Democratic firmament.

Sometime last year I began to notice the similarities between what I would hear when speaking to various Third Way folks and what would be coming out of the White House a month or two later.

Third Way had long argued that the White House’s messaging on health care was not working because it was ignoring the middle class. The message was received.

Third Way had long argued, for example, that the White House’s messaging on health care was not working because it was ignoring the middle class. In June 2009, the group released a polling memo making the case that the Democrats needed to explain what health-care reform would do for the majority of the population that already had health insurance rather than just focusing on the uninsured. Third Way urged Democrats to focus on stability and security as benefits of health-care reform.

The message was received. A few months later, Obama’s address to a joint session to Congress had the theme “ Stability & Security for All Americans”, laying out the benefits of health reform to those who already had insurance.

More recently, when the White House announced that the theme of the upcoming State of the Union would be shifting from “economic security” to “economic growth,” a light bulb went off. The phrase was one I had heard time and again from Third Way, which had been arguing that Democrats needed to make a dramatic shift away from focusing on the safety net and economic security to an aspirational, positive vision of private sector economic growth. It turns out Third Way formulated a memo making this case that made its way to the White House, and a new strategy was adopted.

On a more stylistic note, Third Way suggested in a letter to leaders of both parties that members of Congress should drop the partisanship at the State of the Union and sit with someone from across the political aisle. The group also posted a white paper, “ The History of Partisan Seating at the State of the Union,” and some influential journalists picked up on the idea. The SOTU prom night was born.

Another area where its influence has borne fruit is the White House’s relationship with the business community. Throughout 2010, Third Way counseled Dems that anti-business populism was bad for the economy and the middle class, and a political loser. Since the midterm elections, Obama has been making moves to thaw that relationship, including a speech to the Chamber of Commerce this week.

Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, who has done work with Third Way, told me: “They have been consistently smart and strategic. It’s beyond dispute that the organization and its principal voices have been cited increasingly frequently as the standard bearers for the more moderate, third-way plank of the Democratic Party.”

Throwing more water on the left’s delusion that centrism has been shown the door, Obama recently hired a trio of powerful centrists—the aforementioned Bill Daley, Gene Sperling, and Bruce Reed—to reorient his administration toward a more pragmatic strategy.

Reed, who previously headed the Democratic Leadership Council, is now Vice President Biden’s chief of staff. That’s not exactly Siberia for the centrists.

The reality is that even those on the left who deride centrism could find a lot to like in the work of Third Way if they could stop hyperventilating with the same recycled accusations from the intra-party battles of the past.

Contrary to the claims of the Daily Kos crowd, Third Way is not a shill for corporations. If they shill for anyone, it is the middle class, and that’s something every Democrat should be able to get behind.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.