For the past five years, Democrats have delighted as a civil war has raged over the soul of the Republican Party, with the establishment pummeled by a group of small-government Tea Party absolutists.
But now a similar battle appears to be brewing on the Democratic side of the aisle. The new fight, however, is not over social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, on which national Democrats are largely in agreement. Nor is it over foreign policy—as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the party’s doves and hawks were divided—or even over the racial and gender issues that roiled the party in 1980s.
Instead the battle is over economics, and more specifically the willingness of Democrats to clamp down on Wall Street excesses and devote government to fighting inequality.
The first salvo in the Democratic war may have been a December 2 Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal by two leaders of the centrist think tank Third Way, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, who urged Democrats not to follow the examples of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, both of whom ran as anti-Wall Street economic populists. Cowan and Kessler called that strategy “disastrous for Democrats” beyond liberal bastions and a “fantasy-based blue-state populism.”
In Pennsylvania, John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor and former secretary of state’s Department of Environmental Protection, promptly called on Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the presumed frontrunner in the race, to resign as honorary co-chairwoman of Third Way. The move brought Hanger, who was previously best known for being the only candidate to support the legalization of marijuana, some much-needed attention. But Democratic strategists and activists across the country say the debate is playing out locally in ways great and small in races up and down the ballot where candidates are deciding which side of the line they are on.
In Massachusetts, a mailer in the closing days of a closely fought congressional special election featuring photos of Warren with state lawmaker Katherine Clark helped vault Clark past her Democratic rivals Tuesday night. And Scott Ferson, a top Democratic consultant in the state, said he was preparing for one of his clients, Seth Moulton, who is challenging Rep. John Tierney, to face accusations that he is not liberal enough on economic issues.
“Up here there is no ‘third way.’ The third way is that Republicans are wrong,” Ferson said.
In South Dakota, Democratic activists have lined up behind Rick Weiland, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle who is running an aggressively populist campaign to replace the retiring Sen. Tim Johnson and has railed against the Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C. In Montana, Lt. Gov John Bohlinger, who is facing a fierce Democratic primary to replace the retiring Sen. Max Baucus, released a video last week framing the race as between “Wall Street Democrats and the progressives.” In Hawaii, Blue America PAC head and Down With Tyranny blogger Howie Klein described the Democratic Senate primary between Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Brian Schatz as one between “people who want to debate with Republicans about how much to cut Social Security and how much we want to expand Social Security. Brian is pushing a vision of America that is fairer and more equitable.”
And the battle is playing out in presidential politics, as well, as progressives clamor for Warren to take on Hillary Clinton, if nothing else just to push the party leftward.
“There is a cleavage in the party that is generational,” said Hanger, the gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania who first seized on the Third Way Op-Ed. “There are people in the party who don’t have the mind-set of the older generation.”
Hanger described a party that has been shell-shocked since the defeat of George McGovern in 1972, that only believed “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton could win, and that has lived with economic policies instituted by Ronald Reagan even as the economy collapsed in 2008.
“There are two camps of Democrats, and one of them doesn’t have confidence in progressive ideas,” Hanger said. “Why is it that Democrats only speak glowingly and warmly of unions in front of union crowds?”
Democrats are unlikely to face the internecine battles the Republican Party has endured over the last five years. On the GOP side, after Rep. Steve Stockman announced a primary campaign against Sen. John Cornyn, calling the Texas lawmaker with a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union someone who “wakes up every morning and works to make the Senate a more liberal place,” Texas joined Kentucky, Kansas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Tennessee as Republican battleground states. So far, no serious Democratic challengers have emerged to take on the party’s incumbents, and there is little infrastructure available for them to do so.
“There is a debate inside the party, not a split,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of public affairs for Third Way. “There is a split inside the Republican Party that is profound and dangerous for them as a party, and we think that it is good and healthy for there to be a debate. The tent is easily big enough to accommodate all sides of this.”
Instead, the new Democratic fight is reminiscent of how the Iraq War roiled the party from 2004 to 2008, when Clinton’s front-runner status in the presidential primary was upended in part by her hawkish stance, and candidates for U.S. Senate to City Council were forced to announce which side of the line they were on. If today’s policy differences are small—the governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for example, is unlikely to have a huge say on Wall Street regulation, and de Blasio’s economic proposals were not so different from those of his rivals in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary—the distinction is one of emphasis.
“I do think that economic inequality is going to be the issue in the 2014 election the way the Iraq War was in the 2006 election,” said Jim Dean, president of Democracy for America. “And I think you are going to see the Democratic leadership start to move on issues of inequality and financial reform pretty quickly. They understand how upset people are.”
Should the economic populists from the Warren wing take over the party, how much they can govern remains to be seen. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, said the debate is really between “economic populists” and “economic realists,” and he added that he doubts it will come to much.
“You can certainly do things to promote a fairer economic reality, but it can’t be the be-all and end-all of the government,” he said. “Wait and see how populist Bill de Blasio is when he actually has to govern.”
“Look at the turnout in New York,” he added. “It’s not like you had people pouring out of their homes to support the populist message…If Elizabeth Warren ran in the Democratic presidential primary, she gets 15-18 percent, tops.”