Rise of the left and the backlash: How big a deal?

The last two weeks, progressive and centrist Democrats have been at odds, as President Obama has tilted toward economic populism. But the Democrats' real issue may lie elsewhere.

Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Leaders of the centrist Democrat think tank Third Way, warn that liberal Warren would be “disastrous” for Democrats heading into the 2016 presidential race.

Bill de Blasio hasn’t even been sworn in yet as mayor of New York, but he’s already a poster-child for liberalism run amok. Watch out, New Yorkers, your taxes are about to go up! “Stop and frisk” is ending, crime will rise!  The city’s finances are about to collapse!

And then there’s Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Mr. de Blasio’s ideological sister in the Senate, who is ready to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary for president in 2016 – if some of the press coverage is to be believed.

Except that’s looking highly doubtful.  Senator Warren has insisted repeatedly that she’s not running for president, and while that’s the standard response for anyone this early in the process, her denials make sense. She has a big megaphone in the Senate, and a big national following, less than a year into her term. And unlike Mrs. Clinton, Warren doesn’t have a shadow presidential campaign already in operation.

As for de Blasio, the demise of “stop and frisk” – the police practice of questioning and frisking suspicious-looking people, which leads to charges of profiling – may have been greatly exaggerated.  In his first high-profile cabinet pick, de Blasio named former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to his old job. Mr. Bratton is the father of stop and frisk, though he has promised reforms.  

And so, it appears, signs of a resurgent liberalism in America may too be a bit exaggerated. President Obama won kudos from the left for his Dec. 4 speech addressing the rise in income inequality, including a call for a higher federal minimum wage, but he also made a bow toward the engine of economic growth, the private sector.

“We can’t tackle inequality if the economic pie is shrinking or stagnant,” Mr. Obama said. “The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private sector investment.”

By the sound of it, the president is trying to strike a balance between competing strains within his party: the newly energized progressive wing, which wants more government spending, higher wages, higher taxes, and expanded Social Security; and fiscal moderates, who still hope for a “grand bargain” with Republicans that includes entitlement reforms (read: cuts), even though the two parties have given up on the idea for now.

A flareup in this long-running competition burst forth last week with an op-ed by leaders of the centrist Democrat think tank Third Way, who wrote that the economic populism of de Blasio and Warren would be “disastrous” for Democrats heading into 2016.

Third Way’s president, Jon Cowan, and senior vice president for policy, Jim Kessler, pounded on Warren, in particular, calling her the leader of a movement that “relies on a potent ‘we can have it all’ fantasy” of higher taxes on the wealthy, closing corporate tax loopholes, and breaking up big banks.

If that were to happen, the fantasy continues, “then – presto! – we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements,” they write. “Meanwhile, we can invest more deeply in K-12 education, infrastructure, health research, clean energy, and more.”

Warren responded by calling on major financial institutions to disclose their donations to think tanks. (It’s no secret that Third Way benefits from Wall Street money.) Members of Congress who serve as honorary co-chairs of Third Way condemned the op-ed. Progressive groups gathered 125,000 signatures on a  petition objecting to the piece, and delivered them to Third Way.

But in the real world of congressional budget-making, something remarkable happened: On Tuesday, the Democratic and Republican chairs of the two congressional budget committees reached a compromise. The deal pared back automatic spending cuts in both defense and domestic spending, but skipped a provision dear to the left – an extension of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans. Democrats grumbled, but most went along.

The bill passed the House with a large, bipartisan majority. But by Friday, it faced trouble in the Senate – and it’s Republicans who are balking. Some are tea party types, some are likely running for president, others are up for reelection and face tea party primary challengers.

So for now, it appears, the political universe is back to where it’s been since Obama was elected: the Democrats largely united when it counts, and Republicans fractured.

Al From, the founder of the old centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), looks at the latest skirmish between progressive and moderate Democrats, and shrugs.

“I guess I think it’s not as much as it might appear,” says Mr. From, who has just written a book called “The New Democrats and the Return to Power." It is a history of the DLC and how - as he sees it - Bill Clinton and New Democrat principles saved the Democratic Party from the political wilderness. 

Going forward, From says, questions about Obama’s political posture – Is he taking a left turn in his second term or not? – are less important than the Democrats’ need to prove that they can govern. Given the profound problems in implementing health-care reform, the jury is out.

“Liberals like to talk rhetorically about all these great goals that most of us share,” From says. “But for Democrats, it’s absolutely essential that government works, and that people don’t lose faith in government.  That’s been a cornerstone principle.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Rise of the left and the backlash: How big a deal?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today