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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Third Way approach to debating the deficit: A guide for the perplexed

The principals of Third Way had an op-ed in the Washington post last week that characteristically began by slamming what they called “the left.” Now Third Way has a very unique approach to debating those it disagrees with – an approach that may be confusing for those new to it. To assist the neophyte, here’s a handy guide.
The Third Way op-ed says:

The left needs to get real on Medicare, Social Security and the deficit……These voices [i.e. the left] argue that we can have substantial new spending on public investments, a secure safety net, no middle-class tax increase — all without addressing entitlement spending.

Now a normal reader has to wonder, exactly who is this “left” that believes and advocates this view? After all, even the most prominent opponents of deficit-hysteria like Paul Krugman, Bob Reich and Bob Kuttner don’t seriously embrace the simplistic view above. So who is it? The people who write comments at Firedoglake? The guys and gals who wear the Guy Fawkes masks during Occupy protests?
Nope. It turns out that “the left” that Third Way is criticizing in their Op-Ed is essentially the entire – and I mean entire — liberal-progressive coalition. Their expansive definition of the “left” includes even those groups that are the closest to Obama himself.
Here’s Third Way:

There is a rising chorus on the left, most recently articulated in an op-ed Monday by Neera Tanden and Michael Linden [“Deficits are not destiny”] of the Center for American Progress, that our fiscal conversation should be declared over and plans for meaningful entitlement reforms mothballed.

Now, frankly, if Third Way seriously defines the Center for American Progress as representing “the left” in American politics then they must also define the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution as the official think tanks of the Mississippi Tea Party and the Arizona minutemen. There is simply no other way to compress the American political spectrum from left to right radically enough to fit Third Way’s categorization scheme. CAP is, of all the Beltway think tanks, the one closest to the Obama administration. Moreover, until several weeks ago it was counted among the “good guys” by many deficit-hawks because it supported a “grand bargain.” On occasion it may be described by journalists as “center-left” rather than as “liberal” or “progressive,” but, aside from Third Way, never as simply “the left”
And the actual policies proposed by the Center for American Progress do not even remotely fit the caricature Third Way offers in the initial quote above,
Here’s Third Way:

But the left’s reasoning is predicated on four fiscal fantasies….Fantasy No. 1 is that taxing the rich solves our problems. Fantasy No. 2 is that “we can have it all” “substantial new spending on public investments, a secure safety net, no middle-class tax increase — all without addressing entitlement spending.”

Now here is what the Center for American Progress’s Op-Ed – the Op-Ed specifically cited by Third Way as its key example of what “the left” thinks — actually says:

Indeed, liberals have been leading on entitlement reform as part of a balanced approach to deficit reduction for the past four years. The Center for American Progress offered a detailed plan to reform Social Security that would achieve 75-year solvency while making the system more progressive, stable and eliminating its gender inequity. We also offered a Medicare plan that would continue to reduce costs for the federal government, saving $385 billion over 10 years, without shifting those costs onto middle- and low-income beneficiaries, businesses or states. These are good ideas, and Congress should pursue them.
Yes, the nation still has a long-term deficit challenge. And yes, entitlement reform will have to be part of the solution.

In short, not only is the Center for American Progress not accurately described as representing “the left” in American politics but Third Way attributes to CAP views that every serious person in Washington knows perfectly well they do not actually hold.
Now really, just what the heck is going on here? Why even bother to present such an obviously flawed and easily refuted political typology?
The answer is that Third Way wants three deeply contradictory things (1) to be viewed as a major and legitimate part of the democratic coalition (2) to be able to nonetheless criticize Obama from the right, using a form of argument largely identical to those of Pete Peterson’s “Fix the Debt” and other similar, overwhelmingly Republican or supposedly “nonpartisan” groups that reject Obama’s more balanced approach and (3) to claim for themselves the mantle of “centrism” from the Clinton Administration figures of the 1990’s.
The problem, of course, is that in the real political world of America today none of these desires are remotely realistic. Obama is presenting a deficit reduction strategy that is, by any rational definition, “centrist,” the leading “centrist” politicians of the 1990’s, including Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves, support Obama’s general approach rather than that of “Fix the Debt” and most active, committed Democrats today consider themselves “liberals” or “progressives” rather than “centrists”
So on the large set of issues related to the deficit, Third Way finds itself:

1. Disagreeing with President Obama’s centrist approach.
2. Presenting a line of argument largely championed by Republicans or other non-Democrats and
3. Upholding a perspective which is a distinctly minority view within the modern Democratic coalition.

Now there is a perfectly honest way that Third Way could champion this perspective, It is to adopt the stance of the “lonely and heroic voice of reason,” the brave contrarians who stand fearlessly against the tide, assert that they alone are right and predict that the Democratic Party will one day recognize its errors and come around to their view.
In the memo on which the Washington Post op-ed was based, Third Way did not create a straw man called “the left” but more accurately defined their debate as with liberal Democrats. They also presented their position in a more textured way. But in the Washington Post Op-Ed, Third Way decided to use a different approach — to create a false dichotomy between themselves on the one hand and an imaginary opponent one might call “the economically illiterate, proudly fact-denying left” on the other and to fight this straw man rather than admit that they were actually disagreeing not only with most liberals and progressives but with most active Democrats and Obama himself.

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