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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dionne: Dems Must Reconcile Their Populists and Centrists

From E. J. Dionne, Jr.’s Washington Post column “Progressive Frenemies“:

Earlier this month, Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a proud Democratic centrist, published a thoughtful essay on the Atlantic’s Web site under a very polemical headline: “Americans Need Jobs, Not Populism.” Take that, Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Democrat is clearly unpersuaded. In a powerful speech to the California Democratic Convention last weekend, she used variations on the word “fight” 21 times. “This country isn’t working for working people,” Warren declared. “It’s working only for those at the top.” If populism is a problem, Warren has not received the message.
There’s other grist for this narrative. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was reelected this year only after a spirited battle during which his opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, labeled him “Mayor 1 Percent.” And every other day, it seems, there’s a report about Hillary Clinton being under pressure either to “move left” or to resist doing so.

Dionne acknowledges that “there are real dividing lines within the center-left” on issues such as trade, public education reform and public employee pension costs. But he sees the “us vs. them frame” as problematic:

..A post on the Democratic Strategist Web site in March argued that “slinging essentially vacuous stereotypes like ‘corporate centrists’ and ‘left wing populists’ ” inevitably leads to “a vicious downward spiral of mutual recrimination.”
The larger difficulty is that the epithets exaggerate the differences between two sides that in fact need each other. There is political energy in the populist critique because rising inequality and concentrated wealth really are an outrage. But the centrists offer remedies that, in most cases, the populists accept.
Both Markell and Warren, for example, have emphasized the importance of business growth and job creation. In her California speech, Warren described the need for policies that foster prosperity while “bending it toward more opportunity for everyone.” Her priorities were not far from those Markell outlined in his article.
There was nothing exotically left-wing about Warren’s call for “education for our kids, roads and bridges and power so businesses could grow and get their goods to market and build good jobs here in America, research so we would have a giant pipeline of ideas that would permit our children and grandchildren to build a world we could only dream about.”
For his part, Markell freely acknowledged that “the altered economic terrain is preventing new wealth from being broadly shared,” that “income inequality is growing worse,” and that “a huge number of Americans are economically insecure.” Growth is “necessary, but not sufficient,” and he made the case for “a decent minimum wage,” “affordable and quality health care,” and support for a dignified retirement.
Sen. Warren and Gov. Markell, would you kindly give each other a call?

As the populists-centrists conflict plays out, “they would do well to remember the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that it’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth,” says Dionne. Further, “to win the presidency, one of Clinton’s central tasks will be to move both sides in the progressive argument to embrace Niebuhr’s counsel.”

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