CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Parts of a conference here sponsored by the Third Way think tank neatly matched a progressive’s caricature of Democratic centrists, like when a white male congressman from a Republican-leaning district told a wine-sipping crowd of operatives, lobbyists, donors and local elected officials that “we took a piece of the center back in 2018, and we’re going to take more of it back in 2020.”
“Republicans are not the enemy,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham, who in an upset won his seat in coastal South Carolina last November. “It’s the blind partisanship within the Republican Party and the blind partisanship within the Democratic Party sometimes.”
Some moments, though, would have pleased liberals, like when the president of EMILY’s List sat on stage and ripped traditional concepts of “electability” that some Democrats say should be paramount in picking the party’s next presidential nominee.
“The driving force of electability” is a backward-looking strategy, Stephanie Schriock said. “If we focus on what happened in 2016, and fight that campaign, we will lose this election.”
But the overall message was unmistakable: Democrats at the Monday and Tuesday gathering were confident they could defeat President Donald Trump in next year’s election, provided the party doesn’t pick Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, as its nominee, doesn’t embrace his signature policy proposal of Medicare for All and doesn’t let a legion of online leftists hijack the debate.
“I believe a gay Midwestern mayor can beat Trump. I believe an African American senator can beat Trump. I believe a Western governor, a female senator, a Latino Texan or a former vice president can beat Trump,” Third Way President Jon Cowan said in a Tuesday morning speech, referring to some of the candidates in the crowded primary race. “But I don’t believe a self-described democratic socialist can win, nor a Democratic Party that embraces those views or allows itself to be easily defined and labeled by them.”
Or as former Obama administration White House communications director Jen Psaki put it: “If we don’t nominate a self-proclaimed socialist, we’ll probably be OK.”
He and his folks have made it clear that he’s not interested in us, and I think that feeling is mutual. Third Way official Lanae Erickson, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Staffers or surrogates for 10 of the White House contenders – former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg – attended the event.
Sanders and his team were predictably unwelcome.
“He and his folks have made it clear that he’s not interested in us, and I think that feeling is mutual,” said Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president for politics for the Washington-based Third Way, which bills itself as touting “modern center-left ideas.”
The focus on Sanders and Medicare-for-All as huge negatives for the prospects of defeating Tump was overwhelming. Other liberal or leftist priorities drew the occasional raised eyebrow or warning as going too far ― an official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers cautioned that implementing the Green New Deal would cost jobs for his members ― but they weren’t dwelled on. And the party’s other presidential candidates ― even those on the party’s left wing, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ― were treated with kid gloves.
The Sanders’ campaign responded with a statement noting the candidate’s strength in public polling against Trump, and questioning Third Way’s motivations.
“The Democratic Party will be weaker if we take Third Way’s advice on a strategy that antagonizes no one, stands up to nobody and changes nothing,” campaign manager Faiz Shakir said. “This is a Washington think tank that takes money from Wall Street, so if Third Way is the opposition to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which is leading Trump in over two dozen polls, we welcome the contrast.”
The group’s narrow focus on Sanders and its decision to largely ignore, and even praise, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has raised eyebrows among operatives belonging to both the party’s liberal and moderate wings. In 2013, two senior Third Way officials lambasted Warren in an op-ed, calling her politics “fantasy-based blue-state populism.”
The group now sees her differently; at the least, she’s viewed as a more palatable alternative to Sanders.
“She’s been very clear she wants to mend capitalism, reform capitalism,” Erickson said. “I think that’s a very popular sentiment across the Democratic Party and the country. That’s not getting over your skis.”
The other major reason for the revised attitude: Warren is more of a “team player,” she said, noting her history of raising money for her more moderate colleagues like Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. That contrasts her, Erickson said, to “the cabal of people who have decided there’s only one right way to be a Democrat.”
“Warren has never bossed [candidates from other states] around and said, ‘This is the only way to be a Democrat,’” she said.
The concerns about Medicare for All as a political liability stems from the group’s belief that Democrats have the upper hand on most of the major policy fights likely to mark the 2020 campaign, and pushing further to the left on health care ― as well as immigration ― can only squander those advantages.
“There are really only a handful of the most dangerous landmines in going too far left,” Erickson said, mentioned the calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as another.
“We already saw Republicans run their playbook in [the 2018 midterms],” she said. “We know what they’re going to say. They’re going to try to peg Democrats as socialists, and we shouldn’t make their job easier.”
The group is also trying to discredit Sanders’ large group of online supporters and limit their ability to shape the primary campaign via social media, especially Twitter. Third Way released polling figures depicting likely Democratic primary voters who spend time on Twitter as a “funhouse” version of the party’s actual electorate ― whiter, more liberal, predominantly more male and wealthier than the typical voter.
“There’s the potential that the extremely online voters who are paying attention right now will be able to drive the direction of the campaign,” Erickson said. “Unfortunately, it could be in a direction that has very little to do with what the rest of the Democratic primary voters actually really want.”