Third Way's Jon Cowan: Once Again, Ginning Up Faux Youth Outrage

A new pressure group called "The Can Kicks Back," which aims to turn younger Americans into an anti-deficit avenging army. This offensive bears a slight odor of deja vu, however.
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Coming soon: a new pressure group called "The Can Kicks Back," which aims to turn younger Americans into an anti-deficit avenging army. It will surely attempt to play a role in the post-election talks surrounding the "fiscal cliff." This offensive bears a slight odor of deja vu, however, because one of its organizers is Jonathan Cowan, who 20 years ago attempted to recruit Gen Xers in a similar campaign propelled by a brash, ultimately buffoonish group called Lead ... Or Leave.

Today, Jon Cowan is the president of Third Way, which calls itself "the nation's leading centrist policy institution" and is certainly one of the most prominent center-right pressure groups in Washington. Its board of trustees reads like a Who's Who of Wall Street, hedge fund and real estate barons and it enjoys privileged access to the national media. (Cowan himself is a close personal friend and guru to Matt Bai, the New York Times Magazine's chief political correspondent and a leading cheerleader for center-right deficit hawks.)

Cowan popped up in a slightly different guise this summer, as an advisor to "The Can Kicks Back," billed as a new campaign by "Millennials ... pushing for a non-partisan 'grand bargain' to fix our fiscal future." Other advisors to the new group include such usual suspects as Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (authors of the much-discussed Bowles-Simpson plan to balance the budget mostly through slashing Social Security, Medicare, and domestic social programs), former Sen. Evan Bayh, and former comptroller General David Walker.

Thus far, The Can Kicks Back consists mainly of a website that asks the visitor to watch a series of video clips and then "donate to our Millennial-driven campaign to solve America's fiscal crisis." Both Walker's and Cowan's presence, however, suggests there is big money behind this new pressure group. Hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson has been Walker's patron since he left government to launch a seemingly series of public appearances arguing for draconian measures to cut the deficit.

Cowan, although younger than Walker, has an even longer history as a Peterson acolyte. Back in the early '90s, Cowan made has name as a faux street fightin' man heading up Lead ... or Leave, the first Gen X advocacy group to make a big splash in the mainstream media. Its history is both entertaining and, for those who might be prepared to take The Can Kicks Back too seriously, instructive.

Lead ... or Leave was founded by Cowan and Rob Nelson, then two young Washington denizens who had previously been, respectively, press secretary to Rep. Mel Levine, a conservative Democrat from Los Angeles, and a consultant at Malchow & Company, a political campaign advisory firm.

Lead ... or Leave earned its first press mentions during the 1992 elections with a not especially successful attempt to get congressional candidates to pledge not to run again if the fiscal 1996 budget deficit ended up being more than half the size of the 1992 deficit. Only 100 signed, of whom just 17 got elected, and Bill Clinton dismissed the pledge as a "gimmick." But Cowan and Nelson caught the attention of two presidential candidates -- Paul Tsongas, who signed the pledge, and Ross Perot, who did likewise and also plugged the fledgling group in some of his speeches. Perot handed them $42,000 with which to build an organization. They obtained nearly as large an amount from Pete Peterson and launched on a crusade to convince Xers that the deficit was "our generation's Vietnam."

Lead ... or Leave hired Fenton Communications, a large Washington firm, to handle PR, rented office space at a choice Connecticut Avenue address, and and held its inaugural press conference at the National Press Club. Soon the group was "breathing down the necks of members of Congress, ... focusing a white-hot light on the toll debt and deficits are taking on its generation," according to a hard-panting profile in Campaigns & Elections, a trade magazine for political consultants.

One of the group's first attention-grabbing actions was a "Dis the Deficit" protest on July 14 -- Bastille Day -- in which 500 supporters dumped 4,000 pennies, symbolizing the $4 trillion national debt, on the Capitol steps. Shortly thereafter, Lead ... or Leave announced that it was teaming up with Hal Uplinger, producer of the Live Aid concerts for African famine relief, to hold a "Rock the Deficit" concert the following April promoting awareness of the danger posed by, among other things, out-of-control entitlements.

Cowan, a blustery sort, made a reputation for himself with cheeky stunts such as including condoms in a mailing whose message was the need to "practice safe politics" by attacking the deficit -- a misstep that caused one conservative backer to quit. He dismissed any potential problems with such tactics, telling Newsweek, "Sometimes you have to be a butthead to get things done." At a meeting with Mark Weinberger, chief of staff of a Clinton-appointed deficit commission co-headed by Sen John Kerry, Cowan and Nelson showed up in shorts and "walked around like MTV stars, wearing purple sunglasses. [They] never returned anyone's phone calls," remembers Paul Hewitt, then executive director of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.

But they continued to attract support from some powerful figures, including the Concord Coalition's Warren Rudman and Sen. Bill Bradley. The latter they persuaded to chair Lead ... or Leave's deficit education campaign. Less than three years after opening their group's doors, "The Jon and Rob Show" claimed to have raised $1.5 million, registered 178,000 college students to vote, and hosted youth summits attended by 500 "young leaders."

Cowan and Nelson undoubtedly were good at getting attention. For months they notched profiles in newspapers, magazines, and on national TV, including ABC's Nightline, CBS's 60 Minutes, and back to ABC for Good Morning America. In February 1993, they appeared on the cover of U.S. News & World Report sporting a vaguely outlaw biker look and topped by a banner reading, "The Twentysomething Rebellion." Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, authors of the would-be Gen X bible 13th Gen, were quoted saying that these young people were rebelling against "selfish boomers and greedy seniors" who were robbing future generations with their unreasonable entitlements.

Cowan and Nelson announced in the article that Lead ... or Leave would hold a demonstration outside AARP's Washington headquarters. "Entitlement programs for the elderly are a prime cause of rising federal spending yet aren't likely to be targeted for serious cuts," they said. Their demands included means testing of Social Security benefits. The rally attracted about 100 people, The Nation reported.

Every bona fide mass movement must have a manifesto, and so did Lead ... or Leave. Titled, inevitably, Revolution X, it was published in 1994, with a foreword by Bradley. The book painted an apocalyptic picture of the world the boomers were creating unless the Xers could stop them. In a section entitled "Armaggadon [sic] 2112," they warned that in 2011, when the boomers began hitting 65 and "start gobbling up pensions and health care benefits, a shock wave will blast people from their homes, rapidly plummet millions into poverty, and threaten the economic security and financial stability of our entire nation."

While similar advocacy groups for boomers were exhorting them to crack down on their greedy, Depression-era elders, Lead ... or Leave was intent on warning the boomers what Gen X would do to them if they tried the same generational swindle. The authors laid out 13 policy recommendations, including such unexceptional advice as to Control Crime, Create Good Jobs, Give Equal Rights to Gays, Help End Homelessness, and Make Education Affordable.

Cowan and Nelson's two most fiscally significant recommendations, however, were to Reinvent Social Security and Trim America's Budget. Their principal recommendations for the former were "affluence testing" that would reduce benefits for anyone earning $40,000 or more" -- a remarkably low threshold -- and carving out half of both the employer and the employee's payroll tax contribution to fund mandatory individual retirement accounts. Ultimately, they wanted workers to be allowed to opt out of Social Security entirely.

Recognizing the political obstacles to getting there, Cowan and Nelson encouraged their readers to suggest to their parents that they renounce their memberships in AARP. "If today's politics is any indication," the authors warned, "the boomers will have more than enough political power to win what they want -- whatever the cost to those who come behind them."

Then suddenly, in 1995, Lead ... or Leave ceased operations. As it turned out, much of their "organizing" within the Gen X community had been a matter of smoke and mirrors. What they called "the largest grassroots college/twentysomething organization in the country," with over 1 million members and chapters at 115 colleges and in every state, actually had no paying members and manufactured that membership figure by counting every student at colleges "where it had at least one local, unelected representative," according to a report in The American Prospect.

Paul Rogat Loeb, whose then-current Gen X study, Generation at the Crossroads, was based on a large number of interviews with students and young workers across the country, called Lead ... or Leave's tactics "astoundingly shameless." He had never run across a single member of the organization in the course of his research, Loeb told Swing Magazine. Cowan and Nelson responded that Lead ... or Leave's membership peaked at 100,000, and that some reporters "deliberately misunderstood" the group's structure. But the 1 million-members claim appeared in their book.

In truth, the failure of Lead ... or Leave was a case of too much, too soon. Cowan and Nelson launched an ambitious series of projects, including a deficit-consciousness curriculum for high school students and a youth voter registration campaign, but had too few staffers to handle the workload. When the two leaders went on a national tour to promote their book, the problems became acute. Worse, the voter registration drive reportedly alienated some of their older, more conservative donors, who ceased supporting the group. The Rock the Deficit concert was never held. Ross Perot pulled his funding, according to one source, when Lead ... or Leave couldn't produce a financial report he demanded.

Along the way, the group never got around to providing a detailed account of its own policy recommendations, including the ones for Social Security. Cowan told Newsweek they would be back in the 1996 presidential campaign, when they might "burn Social Security cards in New Hampshire. It's such an incredibly powerful image." Instead, Nelson went on to attend Stanford Law School while Cowan moved up to a job at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, another stepping stone on his way to greater prominence -- and respectability -- with Third Way.

That wasn't the end of conservative efforts to gin up a youth rebellion against Social Security and Medicare. Third Millennium, another, better organized Xer advocacy group with deeper leadership -- if not membership -- and virtually the same policy positions arose at about the same time and attracted considerable attention before it, too, faded late in the decade.

Will The Can Kicks Back follow these pioneering efforts at astroturf youth revolt into oblivion? Third Way suggests Jon Cowan organizational skills -- or at least his ability to delegate -- have improved. But potential donors might want to ponder the fate of Lead ... or Leave before opening their checkbooks.

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