WASHINGTON -- Though he remains, by measures of conventional wisdom and polling data, an outsider in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has still managed to spook the ideological center of the Democratic Party.
On Wednesday morning, the think tank Third Way held a briefing in which it warned candidates that they risked personal and broadly shared electoral harm if they echoed Sanders' populist message.
"You would be back to 1972 [if Bernie were nominated]," warned Bill Daley, President Barack Obama's former chief of staff and a Third Way board member, referencing the blowout Richard Nixon win that year. "It was not a happy time for Democrats. The guy has been a socialist his whole life and now decides he is a Democrat and therefore the Democratic Party has got to move to that extreme? I think it is a recipe for disaster."
The rise of Sanders, though unanticipated, has exposed familiar ideological fissures within the Democratic Party. Virtually every modern presidential election has pitted an insurgent candidate with populist appeal against a more centrist-minded or establishment alternative.
Bill Clinton's win in 1992 ushered in a generation of modern, more moderate New Democrats. And when Clinton left office, several of his former staffers started up Third Way to discourage the party from reverting to its leftward ways. During the Obama era, the group issued similar warnings about the rise of Democratic populism and played consequential policy roles -- most memorably encouraging lawmakers to abandon the pursuit of a public option during the crafting of health care reform in 2010.
On the eve of a post-Obama America, Third Way's role appears more defensive or, at least, complicated by the few candidates running for the White House. Far from cheerleading Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy, it warned her not to mimic her nearest competitor.
"They are really going to beat her up to move further and further and further [to the left] because they assume she is going to get it and they want their piece of flesh," said Daley.
The attack on Sanders, meanwhile, was one of the more overtly aggressive yet to come from within Democratic ranks.
"I think the Third Way message was great in '92 but out of date for a 2016 electorate… I have no doubt that if we can get through the nominating process against such a formidable opponent he will be very strong in the general," said Tad Devine, Sanders' top strategist, in response. "Bernie has the potential to change the composition of the electorate, and getting young people and lower income voters back into it on the side of the Democrats because his message is so powerful and believable coming from him."
Though officials at Third Way warned about potential missteps Democrats might make at the presidential level, much of the hour-long briefing on Wednesday was spent arguing that the party's success in such elections has masked fundamental problems elsewhere. And on a purely numerical level, the math is indisputable. As Jonathan Cowan, Third Way's president, noted, Democrats hold the fewest offices in Congress, statehouses and governors' mansions since 1928.
The factors behind this, however, are deeply disputed.
In its presentation, Third Way argued that a focus on issues like a $15 minimum wage, expanding Social Security benefits and advocating for single-payer health care all create the political dynamics that make Democrats electorally vulnerable. But few Democrats have made their campaigns squarely about these three issues in past races. During the disastrous 2014 midterm elections, a number of senators called for expanding Social Security benefits. But talk of single-payer health care was nonexistent outside highly progressive (and largely dismissed) quarters. And the debate at the time was about raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, not $15. Third Way itself calls for a wage floor of $10-$12, based on average hourly wages and regional cost variations.
Third Way's platform calls for passage of free trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership, making the research and development tax credit permanent and revenue-neutral corporate tax reform. The group advocates for raising tax rates on capital gains from 20 to 25 percent and for limiting deductions for high wage earners. But on the whole, it is the more corporate-minded plank of the Democratic platform, much to the distaste of its critics.
"They do nothing to challenge corporate power in the workplace, other than a higher minimum wage," said Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Third Way adversary. "If they don’t get behind policies that will really help generate middle class wage and compensation growth then they’re missing an essential piece of what’s needed, economically and politically."
Michael Briggs, Sanders' top spokesman, was a touch more sardonic. "Did Mr. Daley have anything to say about all of the American factories that closed or the millions of American jobs that were lost because he pushed NAFTA through Congress?" he asked.
Dive further into Third Way's policy suggestions and the substantive case for alarm over populism becomes muddied. The group wants investments in infrastructure and medical research; bolstered SEC enforcement; a home equity voucher program and comprehensive immigration reform. Though it opposes expanding Social Security, it does want a "minimum, employer-provided 50 cent an hour private pension contribution."
"At the end of the day, what's so bizarre about Third Way is that they do actually advocate for some things progressives would (infrastructure, immigration reform, etc.), but the rhetorical frame they use is based in the logic of the 1980s," said Neil Sroka, communications director at Democracy for America. "That is, that somehow Democrats can win things only if we trick voters into thinking that ideas from the left are actually really from the right."
At their briefing, Cowon and Daley, along with Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and New Democrat Movement founder Elaine Kamarck, disputed the notion that the differences within the Democratic Party were limited, though they also acknowledged that their concerns with populism were about the style as well as the substance.
Obama, they argued, had fairly centrist policy achievements. But even though he is the titular leader of the Democratic Party -- whose agenda establishes the Democratic image -- the candidates sacrificed the benefits when they chose to run as populists.
"You cannot overcome a party brand if you are a senator or a House member. The only person who trumps a party brand in politics is a sitting president," said Cowan.
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