Even the progressives, especially the PCCC, took some time to see the potential of the Harkin plan. “We were tired of playing on defense,” explains Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, who previously worked for the House Progressive Caucus. “Every time the Congress reached a fiscal crisis, you’d see the president caving on Social Security and proposing chained CPI.”
PCCC et al had been threatening primary challenges of Democrats who backed the president’s offer, but that didn’t get much coverage. Finally, on July 24 of this year, the PCCC, the DFA, and Social Security Works announced that Alaska Sen. Mark Begich—a red-state Democrat, up for re-election next year—had signed on to the Harkin plan.
“This petition and this weekend's Ed Show appearance are the first steps,” wrote PCCC leaders on their email list. “Then come calls to Congress, local press conferences, and the release of poll numbers showing the popularity of this proposal.” The first polling, a Public Policy Polling survey in Kentucky, pegged support for the plan at 51 percent.
But there was no new traction for the plan, not outside the left. That started to change on Nov. 10, when the New Republic published a profile of Warren by Noam Scheiber, arguing that the left had found a message—and maybe messenger—as dangerous to the Clinton Restoration as Barack Obama had been in 2008. Among his data points: The aggressive promotion of Warren by groups like the PCCC, which fundraised for Warren in 2012 and printed stickers reading “I’m From the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.” One week later, to the surprise of Harkin’s staff, Warren went to the floor of the Senate to endorse the Social Security plan.
The left’s enemies responded as predictably as Godzilla swatting at Mothra. “Social Security proposals are wrongheaded,” editorialized the Washington Post. Warren was a latecomer to the idea, but she was in that sweet spot that had reporters paying attention to her and asking her repeatedly if she’d run for president. (She keeps saying that she won’t.) On the evening of Dec. 3, the Wall Street Journal published Third Way’s op-ed.
“That Social Security plan had been out there but really languishing,” column co-author Jim Kessler would later tell a radio host. “Because Sen. Warren has such a powerful compelling voice, she started talking about it, and it suddenly it became much more talked about and viable alternative.”
The op-ed circulated immediately on progressive listervs. Adam Green was asking any other progressive activists if they wanted in on a campaign to take Third Way apart. Mothra was swatting back.
“Just looking at the Third Way editorial, where it ran, who the audience was, it didn't strike me as a policy argument,” says Progressives United spokesman (and former Feingold spokesman) Josh Orton. “It was a cultural attack. I mean, Warren didn't even write the bill! It reminded me of what you hear from the bankers who say Obama is too mean to them. It could have been a fundraising letter to those bankers—who knows? Third Way has been a joke among progressives for years, but they didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”
Shortly before 10 a.m. on Dec. 4, the PCCC emailed its Pennsylvania list (they claim around 29,000 members in the state) with the latest on this anti-Warren outrage, and how it would affect them. “Third Way—a Wall Street-funded group that poses as a "progressive" think tank—blasted Warren and her bold economic agenda yesterday in Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal,” wrote Green. “Rep. Allyson Schwartz is Honorary Co-Chair of this group that's attacking Elizabeth Warren! Can you call Allyson Schwartz today and tell her to drop her affiliation with Third Way immediately?”
Why hit Schwartz, a congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs? One reason was that the PCCC had just met with John Hanger, a primary foe in Schwartz’s current race for governor. He was polling at 4 percent, but he was guaranteed to make this a litmus-test issue for Schwartz. Within hours, Schwartz’s campaign had told the Huffington Post that the op-ed was “outrageous.”
That advanced the story. So did Warren’s open letter to five banks asking them to disclose their donations to Washington think tanks. Politico gave anonymity to a “senior D.C. Republican,” who argued that the “normally savvy” senator had blown it, and that her “ ‘give me the names’ edict sounds uncomfortably like the kind of demand that Joe McCarthy would have made in the 1950s.” It was just the sort of stuck-pig squeal that Warren’s allies expect from the bankers and their defenders. They couldn’t have scripted it—but they sort of did script it.
The furor only lasted a few days, but the bile lingered. When I asked Third Way co-founder (and current VP for public affairs) Matt Bennett about the idea that the think tank was fishing for donors in the Wall Street Journal’s subscription list, he laughed.* “That’s ridiculous,” said Bennett. We had an op-ed in the New York Times two weeks ago and we had an op-ed in the Washington Post two months ago. There are only so many papers, and it just so happened that this wound up in the Wall Street Journal. The idea of the op-ed was really intended to create a stark choice for Democrats. Do we grapple with the entitlement crisis or not? It doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the finance sector. And by the way, we’ve taken very progressive views on financial reform. We’ve featured lectures by people like Paul Volcker and Sheila Bair who are not, shall we say, running dogs for the banks.”
But they are think tankers who give quotes to reporters about the danger of a left-wing Democratic Party. In 2012, Bennett even knocked Elizabeth Warren, and was hat-tipped by no less an admirer than Sen. Scott Brown. That was why the progressives shot at their knees. Third Way is, as think tanks go, somewhat transparent about who writes their checks. During the Warren contretemps, The Nation’s Lee Fang was able to source public records and prove that Third Way took money from corporate lobbyists and hedge fund managers. The progressives who want to mainstream a redistributive Social Security reform want, in the meantime, to discredit the people who may oppose it.
Third Way understands the game. When I asked Bennett whether his think tank was opposed to “economic populism,” he wondered whether that term was de facto positive. “It depends on how you view economic populism,” he said. “We didn’t view the president’s speech last week as populist, for example. He was talking about poverty—and that’s a Democratic point of view, what he said. We view populism the way we view right-wing populism. It’s a way to avoid making choices. Right-wing populists say that if we cut government down, everything will be better. The idea on the left is that if we can just expand entitlements, everything will be better and we don’t have to make choices. And we just don’t agree.”
Correction, Dec. 10, 2013: This article originally misidentified co-founder and vice president of public affairs for Third Way Matt Bennett as Michael Bennett. (Return.)