Before we all forget about the latest spat between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the banks, before it’s downgraded to an anecdote in Game Change III: The Changeling, let’s reflect on how the media got dragged into it and covered the story on Warren’s terms.
Short version: Two honchos at the center-left think tank Third Way wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning that a proposal to expand Social Security was foolishness and “economic populism is a dead end for Democrats.” A clutch of progressives—or, if you prefer, economic populists—demanded that elected Democrats distance themselves from the op-ed. The senior senator from Massachusetts issued an open letter to bankers, asking them to disclose their donations to think tanks, and then told the Huffington Post that Third Way was “flatly wrong.” All of this, according to the New York Times, was “a sign of the left’s new aggressiveness.”
It was. For bonus points, it was a lesson in how easy it can be to draw the media, bankers, pundits, and activists into a “war,” as long as you’ve a got a working Internet connection and a strong hook. Both of the ideas at the heart of this fight—corporate influence over think tanks, expanding Social Security—had been litigated for years, well before Warren got to the Senate. This time, a small number of progressives just took advantage of the media’s bias toward big personalities, and its obsession with presidential politics, to change what the media covered.
The progressives’ distaste for Third Way is as old as the organization itself. It was founded in 2005, after George W. Bush won an election that ended the careers of several red state “New Democrats.” The exiles built an “idea tank” that would provide advice on how to recapture the center. It issued reports with advice about how the Hispanic vote was slipping away from the blue team (oops!) and how “Democratic candidates for national office will be running uphill” as long as liberals were “the public face of the party.”
The online left was attacking Bush in its own way. The re-elected president stomped across swing states making the case for the partial privatization of Social Security. The “netroots” crowd responded with, among other things, a catchall website at ThereIsNoCrisis.com. Washington’s deathless pundit class, which never suffers for getting things wrong, warned that Democrats would suffer if they unreasonably refused to deal with Bush. Democrats gained in the polls, Bush dropped his plan, and the left was proven right, at least on strategy.
The online left built new organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, founded in 2009, and Progressives United, founded by Russ Feingold after he lost his Senate seat in the Tea Party wave. The movement, a confederacy of thirtysomethings, talked over listservs, at D.C. bars, at donor conferences hosted by groups like the Democracy Alliance. It built email lists and Twitter lists by demanding a public option in the Affordable Care Act and opposing the series of short-term austerity deals that came to define Washington in the Obama years. It almost always lost, and groups like Third Way—which warned Democrats against the public option, for example—always won.
“Who else is the insurance industry paying off?” wrote PCCC co-founder Adam Green in a 2009 Huffington Post blog entry. “Is it entirely coincidental that Third Way—which has no grassroots membership and is fully reliant on big donors—is going to bat for a proposal that would bring billions (trillions?) to the insurance industry? If Third Way is anything other than a corporate shill, with ideas that are for sale to the highest corporate bidder, they have an obligation to make transparent how much money they get from the insurance industry.”
Green’s jeremiad got little mainstream media pick-up. Neither did Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s 2012 legislation (also announced on Huffington Post) to expand Social Security. Harkin, who’s retiring in 2014, proposed lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, recalculating the cost of living, and increasing payments. He got the plan scored: It added 19 years of full payments to Social Security’s current schedule. Duncan Black, one of the first popular liberal bloggers, used a USA Today guest-columnist gig to endorse a similar plan. None of this made it into the soup of buzzy, acceptable policy ideas known as the “conversation.”