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March 21, 2014 1:07 PM Kos and Third Way’s “Big Tent” Tussle

By Ed Kilgore

Like a lot of intraparty political disputes, the protest filed by Third Way senior veeps Matt Bennett and Jim Kessler at Politico Magazine against Markos Moulitsas’ alleged effort to “fold up” the “big tent” of a Democratic Party is largely based on what might be charitably called a misunderstanding.

The fiery Big Orange Satan founder did a post the other day observing and celebrating the more progressive cast of Democratic Senators today as opposed to a decade ago. In passing he observed that he thought Mark Pryor would lose this year, and that Mary Landrieu might lose as well. He didn’t celebrate the replacement of either Democrat by a Republican, but generally suggested that for progressives a similar partisan balance in the Senate accompanied by a significantly more leftbent Democratic Caucus was a sign of progress since 2004.

Bennett and Kessler viewed this (from Kos’ perspective) reasonable assessment as a declaration of war on the idea of a “Big Tent” Democratic Party that could win seats in red states.

If we are to make progress in a divided Washington—and if we are to protect the Democratic Senate majority—we simply must embrace a big tent for the Democratic Party. Even in purple states, there are not enough self-identified liberals to elect Democrats without their winning significant pluralities or majorities of moderates. The idea that more liberal candidates could win in places like Arkansas, Indiana or Alaska is pure fantasy. And to write off those states would consign Democrats to long-term congressional minority status.

I didn’t see where Markos said “more liberal candidates” could win in places like Arkansas, Indiana or Alaska, or that such states should be written off. He simply said that for purposes of achieving progressive policy objectives, both partisanship and ideology are factors.

Now playing off the Third Way protest, Hullabaloo’s David Atkins goes where Markos didn’t quite go, and argues that the kind of “economic populism” Third Way tends to dislike is exactly the kind of political message that can work in red states.

Attacking Wall Street…is excellent politics in conservative districts. Hammering against unrestricted bailouts and cocaine-freebasing, prostitute-expensing billionaire vulture capitalists in Manhattan makes for a compelling argument in rural Missouri. Taking broadsides against outsourcing, Cayman Islands tax havens and corporate welfare queens is a superb strategy in suburban Colorado. It was Democrats who ran on these and similar campaign themes who won against the odds in 2012. Most Americans, including in conservative districts, are strongly in favor of reducing income inequality, raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits.

Atkins seems to have in mind the 2012 Senate winners Heidi Heitkamp, Martin Henriech, and Jon Tester, who are not from Arkansas, Indiana or Alaska (I’m guessing he’s not a big fan of Indiana’s Sen Joe Donnelly). I don’t know if progressives would generally agree that, say, the support of Heitkamp and Tester for the Keystone XL pipeline is entirely consistent with an “economic populist” position of brave opposition to the corporate Man. And for that matter, Third Way supports both a minimum wage increase and extended unemployment benefits. So some of his argument seems a bit off. But he’s right that Third Way totems like free trade tend to be very unpopular in southern and midwestern red states.

But if “economic populism” is such a big potential winner for red state Democrats, why isn’t it deployed more often, particularly in the South (Lord knows Louisiana has a tradition of this kind of politics)? Is it a corporate conspiracy? Would Mary Landrieu really foreswear any winning message that might save her seat? Would Kay Hagan?

Truth is, progressive disgruntlement with “conservadems” is as often about disagreement over cultural issues as it is about economics, so there’s nothing inherently progressive about elevating one set of issues over another, as Atkins seems to do. And so long as the U.S. Senate is set up as it is, with its anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) tilt and internal rules, it’s inevitable that Democrats will need a broader coalition than Republicans to gain and hold a working majority.

So the Third Way folk are right about the need for a Big Tent, and wrong about accusing Markos of trying to “fold” it. And Atkins is right that a simple “move to the center” strategy for red state Democrats could foreclose successful messages, but perhaps wrong in suggesting “economic populism” is either a cure-all or a general point of fracture in the party (associating Third Way’s investment-banker-heavy board of directors with the views of Democratic “centrists” generally—or in some cases with Third Way’s own positions—isn’t really fair or accurate).

In the end I mainly want to defend Markos’ sorting out of what goes in to an assessment of political “progress:” it involves both policy goals and the political assets necessary to achieve them. So yeah, from his POV there’s no particular reason to regret the departure from the Senate of Democrats who don’t share a lot of his key policy goals, so long as Democrats are able to hang onto a majority. If they don’t, I suspect he’ll be as willing—if not as happy—as anyone to keep the Big Tent wide open.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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