Political Animal

Blog

September 26, 2011 1:35 PM It’s called ‘The Democratic Party’

By Steve Benen

Every few weeks, a well-intentioned, high-profile pundit argues that what American politics really needs is a third party, one which will presumably tend to the needs of centrists and the American mainstream. And every few weeks, these pundits make the same mistake.

Today, it’s Matt Miller, a contributing editor here at the Washington Monthly, arguing that “neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things.”

As always in a democracy, better leadership starts with better followership. New groups such as Americans Elect and No Labels are showing the way, building the infrastructure and local networks for a new politics of problem-solving. But we’ll never mobilize the “far center” without an agenda around which people can rally. To move this ball forward, I’ve taken a crack at a policy-heavy version of the third-party stump speech we need, to suggest what it would sound like if an independent candidate called seriously for a “decade of renewal.”

Here’s that third-party stump speech Miller has in mind. I give him credit for being fairly specific — too often, third-party proponents don’t bother — and there’s plenty to like in Miller’s vision. This platform for the imaginary independent candidate includes noteworthy details, but the general sketch would include: bold spending on job creation, raising teacher salaries, responsible “hawkishness” on foreign policy, guaranteeing health care coverage for the uninsured, raising taxes (especially on the wealthy) as part of a larger tax reform initiative, reforming entitlement programs with their long-term fiscal stability in mind, and adding new layers of accountability for Wall Street.

This, Miller says, would be “different’ from Democrats and Republicans. He’s half-right — it’s “different” from what one of the major parties has in mind.

Look, I realize much of the American mainstream is inclined to throw up its arms in disgust, denounce both parties, and find the idea of a new alternative appealing. But pretending that the Democratic Party’s agenda and President Obama’s vision simply don’t exist isn’t helpful. There are structural, electoral, and procedural hurdles between what Dems want and what Dems can get, but the fact remains that nearly everything Miller wants to see from an independent candidate is already being offered by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Miller’s pieces seem to acknowledge this, but argue that the Democratic agenda needs to go even further down the road they’re already on. But as Greg Sargent explained very well, this is an overly-convenient dodge these pundits rely on too heavily.

Given this inconvenient overlap between the Democratic Party and the positions these commentators imagine for their fabled third party, they are constantly forced to find ways in which the Democratic Party has not gone far enough in adopting those positions…. But you can forever continue raising the bar in this fashion.

Indeed, even if you concede the existence of such failings on the part of Dems, it’s still fair to ask why these commentators are so reluctant to acknowledge the vast overlap that does exist between Dems and their imagined third party — and to explain why we need a third party despite that massive overlap. Let’s face it: At bottom, the calls for a third party are founded on a dodge — a refusal to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is far closer than the GOP to the fabled ideological middle that they themselves have defined as the space that only a third party can claim.

This becomes all the more frustrating when one considers the frequency with which it comes up.

Thomas Friedman recently presented a platform he believes is absent from the discourse, but neglected to mention that it was practically word-for-word the same platform Obama already supports. Inexplicably, Friedman did it again last week.

In June, David Brooks longed for some bold candidate to step up and present a “Hamiltonian/National Greatness” agenda, and then presented a wish list that might as well have been copy-and-pasted from an Obama speech. Also note, more than 100 business leaders have rallied behind Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s pledge to stop making campaign contributions unless policymakers adopt a series of economic measures, apparently unaware that the White House already wants all of those same measures.

Paul Krugman summarized the problem nicely: “I know that admitting that Barack Obama is already the candidate of centrists’ dreams would be awkward, would make it hard to adopt the stance that both sides are equally at fault. But that is the truth.”

Update: Milller took the time to put together a thoughtful and detailed response to the criticisms. I disagree with his conclusion, but it’s worth reading.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

Post a comment
  • Todd for VT House on September 26, 2011 1:44 PM:

    Truthiness has a centrist bias.

  • Burr Deming on September 26, 2011 1:49 PM:

    The balanced approach now seen as the primary journalistic ethic is often contrary to simple fact-checked truth. let the chips fall where they may, but make sure they fall precisely in the middle.

  • Ron Byers on September 26, 2011 1:53 PM:

    It is sad and deeply troubling that someone like Miller can articulate the Democratic agenda without realizing it is the Democratic agenda.

    Maybe if Democrats acted like Democrats at sometime other than election time? Ahh, I can dream can't I.

  • bleh on September 26, 2011 1:53 PM:

    Sadly, I think it's hardly "inexplicable."

    The point of these columns is not to inform; it is to entertain, and thereby to build a personal brand for oneself and attract contented and returning readers for one's publishers.

    Krugman has a day job, and his column is in some ways a happy extension of that. But for the majority of the windbags -- Friedman notable among them, and also Miller -- this sort of blather IS their day job, and their success has only the remotest relationship to "the truth."

  • c u n d gulag on September 26, 2011 1:55 PM:

    They want a 3rd Party candidate who's a solid centrist, eh?

    This reminds me of that Jimmy Buffett song -

    "Do you like Pina Colada's and getting caught in the rain...?"

    'It was my own lovin' President!'

  • Vince on September 26, 2011 1:58 PM:

    So, it's official then? The Democratic party is really the centrist party. Where do liberals go if we want to be represented? Oh, yeah, we should join the STFU party, keep quiet, and be happy and cheer and donate and volunteer etc. when center right legislation continues to get passed. By no means should liberals seek a party that actually pursues liberal policies.

  • T2 on September 26, 2011 2:07 PM:

    I think Krugman's right on. The Pundit Class cannot just come out and say the Republican Party is well on its way to ruining most of the important things in the nation.
    And they can't say the Democratic Party best represents the widest swath of the citizenry and their wants and needs. So they are left faulting both sides equally, just as they are today with the disaster relief/CR mess...wholly created by a small group of Republicans to partially gut meaningful programs for political gain. All I've read is that it is the Senate Democrats that are messing up this situation, when we know the truth.
    The problem is, we may know it, but many many of our fellow Americans don't....they are busy looking for jobs or going thru dumpsters.
    The bigger question is WHY does the Pundit Class feel constrained to keep this "Both sides do it" meme going? I think lots of us know the answer to that, also.

  • Daryl McCullough on September 26, 2011 2:07 PM:

    Burr Deming wrote:

    "The balanced approach now seen as the primary journalistic ethic is often contrary to simple fact-checked truth. let the chips fall where they may, but make sure they fall precisely in the middle."

    This dovetails into Benen's other article about Roger Ailes' notion of "balance" for Fox News. Mainstream "liberal" journalists adopt the position you describe: Democrats say one thing, Republicans say the opposite, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Conservative journalists DON'T. Well, I guess conservative journalists like David Brooks who works for a liberal newspaper sometimes do, but conservative journalists working for conservative outlets like Fox News or the Wall Street Journal NEVER adopt that position.

  • Stephen Stralka on September 26, 2011 2:11 PM:

    What gets me is how massively counterproductive this kind of thing is. I mean, assuming these guys actually do support these policies. But by pretending that both parties are equally useless, they of course make it easier for Republicans to win elections, which in turn makes it less likely that these policies will be enacted.

  • AMS on September 26, 2011 2:12 PM:

    The frustration with the Democratic Party is based more on its inability to deliver its agenda than on dissatisfaction with that agenda. Why can't they deliver? Republican obstructionism. How will a third party change that dynamic?

    There's a certain amount of fantasizing inherent in these calls for a third party. Why would officials of a third party be more successful at defeating Republican intransigence than elected Democrats are now? Moreover, if the platform outlined by Matt Miller were adopted by a third party, it would enhance Republicans' electoral chances by splitting likely Demoratic voters. Who will it attract? Independents who are now more inclined to vote Democrat than Republican. Are those independents who lean Republican going to support candidates who are for raising taxes on high incomes? I think not.

    These calls for a third party would make sense if the Democrats of 2011 were embracing full-throated liberal policies a la Paul Wellstone or Dennis Kucinich. They aren't. Far from it. If there is room for a third party on today's political spectrum, it's on the far left. The right and the center are already represented. As one who wants Democrats to win, I don't favor that--the 2000 election shows what can happen with a third party candidate from the left.

  • Achilles on September 26, 2011 2:13 PM:

    What Steve leaves out is the rather obvious conclusion:

    We need a third party that represents the left. Both parties are right-wing now. The Dems, center-right; the Republicans, far-right.

    One half of the political spectrum is without any representation.

    We need a leftist party, which would represent those of us who want egalitarian structures in place and a move away from capitalism as an economic system. Those of us who think we can not continue along our present path of environmental destruction, or live with record levels of wage and wealth inequalities, or inequalities in the education, health/longevity sectors.

    The "progressive caucus" of the Democratic party is the closest thing we have to representation, but they're still pro-capitalist, not egalitarian in their goals, and not effective in their limited range of issues. They're basically ignored with the Democratic Party itself.

    It's time for much stronger medicine.

    Creating a "centrist" party would just push this nation further to the right. Instead of that, we need to put some heavy weights down on the left side of the scale for a change.

    Yes, to a Third Party. But it needs to be a party that voices truly left-wing concerns, policy ideas, agendas, and works to implement them -- with or without the help of the Dems.

  • Josef K on September 26, 2011 2:22 PM:

    From Vince at 1:58pm:

    So, it's official then? The Democratic party is really the centrist party.

    And a 150 years ago it was the pro-slavery party, whereas the Republicans were the anti-slavery. Today the latter wants us all to be corporate drones, while the former is at least modestly pro-worker.

    Things change, political parties included. It comes down to whether you believe the existing party/parties can be pressured enough to reflect your values, or if you're convinced the whole system is too corrupted to be bothered with. If its the former, fight and keep fighting to make the leadership heed you.

    If its the latter, I've no solution beyond emigrating off-planet entirely.

  • Upper West on September 26, 2011 2:26 PM:

    The Third Party dreams of Friedman and Brooks (but not Miller) are in fact different from the Dems. Friedman and Brooks believe that massive "entitlement" cuts are needed, i.e., raising the retirement aid, medicare cuts, etc.

  • FlipYrWhig on September 26, 2011 2:33 PM:

    @ Achilles:

    One half of the political spectrum is without any representation.

    But how many adherents does that half of the "political spectrum" have? 10% of the voting-age population? Definitely not half.

    A Liberal Party always feels like a great thing -- until you realize that the Liberal Party would have to strike coalition agreements with the Democratic Centrist Party to get any portion of its agenda passed. And that's what we already have; it's called the Democratic party, and it disagrees on a lot of stuff and pushes things rightwards on the political spectrum. That would keep happening. So how is it a solution, and to what problem?

  • Dolbia on September 26, 2011 2:38 PM:

    I think Tom Tomorrow says it best.

    TMoU: Tell me, driver - do you sense a widespread though unarticulated yearning for a self-styled post-partisan leader who values compromise for the sake of compromise above all else?
    Cabbie: Uh, well - doesn't that describe the president we already have?
    TMoU: I'll just put you down as a yes.

  • DenverRight on September 26, 2011 2:41 PM:

    "...needs is a third party, one which will presumably tend to the needs of centrists and the American mainstream."

    When Benin uses Matt Miller (a contributing Editor to the Wash Monthly)and Paul Krugman to define the centrist view of politics, I KNOW I'm in for a laugh-fest.

    When we describe the middle of America, perhaps we should consult the polls. Rasmussen Reports on September 1 described the current partisan trends: "33.5% of Americans are Republicans, 33.5% Unaffiliated, 33.0% Democrats."

    Where would ANYONE get the idea that the CENTRISTS have firmly planted their flag in the ideas of the Democratic Party???

    (oh, that's right, Matt Miller and Paul Krugman. hahaha!)

  • mrgavel on September 26, 2011 2:46 PM:

    Regarding Thomas Friedman: The guy is married to a woman who is a heiress to a family that is one of the richest in America. Neither he nor his children will ever need social security, medicare, or medicaid. Nor will his children ever have to serve in the American military as long as we have a volunteer armed services. This means that Mr. Friedman will never have to live with the consequences of the policies that he so carelessly advocates. Why we listen to such blathering from the economic elite is beyond me.

  • jjm on September 26, 2011 3:01 PM:

    If newspapers actually published what is in the GOP budget the GOP would be toast.

    Instead all we get is reporting on their 'bon mots' -- their insane pronouncements, their belligerent attitudinizing, etc.

    Besides look what just happened in the UK. You had the 'other' more leftist party throwing its seats to the Conservatives, and playing a lapdog role to them, with only an occasional nip here and there.

    Let Democrats be Democrats, for pete's sake. Have they been given a chance? Clinton was clever, and he managed to withstand the GOP's insane fury, but he also did a lot of things that didn't help in the long run. Obama is better than Clinton at thinking for the long term, but guess what: he gets no credit for that.

    The media are in the tank for the GOP, I guess because they believe what that stock trader told the BBC this morning:

    "“What I would say to everybody is, get prepared. It’s not the time right now to, wishfully thinking the government’s going to sort things out. The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither does the big funds.”

    This guy went on to say:

    “Personally, I’ve been dreaming of this moment for three years. I have a confession, which is, I go to bed every night and I dream of another recession. I dream of another moment like this. Why? Because people don’t seem to really remember. The depression in the 30′s wasn’t just about a market crash. There were some people who were prepared to make money from that crash. I think anybody can do that.” http://www.rawstory.com/rawreplay/2011/09/stock-trader-europe-will-collapse-because-goldman-sachs-rules-the-world/

    People prepared to make money from the crash. That's what the GOP is hankering for. And it's time to call them on this. They are furious that Obama snatched the crash out from under them.

  • CDW on September 26, 2011 3:05 PM:

    With one or two exceptions, the "No Labels" founders are not pundits. They are former Clinton aides and I suspect they have a particular dislike for Obama, which has been exacerbated by the president's lack of leadership and which was the inspiration for their little centrist club. Otherwise, why would they not just speak out for Obama's policies. As you pointed out, Steve, Obama's proposals are almost identical to what Miller mentions.

  • SteveADor on September 26, 2011 3:15 PM:

    Matt Miller consistently shows himself to be an idiot; he is not someone who EVER brings value to a conversation.

  • RP on September 26, 2011 3:48 PM:

    Since so many people seem to like the democratic party's ideas but hate the party itself, I sometimes wonder if the party should just ditch its name and the donkey and rebrand itself as the "National" party or something.

  • doubtful on September 26, 2011 3:56 PM:

    Rasmussen Reports on September 1 described the current partisan trends: "33.5% of Americans are Republicans, 33.5% Unaffiliated, 33.0% Democrats."

    Where would ANYONE get the idea that the CENTRISTS have firmly planted their flag in the ideas of the Democratic Party??? -DenverRight

    And where did you get the idea that the unrelated poll data you cited proves they don't? Party identification and ideology are two different things, and you're making a false assumption when you think that unaffiliated means centrist and the parties represent right and left respectively.

  • square1 on September 26, 2011 3:58 PM:

    This is why it doesn't pay to pander to the Freidmans and Brookses of the political world. Their ideas suck. And when you implement their stupid ideas and they fail -- which they invariably will -- they will never accept responsibility. Centrism can never fail. It can only be failed.

  • Achilles on September 26, 2011 4:01 PM:

    FlipYrWhig,

    America changes consensus opinion over time. This is typically done through a combination of education, persuasion and observation. From the 30s through the early 70s, a majority of Americans ID'd as "liberal". Then it changed. Now, a minority does. A majority now ID's as "conservative". Though, when pollsters ask about specific issues, a majority of Americans generally side with "progressive" policy solutions.

    The reason a truly left-wing party is necessary is because left-wing solutions (which are fairer, more effective and more efficient) are not being pushed by either party. It doesn't matter if it's currently a minority view. The tea party, for instance, is a fraction of a minority, yet wields tremendous power right now. With the right media/message/narrative, the same is possible for leftists. But we need the chance to make our case.

    In reality, pretty much all political views are "minority" views. With the right organization, narrative, media and message, they gain power and can effect their vision. But the American people will never lend majority support to any one part of the political spectrum. Most Americans don't think in those terms. It's up to advocates of this or that idea, program or policy to convince, convert, etc.

    Currently, leftists are not even allowed a place at the table of American political conversation. They don't have access to the building. That needs to change. No one can truly say whether or not leftist ideas are popular until we get a fair chance to articulate them in public, on the big stage.

    A third party, a truly leftist third party, could start the process.

  • DenverRight on September 26, 2011 4:09 PM:

    RP@ 3.48: "Since so many people seem to like the democratic party's ideas but hate the party itself, I sometimes wonder if the party should just ditch its name and the donkey..."

    Now THERE's a capital idea. Hey, worked for Nissan! Who remebers Datsun?

    And I thought the Dems already officially lost the ass?

    Typical political analysis (from either side, really) - it isn't the message, it's the failure to connect and communicate! Just gotta get that ol' messsage out there more effectively!

    Right now, there is a pox on both houses. My personal opinion: the middle (independents) cannot stand the stink of EITHER party.

  • Achilles on September 26, 2011 4:14 PM:

    Another key reason for the existence of a real left party:

    It moves the center of debate to the left. Right now, there is no demand for radical changes coming from the left, so the powers that be can treat Democratic Party requests as the the furthest edge of the spectrum. They can and do effectively ignore the entire leftward part of the political spectrum. They don't have to fear demands beyond Democratic Party requests, which removes power from those requests. As in, when it's time to negotiate, the Democratic Party (tragically) is already representing the furthest we can go politically. That moves the center, the compromise, the negotiations to the right. And the GOP can move it further to the right by holding out even more extreme proposals made by tea party factions. That shifts the compromised, negotiated "center" to somewhere between the center-right Dems and the tea party.

    The Dems have no answer to that. They can't tell the GOP:

    "We're the best you're going to get. There is a ton of pressure from our left for something far more radical. Take it or leave it."

    IMO, the Democratic Party leadership wants it that way. They're actually center-right, so they're happy not to have any competition from their left flank. But there are a lot of rank and file Democrats who want them to move to the left. If we had a threat from their left, that would become a possibility. Without it, we'll remain mired in right-wing failures and disasters for decades.

  • Anonymous on September 26, 2011 4:19 PM:

    Doubtful @ 3.56: "And where did you get the idea that the unrelated poll data you cited proves they don't? Party identification and ideology are two different things, and you're making a false assumption when you think that unaffiliated means centrist and the parties represent right and left respectively."

    Hey Doubtful. I'm doubtful of your position. While it's true that parties can provide a broad umbrella for many diverse opinions, voters tend to coalesce at election time to one party platform (and candidate) or the other. Parties are distinguished by the issues. Even this Benin initiative is trying to slap the "Democrat Party" label on the centrist camp.

    And if you think the unaffiliated group is to the LEFT of both parties vying for power (Democrats in the middle!), I'd like some of whatever you're smokin'.

  • DenverRight on September 26, 2011 4:23 PM:

    Doubtful @ 3.56: "And where did you get the idea that the unrelated poll data you cited proves they don't? Party identification and ideology are two different things, and you're making a false assumption when you think that unaffiliated means centrist and the parties represent right and left respectively."

    Hey Doubtful. I'm doubtful of your position. While it's true that parties can provide a broad umbrella for many diverse opinions, voters tend to coalesce at election time to one party platform (and candidate) or the other. Parties are distinguished by the issues. Even this Benin initiative is trying to slap the "Democrat Party" label on the centrist camp.

    And if you think the unaffiliated group is to the LEFT of both parties vying for power (Democrats in the middle!), I'd like some of whatever you're smokin'.

  • doubtful on September 26, 2011 5:26 PM:

    And if you think the unaffiliated group is to the LEFT of both parties vying for power (Democrats in the middle!), I'd like some of whatever you're smokin'. -DenverRight

    I'll take this as an admission that you're making an assumption that isn't backed up by the facts you submitted into evidence, and that you're capitulating by taking a different tack.

    You're also putting words into my mouth, and making yet another illogical leap: that the unaffiliated group is contiguous.

    My theory is that self-identifiers in all three categories cover a large gamut of ideologies. If you don't think the unaffiliated group includes people on the left (such as Greens, Socialists, etc.) as well as people on the right and center, you're deluding only yourself.

  • Cha on September 26, 2011 5:27 PM:

    Tom Tomorrow acts like he doesn't know shit. He needs to drop the whiny wing talking points and get up to speed.

  • H-Bob on September 26, 2011 5:41 PM:

    Why does the "center" believe that there is support "for raising taxes (especially on the wealthy) as part of a larger tax reform initiative ?" Such a tax reform initiative already exists -- THE ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX, which is universally hated !

  • Neo on September 26, 2011 6:03 PM:

    May I suggest a name for Matt Miller's third party ..
    "The Magic Party"

  • TCinLA on September 27, 2011 1:03 AM:

    Thanks for reminding me about the other reason why I don't give the Washington Monthly a dime (the first reason is Captcha). That an obviously functionally-politically-illiterate moron like Matt Miller can find employment at the Washington Monthly is proof of how far up their asses your bosses have their heads.

    That the Washington Monthly is some major voice on the progressive side is proof of how sad our side is.

  • Njorl on September 27, 2011 10:31 AM:

    Vince,
    Liberals are actually stuck doing what you say. The political parties are not ever going to have policies that split the electorate in half. The Republicans are always going to have wealth on their side. The Republicans have the luxury of catering to significantly less than half the electorate. The Democrats have to hedge to the center to have any chance at all.

  •  
  •  
  •