Jacob Heilbrunn

The Democratic Party's Civil War

Don't look now, but the GOP isn't the only party to be assailed by internal divisions. Democrats are facing a similar divide even if it isn't quite as heated as in the GOP. The division is between mainstream, establishment Democrats, who are close to Wall Street (Charles Schumer, the Clintons) and populist ones who are not (Elizabeth Warren).

The most telling evidence of a split among the ranks of Democrats comes in the form of a battle between members of the centrist Washington think-tank Third Way and progressive groups. Third Way has ignited what the Washington Post is calling an "ugly feud" by publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that attacked the new avatar of the left, Elizabeth Warren, and the idea of embracing economic populism. "Nothing," wrote Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler," would be more disastrous for Democrats." Their point is simple: the notion that Social Security and other entitlement programs can be expanded without harming the economy or exacerbating the national debt problem is bunkum.

They conclude,

On the same day that Bill de Blasio won in New York City, a referendum to raise taxes on high-income Coloradans to fund public education and universal pre-K failed in a landslide. This is the type of state that Democrats captured in 2008 to realign the national electoral map, and they did so through offering a vision of pragmatic progressive government, not fantasy-based blue-state populism. Before Democrats follow Sen. Warren and Mayor-elect de Blasio over the populist cliff, they should consider Colorado as the true 2013 Election Day harbinger of American liberalism.

Essentially, what the Thrid Way types represent is a continuation of the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) program, which reinvented the Democratic Party in the 1980s and helped to promote the careers of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Now there is clearly strong sentiment in the ranks of the Democratic party to return toward a more traditional conception of liberalism, based on the conviction that Barack Obama has been much too tepid and timorous in taking on the political right. Politically, this battle is playing out as a potential showdown between Hillary Clinton and Warren. Warren has issued a letter demanding that big financial institutions reveal their contributions to Third Way, the Post reports.

But are these ructions necessarily bad news for the Democrats? Not really. These disputations are part and parcel of a democracy. It can be healthy for parties to reexamine their principles and stands even if the process can be rather messy, analogous to Bismarck's remark about the process of producing legislation being akin to making sausages. It does reveal that the powerful discontent among Americans on either the left and right, whether it comes from Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, against corporations and Wall Street is not going away any time soon.

But the notion that discontent is a basis for governing is another matter. Just because these sentiments are passionately and genuinely held does not mean that they are practical or even beneficial economically or politically. The fact is that Third Way has performed a valuable service by calling out the Democratic left. Its criticisms of proposals to expand Social Security and Medicare benefits as half-baked are eminently sensible. There is no cogent reason that the Democratic party should allow itself to be dragged back into the morass it floundered around in during the 1980s before the DLC helped to resuscitate it. To their credit, Third Way's leaders show no sign of being cowed by the campaign of intimidation being waged against them by their detractors. Still, given the levels of hostility being displayed toward business, it won't be easy to overcome them. But if Cowan and Kessler succeed in mobilizing centrist Democrats, they can show that where there is a will there's a way.

Image: Flickr - Mdfriendofhillary.