As Democrats continue to stagger from last week's election losses, a group of veteran political and policy operatives has started an advocacy group aimed at using moderate Senate Democrats as the front line in a campaign to give the party a more centrist profile.
Third Way is the latest in a series of organizations aimed at rescuing Democrats from the perception that they have lost touch with middle-class voters, particularly in the heartland states that voted overwhelmingly for President Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry.
The group, which has enlisted the support of several senators from Bush-backing "red states," hopes to rebut the notion that Democrats represent an outdated brand of liberalism by producing new policy proposals designed to create a "moderate majority," said Matt Bennett, Third Way's communications director.
"It's one thing to publish op-eds -- that's important," Bennett said, "but to really reach voters, we need to have concrete legislative proposals on the table. Post-election, it's clear that progressive centrists must have a response equal in scale and scope to the tectonic changes that Bush is proposing."
The group, which has been in the planning stages for months and will make its public debut early next year with the unveiling of a legislative agenda, is holding a high-powered skull session over dinner at a Georgetown mansion tonight.
Nancy Jacobson, the wife of Democratic pollster Mark Penn and a Democratic fundraiser, is playing host to the group, which includes several former senior aides in the Clinton White House. Among them are former communications director Don Baer, policy adviser William Galston and Ron Klain, who worked in the counsel's office in addition to serving as chief of staff to former vice president Al Gore.
"The answer to the ideological extremes of the right has to be more than rigid dogma from the left," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), whose state gave 60 percent of its votes to Bush, and who will be at tonight's strategy session.
Third Way is the idea of three political entrepreneurs who in recent years have fashioned a career out of trying to make Democrats more competitive on issues that have been historical vulnerabilities. The founders -- President Jonathan Cowan, Policy Director Jim Kessler and Bennett -- are all veterans of Americans for Gun Safety, which sought to craft centrist gun-control proposals while emphasizing support for some gun-owners rights. While in his twenties, Cowan, now 39, was a founder of "Lead . . . or Leave," which advocated generational fairness and reform of entitlement programs.
In some ways, the new group joins a crowd of like-minded organizations. The best known, the Democratic Leadership Council, was formed after Ronald Reagan's rout of Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale in 1984. That group has since spawned a think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, and spun off a political advocacy group, the New Democrat Network.
Bennett said the new group -- funded, like the others with a mix of donations from individuals and corporate contributions -- will have its niche. The DLC and PPI are aimed at promoting centrist Democratic ideas broadly, through conferences and publications. NDN seeks to influence elections through advertising. Third Way, as its co-founders envision it, will focus on legislative advocacy.
The notion of having Third Way oriented around the Senate was not incidental to its philosophy. Third Way supporters say the House is too partisan and less conducive to the more consensus-oriented brand of politics that the group believes offers the best hope for leading Democrats -- now shut out from power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- out of the electoral wilderness.
"It's hard to be a centrist in the House these days," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who said that gerrymandering of districts and ideological competition within the parties has left that chamber more polarized. "In many ways, to be elected as a Republican, you've got to be hard-right," while many Democrats face pressure to position themselves "well left of center."
Senators, by this reasoning, run statewide and have more incentive to find a middle ground on issues and political style.
The prescription of Third Way -- whose name derives from the idea that there should be an alternative to conservative and liberal orthodoxies -- is by no means free of controversy. Some Democrats believe that Bush, who organized his administration and reelection by keeping his conservative base loyal and energized, showed that softening ideological edges or seeking common ground with opponents is not a winning strategy.
But Bayh, regarded by some in Washington as a possible 2008 presidential candidate, said last week's exit polls showed there are more self-described conservatives, 34 percent, than self-described liberals, 21 percent, while 45 percent described themselves as moderate.
"Do the math," Bayh said.
Among Third Way's programs will be a "New South" project, aimed at crafting policies and political strategies for cultural and values issues that have played against Democrats in that region in recent decades. The project will be led by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a vice chairman.
Third Way will also conduct a national security retreat and craft policy initiatives on health care, taxes, tort reform and Social Security reform -- all identified by Bush as key items on his second-term agenda.
The group plans polling to help Democrats find more effective political language to advertise their policies, similar to the way Republicans embraced the phrase "death tax" to describe the estate tax.
"You can't create policy around message," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), another co-chairman. "But there is something important about finding the right message when you create policy."