BALTIMORE — The House Democrats gathered here for their annual policy retreat are scheduled to attend a session Wednesday on “Rumors, Truths and Reality.” Later, they’ll discuss “Fighting for Our Principles” with leaders of major activist groups. And then they’ll hear “Perspectives” from the vice president of Third Way, a prominent centrist think tank.
That last session, showcasing a wing of the party that dominated Democratic politics for much of the past two decades, would not typically gain much notice. But those days are over: Progressive groups are incensed that lawmakers will be hearing “perspectives” that they argue have been thoroughly discredited in the wake of last year’s election.
“For House Democrats to seek advice from a Wall Street-funded think tank that preaches timidity, that shows them learning the exactly wrong lesson in the Trump era,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “I think Democrats need to fight more strongly, with backbone, and not let Trump steal the mantle of economic populism.”
Jim Kessler, Third Way’s senior vice president for policy, is set to address the retreat Wednesday evening during a half-hour session where, according a senior Democrat familiar with his planned remarks, he will make the case that the Democratic Party needs to grow geographically, demographically and ideologically — not move decisively to the left — to regain power. That is a strain of thought that represented Democratic orthodoxy in the 1990s, when the business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council held sway.
But it has since fallen out of favor, especially among progressives who believe Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would have better captured voter anger toward the political establishment as the 2016 Democratic president nominee. And now, they say, Third Way’s politics are not what Democrats need to hear.
In their view, 2016 was a thorough rebuke of establishment-minded centrism and giving Third Way a platform to advocate for it is not a recipe for winning. And their angry response to centrism being given a platform at a party event reflects the hardball tactics they are using to shape the future of the Democratic Party.
“Basically you’re deciding we’re going to figure out our path forward with a bunch of losers,” said Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America, another activist group.
Erica Payne, founder of the Agenda Project, called it “illogical to the point of absurdity” to believe that Third Way could lead Democrats out of their electoral abyss and compared it to Republicans calling on former Florida governor and failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush for advice.
Third Way spokeswoman Ladan Ahmadi said in a statement that the group was “honored” to be invited to address House Democrats at their retreat. “The House Democratic Leadership has always valued hearing from a diversity of voices that make up the progressive movement and this year isn’t any different,” she said.
Democratic aides involved with the planning of the retreat noted that there are numerous other panels that feature progressive-minded speakers, including Center for American Progress chief executive Neera Tanden, political strategist Cornell Belcher, analyst Mark Huelsman from the liberal think tank Demos and numerous leaders from labor unions and leftist activist groups. “It’s our belief you have to hear from everyone to chart the best path going forward,” one of the staffers said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered a message of party unity at a news conference Wednesday: “At this conference, Democrats at the end will show our values are in harmony.”
Third Way, it should be noted, has hardly acted like Wall Street lobbyists or Trump accommodationists. During the presidential campaign, the group was strongly anti-Trump, and it has advocated for tougher financial regulations and higher taxes on the wealthy. In recent days, their social media accounts expressed opposition to Trump’s efforts to roll back the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.
What appears to be particularly vexing to the activists is that Kessler is getting a session to himself rather than sitting on a panel where his views might find a counterpoint. But more than that, progressives are taking the view that Third Way-style centrists have no place in the Democrats’ tent, period.
“It’s not a wing of the party anywhere outside of Washington, D.C.,” Green said. “There are not people in West Virginia and Ohio and Michigan rooting for Wall Street to get away with murder again.”
Chamberlain argued that it was “the Elizabeth Warren wing fighters” who won congressional races in 2016, citing the Senate campaigns of Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.). More centrist candidates like Patrick Murphy (Fla.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) lost.
“Everywhere we won, we won from the Warren wing,” he said. “And when we lost, we lost from the corporate wing. It is disgusting, it is a disappointment that the Democratic establishment is still wanting to hear from these Wall Street losers at their retreat.”
But there are significant counterpoints to that view: Russ Feingold, a beloved progressive former senator, lost his bid to reclaim his seat in Wisconsin to incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, as did unabashedly liberal Senate candidates such as Deborah Ross in North Carolina and Ted Strickland in Ohio. And in a closely watched House battle between an outspoken progressive and a moderate Republican, New York University law professor Zephyr Teachout lost her race for an Upstate New York House seat.
Green questioned why no progressive organizing groups were invited to address Democrats. He said his group asked for a role in the retreat after it learned Third Way would be represented but was told by organizers that it was too late.
“Their role is to paper over the lessons of the last election and urge Democrats not to be more robust in their critique of Wall Street and establishment power,” he said of Third Way. “That is not the lesson Democrats need to learn right now.”