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What Third Way Reveals About the Beltway | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

What Third Way Reveals About the Beltway

Washington DC

Traffic moves down Pennsylvania Avenue with the US Capitol building in the background in Washington. (Reuters)

My final Think Again column for a while is called “Is Obamacare the End of Liberalism? Not So Much.” I’ll be doing the column occasionally in the future but devoting myself primarily to larger projects in the future.

My latest Nation column is called “When Success Is Failure: Why It’s Hard to Make Sense of US Foreign Policy.” (On Perry Anderson's essay in New Left Review)

And here is the final, I sincerely hope, time I will ever have to write the word “Blumenthal”: Exchange over Eric and ‘Goliath’

Alter-reviews:
I’ve been looking at coffee table books this week and my favorite is Rock and Roll Stories a collection of photographs by Lynn Goldsmith. I have her earlier collection, which is quite good, but this one is just beautifully produced (by Abrams) on good strong paper with terrific reproductions of some incredible work. (The PR copy describes “Bruce Springsteen's passage to glory, the Rolling Stones' legendary stadium tours, Michael Jackson's staggering ascent, U2's arrival in New York, and the brooding force of Bob Marley.” But really, almost everyone is here and while occasionally posed, the photos are often remarkably personal and revealing—especially in the case of a certain ex-boyfriend. I can’t imagine anyone who likes the music of this period who would not love this book, and it’s awfully well priced for its size, quality and sturdiness. I own some of Lynn’s work and this made me wish I had more.

The record company is celebrating a big birthday with a lovely and solid coffee table book, “Verve: The Sound of America” published by Thames & Hudson and a four cd box set. The book has 1,200 illustrations and some decent essays. It has all the covers of the albums but is arranged according to a scheme I could not quite figure out. As for the box set, I’ve got the music on  mp3s but not the box itself. It’s pretty great stuff, of course, but it shows up on Itunes without identifying who the artist is, so that’s a real pain. The book is $75 but would make a great gift for anyone who likes jazz.

The same company, Thames & Hudson, has also published David Thomson’s book Moments That Made the Movies. The idea here is to focus on a series of moments in seventy-two films of particular significance and accompany them with wonderful stills representing those moments.Thomson has some crazy ideas—especially when it comes to politics--but this is a nice, fun book and he is smart even when he is wrong (except about politics, where he is not so smart). The moments include Eadweard Muybridge̓s pioneering photographs to sequences in films from the classic—Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, The Red Shoes—to the unexpected—The Piano Teacher, Burn After Reading.

I also got a box set called “Beatles Solo: The Illustrated Chronicles of John, Paul, George, and Ringo after the Beatle.” It’s four books covering the period after they broke up with a book devoted to each one. It’s a nice package, but the text, by Mojo’s Mat Snow is geared toward people who know nothing about the Beatles: which makes this an odd mix, since those people would probably want a Beatles book, not a box set about their solo years, but there it is. It’s published by Race Point Publishing and it’s pretty cheap, given the handsome (and solid) packaging.

Oh and last night I caught a performance by a young pianist with his (young) trio at the Jazz Gallery that may give me bragging rights someday. New Orleans born and bred Nick Sanders has been compared to Keith Jarrett by his mentor, the great Fred Hersh. Last night he played a series of original tunes (and one by Ornette Colman) that demonstrated both imagination and virtuosity, as well as some bravery. His first album, Nameless Neighbors, (Sunnyside) captures this potential and more than rewards repeated listening. He’s moved to Brooklyn and I expect he’ll be around long after most of us are gone, perhaps discovering his own Nick Sanders in the future.

Now here’s Reed:

What Third Way Reveals About the Beltway
by Reed Richardson
No organization showcases the contrived, corroded mindset of the permanent Washington establishment quite like Third Way does. A relic of a generation ago, when the Clinton White House was keen on shamefully co-opting conservative policies, the group’s centrism-for centrism’s-sake pose has not worn well. Now confronted with a radical House Republican caucus unwilling to accept anything short of unconditional political surrender, Democrats in Congress and the White House have (perhaps, finally) begun to seen the futility of pre-emptively abdicating workable liberal policy solutions in exchange for token bipartisanship. But despite Third Way’s increasing irrelevance on Capitol Hill, there still exists one powerful constituency in D.C. willing to push its commission-loving, entitlement-cutting message—the Beltway media.

Thus, when Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, Third Way’s president and senior vice president for policy, respectively, authored this Wall Street Journal op-ed ridiculing a perceived Democratic turn toward “liberal populism,” the grand poobahs of the Beltway establishment were quick to applaud. Just as Republicans are notorious for prescribing lower taxes as the salvation for every problem, Third Way’s reliable public policy mantra involves cutting benefits for Social Security,Medicare, and Medicaid. National Journal’s Ron Fournier, whose predictable endorsement of painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare is downright Pavlovian, characterized the op-ed as a thorough takedown of the “professional Left’s magical thinking.” Steve Forbes, erstwhile GOP presidential candidate and editor-in-chief of Wall Street-favorite Forbes magazine, approvingly cited the pair’s warnings against “economic populism.” And Mike Allen of Politico, whose D.C. insider status is surpassed only by his willingness to shill, summed up the op-ed as no less than a “game change” moment in the discourse.  

Funny thing is, Fournier, Forbes, and Allen didn’t seem to notice when Third Way wrote essentially the same op-ed for the Washington Post back in June. Or for Politico in May. Or, again, for Politico in February. Or when the group banged on the same entitlement-cutting drum in op-eds at Reuters, Huffington Post, and—nailing the superfecta—twice more for Politico last year. In fact, staffers from Third Way have been given nine separate op-ed platforms in various DC-centric publications during the past 16 months. If you’re really bored, you can find them all here. But don’t bother reading them all, because after you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much exhausted the depth of their analysis.

Of course, writing lots of opinion pieces is key tactic that think tanks use to impact the Washington policy debate and a consistency in messaging is an effective method to drive one’s point home. But Third Way’s incessant repetition of the same scare-mongering anecdotes is telling. And its catechism of the same handful of ponderous statistics has a vacuous, almost cult- like air about it.

For example, compare a paragraph from this week’s Journal op-ed…

“In the 1960s, the federal government spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements. Today, the ratio is flipped. In 10 years, we will spend $5 on the three major entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) for every $1 on public investments.”

…with Cowan and Kessler’s op-ed in Politico back in May:

“In the mid-1960s, the federal government spent three dollars on investments — in education, research, and infrastructure — for every one dollar on entitlements. In 2023,  it will spend one dollar on investments for every five dollars on entitlements. That means less money for teaching kids, curing diseases, and building roads.”

Peruse other Third Way op-eds and policy memos and you’ll soon see its obsession with this data point about entitlement and infrastructure ratios is endemic. What’s more, it’s deceptive.

What Third Way never points out is that entitlement spending in the mid-1960s would naturally be far lower than now because Medicare and Medicaid didn’t exist until 1965. Plus, cavalierly measuring spending between generations and across the budget in this way ignores the broad changes in the country’s social compact and how our national priorities have changed over time.

And the constant use of zero-sum framing strongly suggests a connection between the two, as if the only way to increase resources for one is at the expense of the other. (Hey, what’s this other exploding budget item here, something called “defense?”)

And lest you think, as most Americans do, that increasing the tax burden on the rich and corporations might be a fair way to strengthen entitlement funding, Third Way is here to disabuse you hippies of this “fantasy.” The group is especially not fond of the idea of lifting  the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, even though doing so would make up 79% of Social Security’s projected shortfall in one fell swoop and almost exclusively impact the wealthiest Americans. No, Third Way warns that such a move would “break the Social Security contract” and require a drastic step like raising the top marginal tax rate to—Heaven forfend!—50%. What the group never seems to point out, however, is that in 1983, the last time Social Security was projected as fully solvent for the next 75 years, the top marginal tax rate was…50%. 

Even the slight variations in Third Way’s rhetoric betray an intellectually narrow, one-size-fits-all approach. Usually these tweaks revolve around throwing elbows at liberals along the way. For example, in this week’s Journal op-ed, Cowan and Kessler almost effortlessly switch up their liberal boogeyman (and woman) from their Post version five months ago, to take aim a pair of unabashed liberal politicians. From the Journal:

“If you talk to leading progressives these days, you'll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.”

But five months ago, the trouble-makers who were sure to lead the country to ruin and the Democrats to electoral defeat came from another think tank:

“There is a rising chorus on the left, most recently articulated in an op-ed Monday by  Neera Tanden and Michael Linden [“Deficits are not destiny”] of the Center for American Progress, that our fiscal conversation should be declared over and plans for meaningful entitlement reforms mothballed. These voices argue that we can have substantial new spending on public investments, a secure safety net, no middle-class tax increase — all without addressing entitlement spending.”

After awhile, the mushy sameness of Third Way op-eds begins to resemble an overripe compost heap—mostly just a big lump of stale talking points with a bit of new rhetoric peeled off and dropped in occasionally. Compare February’s op-ed in Politico:

“The median lifetime Medicare taxes paid by new retirees in 2030 will be $180,000; while the median paid benefit will be a staggering $664,000. Vastly more elderly, combined with steadily larger retiree benefits, and relatively fewer taxpayers to fund them create an untenable budget situation unless addressed.”

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…to this week’s version, which merely adds a Warren twist and a throwaway demographic chaser:

“In 2030, a typical couple reaching the eligibility age of 65 will have paid $180,000 in lifetime Medicare taxes but will get back $664,000 in benefits. Given that this disparity will be completely unaffordable, Sen. Warren and her acolytes are irresponsibly pushing off budget decisions that will guarantee huge benefit cuts and further tax hikes for Gen Xers and Millennials in a few decades.”

Sometimes, different Third Way staffers don’t even bother to switch up the order of their hive-minded bullet points. For instance, Jim Kessler and Gabe Horwitz separately argued, in the days just before and after last year’s election, that Democrats should rush to cut entitlements now, because…Republicans will do it one day anyway, or something. From Politico last October…:

“Third, it is clear that something will need to be done at some point to fix entitlements and keep our spending levels within some reasonable limit. The only question is when. So we ask: Do we want to repair these programs under a president who cares deeply about the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable at a time when modest changes can achieve solvency? Or do we risk it by waiting for some future moment with a different president who may believe markets are sacrosanct, when solutions are necessarily draconian and& when Congress sees the best solution as privatization and vouchers?"

…and then from Reuters, two weeks later, also third on the list:

“Third, this is the best moment to deal with these pillars of the social safety net. Many on the left suggest we should wait to address Social Security and Medicare with a different president and Congress. Yet there’s nothing more risky for these two vital programs. Social Security and Medicare need fixing. The only question is whether it is done by a Democratic president and Senate who care deeply about these programs—or by future leaders who may envision privatization, vouchers or a pure benefits-cut solution to the problem.”

Don’t you see, dear voter, we Democrats care so deeply about your Social Security and Medicare benefits that we decided to cut them first. Nope, no way giving Republicans a talking point like that would ever backfire, no sirree. But in the chimerical, centrist world of the Beltway media, this kind of bone-headed thinking makes sense. Shared sacrifice, to the coddled DC press corps, means the poor, sick, and elderly need to give up more, even while Wall Street reaps record profits and its tax burden plunges to the lowest in decades.

But good luck hearing an honest assessment of how income inequality might impact entitlement policy from Third Way; its investment banker-packed board of trustees is almost a parody of Wall Street influence. To be fair, Third Way doesn’t pretend to offer much in the way of deeply-researched policy analysis. Right there on Third Way's “About Us” webpage it says:  

“Unlike traditional think tanks, we do not house scholars who work in silos on academic research. Instead, we are built around policy teams that create high-impact written products and innovative trainings to influence today’s debates.”

I gather “trainings” is a euphemism for lobbying now. And while I can’t explain why a British magazine felt compelled to name Third Way its “2013 North American Think Tank of the Year,” I’d just note that its commendation cited Third Way as “making a real impact on debate in the center ground of American politics.” A dubious compliment that's akin to being named the top-rated arborist in the Sahara desert.

So if Third Way really doesn’t offer much besides run-of-the-mill Republican-lite boilerplate,why does it merit any media oxygen in the first place? The question, essentially, answers itself—Third Way’s corporate-heavy, economic austerity agenda dovetails with the likes of the Beltway media’s “pain caucus.” That an ineffectual advocacy outfit like Third Way can still command a healthy pick of establishment op-ed perches is no coincidence. In its 2012 tracking study of think-tank citations, media watchdog FAIR found centrist and conservative groups overwhelmingly dominated. Only two center-left—and no progressive groups—cracked the top 10. (And true to its word, the academically lightweight Third Way didn’t even make the list.)

In the end, the media establishment’s warm embrace of centrism austerity is symptomatic of a broader disconnect within our democracy. While the rest of the country struggles to achieve fairness and equality, inside Washington things seem just fine. But a Third Way-Beltway mindset means that our social compact is not just threatened by Republicans intent on fortifying the few at the expense of the many, but by a D.C. conventional wisdom more than willing to enable them.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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Read Eric Alterman's most recent column on foreign policy.

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