Who are the Centrists?

Last week, when I was more than a bit distracted, a big brouhaha broke out over a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Jon Cowen and Jim Kessler of the Third Way organization. These gents penned an intemperately worded attack on Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio, and “economic populism” generally, while advancing deficit-hawky rhetoric about the need for “entitlement reform.”

As a veteran myself of centrist/populist battles over the years, I’m reasonably sure the Cowen-Kessler piece was intended as a provocation to a fight the authors very much wanted to have. Warren and de Blasio aren’t calling for any sort of intra-Democratic Party purge, and both are operating entirely within the zone of acceptable progressive opinion.
The op-ed’s wholesale condemnation of populism, and belligerence towards the New Deal programs–expressed, moreover, in the chief organ of finance capital–was sure to draw blood and then fire, which is exactly what happened.

But I would hope that progressives who are beating up on Third Way as the embodiment of Democratic “centrism” think twice. A better representation of the tone among genuine centrists is a brief symposium published yesterday by the Brookings Institution on what five wonks (Thomas Mann, Bill Galston, Elaine Kamarck, Molly Jackman and Michael O’Hanlon) typically associated with Democratic “moderates” thought should be in the impending budget deal. You don’t have to agree with all their suggestions–I certainly don’t–to acknowledge their tone of civil discussion rather than civil war.

So next time you read any “centrist” broadside or manifesto that seeks to foment a highly public battle over the direction of the Democratic Party, consider the motives of the authors and don’t cooperate in making them the exclusive spokespeople for large tendencies in progressive thinking, when all they may represent is an aching hunger for attention and new donors.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.