After my post last week suggesting that Jon Cowan’s and Jim Kessler’s much-discussed Wall Street Journal op-ed dissing “populism” should not be accepted as some sort of unified manifesto for Democratic “centrists,” I’m less than thrilled that TNR today has not one but two pieces teeing off on the Third Way chieftains as champions of a whole wing of the Donkey Party. But while the pieces use Third Way as a convenient straw man, they do make some interesting points about politics and policy.

CAP president Neera Tanden makes the easy but important case that “populist” proposals are politically very popular, notwithstanding Third Way’s 1980s-era arguments that voters crave fiscal discipline above all. But here’s where the straw man notion of “centrism” becomes apparent:

Kessler and Cowan disingenuously term the serious policy ideas put forward by progressives as a “‘we can have it all’ fantasy.” But what’s lofty about a proposal to enable every child the opportunity to attend preschool when the plan would dramatically expand opportunity by boosting children’s lifetime earnings, reducing teen pregnancy rates, and lowering the chances of future arrest and incarceration? Making smart investments in early childhood education could not only generate more than $7 of economic benefits over a child’s lifetime for every dollar spent up front, but would also benefit our economy in the immediate term by providing parents with increased workplace flexibility. In pursuit of pragmatic, big ideas like universal pre-k, progressives are more than willing to talk about entitlement reforms that don’t hurt beneficiaries. In fact, the idea that every child should have access to high quality pre-k in return for enormous economic dividends is simply smart economics, not fantasy.

First of all, this misstates the Cowan-Kessler argument, which is that Democratic defense of maximum entitlement spending makes “investments” like universal pre-K impossible–not that they are utopian in themselves. And second of all, even if Third Way does think universal pre-K is impracticable right now, it happens to have been a major policy proposal for “centrist” presidential candidates Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 (not to mention Barack Obama–at least rhetorically–today). So promoting universal pre-k as a “populist” argument against “centrists” in the Democratic Party makes a complete hash of the actual choices facing Democrats past, present and future.

Noam Scheiber makes a somewhat different and argument: centrists tend to look to economic elites as partners in the process of reforming elite behavior, while “populists” tend to treat them as virtual enemies and look to an outraged public for support. Scheiber himself is ambivalent about the trade-offs involved in these “inside” and “outside” strategies, but reiterates Tanden’s point that “populist” politics please voters. In the end he proposes a sort of test:

When powerful economic interests are involved, the burden of proof should fall on self-interested elites rather than popular opinion, whereas Third Way proposes something akin to the opposite. That’s not a trivial difference. It’s the schism that’s increasingly defining the Democratic Party.

I’d say that kind of depends. If Obamacare works more or less as intended, and Dodd-Frank is actually implemented in a way that reflects its legislative intent, it will be less obvious than it seems to be today that an accomodationist approach to reforming big status quo systems is a bad idea or a leading indicator of corruption. If, on the other hand, both laws fail both substantively or politically, I don’t think there will be enough critics of “populism” left in the Democratic Party to fill even an op-ed column. It’s hard to define a “schism” on such shifting ground.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.