A few weeks ago, I debunked the spin out from CNBC that Sen. Mark Warner is being pressured by major Democratic donors to run for president in 2020 as a moderate counter to liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—according to my source, "he is indeed running" and has been pitching the idea since at least September of 2017. It's worth noting that CNBC did not name any of these big donors, and I suspect that's because they hail from the likes of centrist, establishment DC think tank Third Way, which has been burned in the past for launching broadsides against Warren.
Last week, in Columbus, Ohio, Warner headlined Third Way's "Opportunity 2020" conference; his organization of business friendly, "pro-growth progressives" called The NewDEAL was one of the sponsors of the event, along with real estate scion Winston Fisher. According to the agenda, Warner spoke about "Owning the Future," and was followed by Third Way's president, Jonathan Cowan, in a closing speech entitled "Opportunity 2020: What's Next."
Is Warner whom Third Way has in mind for what's next in 2020? The meeting sounds like it was the perfect vehicle for both testing Warner's messaging, and measuring his reception as a candidate amongst major establishment leaders and funders. (Per my source, the senator is currently "in the process of trying out messaging in general that positions him in the 'middle.'")
The purpose of the closed-door strategy session was to shape "a new social contract for the Digital Age," but it also served as a launch for Third Way's rebranding effort of centrists and moderates as "Opportunity Democrats," which sounds an awful lot like "Opportunist Democrats." Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the vice president of politics and policy at Third Way, told the LA Times:
We had to look at the baggage of our own brand and say, ‘is this the right way to brand us?’ People will still call us moderate Democrats. But a lot of people here would not call themselves that.… You don’t have to be a self-described moderate to believe there is a path other than the end of capitalism.
The end of capitalism? Really? Although Sen. Sanders is a Democratic socialist, he is not some raging Commie. He does not advocate for the government owning the means of production, nor does he call for the end of capitalism. What Sanders does is articulate a modern-day vision of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, one much more closely aligned with it than Warner's pro-corporate interest NewDEAL:
So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that; “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.
Many Third Way's policy positions include deregulating Wall Street, cutting Social Security benefits, and opposing a living wage.
Sanders and Warren fight for the economic rights of every American, through raising the minimum wage, expanding the social safety nets, and implementing universal healthcare and free college to name a few policies—all enjoying a majority of support in polling conducted over the last couple of years. The same cannot be said of many of Third Way's policy positions, which include deregulating Wall Street, cutting Social Security benefits, and opposing a living wage. Despite that evidence, Jonathan Cowan still harbors delusions of grandeur.
Cowan told TIME:
The party is not going to go in the direction of Sanders-style socialism, because it’s not winning on the issues and it doesn’t win politically except in a very, very limited number of places. It’s going to go in the direction that won it two presidencies — the last two, two-term Democratic presidents were mainstream Democrats—and what is going to get the House back.
Cowan somehow missed the over-arching theme of 2016: the system is rigged. Although his overt racism appealed to many people, Trump won, in part, with progressive economic messaging first articulated by Warren in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and later championed by Bernie Sanders in his presidential run. But how did Democrats get so far out in the wilderness in the first place if mainstream Democratic centrism was such a winning message? Because of disillusionment with mainstream Democratic President Barack Obama, who offered hope by the boatload and change by the bucket. Voters in 2016 were hungry for change, and sensed that mainstream Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would be more of the status quo.
Cowan acknowledged that “Democrats are in the deepest possible hole they’ve been in, in 100 years,” but he fails to understand the underlying causes for that electoral exile. Third Way can continue to do all the rebranding of pro-corporate, neoliberal policy that it wants, but as my mama likes to say, "You can't polish a turd."
DISCLOSURE: I work with Mike Lux, a close friend of Sen. Warren's and a participant in the 2013 fracas over Third Way's attacks on the senator.