Notes of political caution can be valuable, but caution is not a policy vision.

Centrist Democrats are bringing a knife to a gunfight.

The Democratic Party is on a progressive trajectory. It’s moved leftward on policies from health care (Medicare-for-all) to higher education (free college). In Congress, liberal bills are proliferating like kudzu. Party leaders are rolling out new ideas on tougher antitrust enforcement and plans to boost teacher pay and strengthen labor unions, and they voice increasing skepticism of immigration enforcement.

In response, moderates are also moving left, abandoning some of their most contentious ideas (no one openly talks about the need to cut entitlements anymore) and adopting essentially shrunken-down ideas that reflect fundamentally the same inclination to increase the scope of government economic activism rather than offering a truly distinct platform.

Third Way, the premier policy and advocacy organization for business-friendly Democrats, recently met in Columbus, Ohio, to “offer an attractive alternative to the rising Sanders-style populist left in the upcoming presidential race,” NBC News’s Alex Seitz-Wald reported from the event. Third Way president Jonathan Cowan was even more pointed in comments to New York magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti, saying, “the ideas primary starts now. So we’re actually doing this for a very straightforward reason: to stand up and launch a serious, compelling economic alternative to Sanderism.”

But judging by Third Way’s 12-point plan for the American economy, dubbed “A New Generation of Ideas: A Social Contract for the Digital Age,” there’s little evidence to suggest that they have ideas that are serious, compelling, or even an actual alternative to the ideas of the left.

Bernie Sanders as an individual person remains profoundly controversial in Democratic Party politics, but he’s only one of many political figures who spent the Obama years agitating for a more populist agenda (a few years ago, Elizabeth Warren was public enemy No. 1 at Third Way gatherings).

Going back to well before the 2016 primary, and with battle lines that were drawn somewhat differently than the Bernie-versus-establishment fight, a progressive faction in Congress fought against grand bargains on entitlements, for a public option in health care, for teacher-friendly education policies, stricter bank regulation, more skepticism of free trade deals, more enthusiasm about minimum wage hikes, and less focus on deficit reduction.

Disagreements continue, of course, but centrists’ latest effort to regroup and strike back against a resurgent left underscores the extent to which they are in practice beating a fighting retreat rather than playing to win.

Opportunity Democrats, not really explained

Third Way has dressed up its preference for small-bore policy initiatives as a disagreement about big ideas.

Cowan did a presentation in which he called for creating the brand “Opportunity Democrats” to describe his favored approach to politics, and Seitz-Wald reports that he showed “the results of focus groups and polling that it says shows Americans are more receptive to an economic message built on ‘opportunity’ rather than the left’s message about ‘inequality.’”

Those of us who’ve been through a political philosophy class or three know that the concept of equal opportunity is devilishly hard to pin down in a way that doesn’t become either trivial or grandiose. (Seriously, check the literature; this is a rare point on which Anarchy, State, and Utopia and A Theory of Justice agree.) And there’s an ongoing empirical debate in the economics profession about the extent to which inequities of outcome just mechanically produce inequalities in opportunity.

But for the purposes of political strategy, one can at least see a rough-and-ready view of the difference. A focus on income inequality should be very centered on money, specifically taking money from the haves and giving it to the have-nots. A focus on opportunity is more likely to care about services, and especially the services young people need to get ahead in life.

And you can think of at least some policy controversies in this light.

A standard objection to making college free for everyone, for example, is that most people who grow up in poor families don’t go to college. Those who do pay very little tuition. Instead, most college students are from families in the top half of the income distribution. Therefore, free college does little to nothing to address economy-wide income inequality, but it does make a powerful statement about opportunity — saying that higher education should be just as much a universal right in the 21st century as high school was in the 20th century.

But, of course, free college is the “left” position in the current political paradigm, not the center one. And the absolute biggest bone of intraparty contention right now — whether the country should transition to a single government-run health insurance program and if so how dramatically — has plainly nothing to do with the opportunity issue at all. In an email, Third Way’s senior vice president, Matt Bennett, explained to me that in his view, the key differentiator is an idea of earned success.

“Americans want to earn our way,” he says. “We are uniquely into that — it’s part of the American ethos.” He cites poll data showing that Americans are much more convinced about the central value of hard work than are Europeans.

This is true, and it explains a fair amount about the voting public’s relative resistance to high-tax, high-spending policies. But it doesn’t really track Third Way’s proposals in any clear way. They aren’t joining the furthest-left Democrats in endorsing a jobs guarantee. More to the point, they aren’t hopping on the bandwagon of favoring Medicaid work requirements or embracing Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s call to roll back child labor laws.

The obvious actual concern with both guaranteed free health care and guaranteed free higher education is that these are expensive propositions and not everyone will want to spend the money to pay for them.

Dressing up caution in the language of a grand clash of political theory is misleading, and it also serves to somewhat oddly cast Third Way’s own small-bore ideas in a toxic light to the left when sometimes a small-bore idea is exactly what an activist or politician is going to need.

Small ideas can be good

The top item on Third Way’s list is a proposal for an American Investment Bank, essentially an effort to make “substantially increase the size of federal small-business loan guarantees” sound more exciting.

This is not a huge deal in substantive terms, but as Third Way points out, it is true that venture capital investing is incredibly focused in a handful of cities, so talking about expanding access to credit in smaller communities is a useful way for a Democrat to show concern for people living outside the major metro areas and college towns that are the most stereotypically left. And there’s no particular reason for this to be a huge source of ideological controversy. Bernie Sanders, for example, has long represented Vermont in Congress and thus has for years pushed bills expanding federal small-business loan guarantees, and his campaign argued for a big expansion of federal small-business lending.

Unlike some of Sanders’s other ideas, this never really captured the imagination of even his own supporters and could probably benefit from some better branding à la the American Investment Bank.

And it’s easy to see why a small-bore idea like AIB might be appealing to politicians who aren’t ready to go in for an enormous new federal health insurance program. But there’s also no tension between this idea and Medicare-for-all. And basically the entire agenda is like this, full of ideas that are either unobjectionable from a left perspective (a federally subsidized program for senior citizens who want to do part-time public service work) or else already part of the left agenda (a big universal broadband initiative).

The biggest idea on Third Way’s agenda is Apprenticeship America, a plan to fund 100 new apprenticeship hubs across the country. I think there’s a real question about how much of the apprenticeship model can really be ripped out of the very different context of German labor relations and sent to America, but the merits of spending federal money on giving it a try is definitely not a point of left-center contention in the Democratic Party.

Back in October 2017, for example, Sanders gave a speech at Castleton University in Vermont talking about his vision for higher education and specifically calling out a role for apprenticeships:

It’s time to reduce the outrageously heavy burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates.

And let me be very clear: I am not just talking about 4-year universities and colleges. I am talking about community colleges. I am talking about vocational schools. I am talking about apprenticeships. We desperately need highly trained and highly skilled electricians, welders, plumbers, mechanics, pipefitters and health care workers of every kind. Each and every American must be able to get the education they need to match their skills and fulfill their dreams.”

I even found a clip from February on Vermont public television of Sanders holding a town hall about apprenticeships with Germany’s ambassador to the United States. There’s nothing wrong with members of a political party having a broad consensus about certain ideas (indeed, it’s hard to govern unless you do this), but it’s not much of a way to win an intraparty fight. And indeed, what’s most striking to veterans of intra-Democratic arguing is the extent to which Third Way has dropped the centrist ideas that the party left actually objected to.

The missing moderate agenda

One thing that a large minority of Democrats believe is that many American children are poorly served by K-12 schools that don’t make good use of the financial resources available to them in part because of ideas favored by teachers union leaders. This school of thought was embraced by the Obama administration as well as by various Democratic Party mayors and governors in the early 21st century, and had a lot of influence on public policy, but has gone into retreat in recent years. A big push to revive the education reform concept would be very controversial in Democratic Party circles and evince howls of fury from the left.

But Third Way isn’t proposing that.

Nor is it proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare or even a return to the Obama administration’s quest for a grand bargain. There’s also nothing on the list about trade deals, a subject that’s been divisive in the Democratic coalition for decades.

Now, it’s obviously not hard to understand why these subjects of contention have gone missing. After Donald Trump ran and won by adopting populist stances on trade and retirement programs, it’s very hard for centrist Democrats to credibly argue that abandoning populist stances on trade and retirement programs is the key to winning Middle America’s heart. And whatever the merits of education reform as a policy agenda in deep-blue areas with well-funded schools, red states where centrist Democrats are trying to win have suffered from massive cutbacks in school spending, and teacher pay and teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have proven to be a great issue for Democrats to piggyback on.

But if you went 10 years back in time and described a policy document that called for a bunch of new spending, no cuts to entitlements, no education reform, and no free trade deals, you would think you were describing the left flank of an intraparty Democratic argument. The spectrum of discussion has simply shifted a long way to the left, and the center is largely out of distinctive ideas.

Politics without enemies

The true distinctive theme of Third Way’s new agenda isn’t opportunity versus equality; it’s simply timidity.

Caution can be a virtue in politics. Even in solidly blue states like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland, voters have opted to install somewhat moderate Republican governors rather than run the risk of letting Democrats raise taxes on the middle class. In California, Democrats have durable majorities, but the state Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes — a supermajority Democrats seem set to lose after a state senator was recalled over his vote in favor of a gas tax increase.

In a practical sense, Medicare-for-all proponents have acknowledged the need for caution by simply not endorsing explicit financing mechanisms for their health care vision. At some point, obviously, that doesn’t work as a governing agenda, but the left has decided that’s a bridge to cross on another day.

But caution is not itself a political vision. And Third Way’s Social Compact for the 21st Century is a truly omnidirectional form of cautiousness that avoids taking on any sacred cows of the left but simply cuts progressive aspirations down to micro size.

The basic idea here is to propose a bunch of new spending programs but make all of them small so not much tax money is needed to fund them, while also avoiding any regulatory initiatives that would make any significant business groups angry. It’s a form of politics without enemies, where the goal isn’t to help as many people as possible but instead to help whom you can manage to help without making anyone too upset.

For the narrow purposes of giving temperamentally cautious politicians running in red districts something to say, it certainly fits the bill. But as a salvo in an ongoing war of ideas with a resurgent left, there’s not much to it. There is no distinctive idea here at all, just a conviction that if what the left wants to do is spend a lot of money to solve a wide range of really big social problems, the true desire of the centrist public is to spend smaller sums to address a narrower range of problems in a small way.

It’s part of the natural yin and yang of politics that some party members will be pushing harder and for more while others will clamor to settle for less, and that struggle will naturally continue to play out in primaries and other battles. But on the level of ideas, Third Way’s latest push essentially amounts to negotiating the terms of surrender.

Author: Matthew Yglesias
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