Left Hook

How a few liberal activists got the mainstream media to cover a “war” they made up. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens as Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee November 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Before we all forget about the latest spat between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the banks, before it’s downgraded to an anecdote in Game Change III: The Changeling, let’s reflect on how the media got dragged into it and covered the story on Warren’s terms.

Short version: Two honchos at the center-left think tank Third Way wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning that a proposal to expand Social Security was foolishness and “economic populism is a dead end for Democrats.” A clutch of progressives—or, if you prefer, economic populists—demanded that elected Democrats distance themselves from the op-ed. The senior senator from Massachusetts issued an open letter to bankers, asking them to disclose their donations to think tanks, and then told the Huffington Post that Third Way was “flatly wrong.” All of this, according to the New York Times, was “a sign of the left’s new aggressiveness.”

It was. For bonus points, it was a lesson in how easy it can be to draw the media, bankers, pundits, and activists into a “war,” as long as you’ve a got a working Internet connection and a strong hook. Both of the ideas at the heart of this fight—corporate influence over think tanks, expanding Social Security—had been litigated for years, well before Warren got to the Senate. This time, a small number of progressives just took advantage of the media’s bias toward big personalities, and its obsession with presidential politics, to change what the media covered.

The progressives’ distaste for Third Way is as old as the organization itself. It was founded in 2005, after George W. Bush won an election that ended the careers of several red state “New Democrats.” The exiles built an “idea tank” that would provide advice on how to recapture the center. It issued reports with advice about how the Hispanic vote was slipping away from the blue team (oops!) and how “Democratic candidates for national office will be running uphill” as long as liberals were “the public face of the party.”

The online left was attacking Bush in its own way. The re-elected president stomped across swing states making the case for the partial privatization of Social Security. The “netroots” crowd responded with, among other things, a catchall website at ThereIsNoCrisis.com. Washington’s deathless pundit class, which never suffers for getting things wrong, warned that Democrats would suffer if they unreasonably refused to deal with Bush. Democrats gained in the polls, Bush dropped his plan, and the left was proven right, at least on strategy.

The online left built new organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, founded in 2009, and Progressives United, founded by Russ Feingold after he lost his Senate seat in the Tea Party wave. The movement, a confederacy of thirtysomethings, talked over listservs, at D.C. bars, at donor conferences hosted by groups like the Democracy Alliance. It built email lists and Twitter lists by demanding a public option in the Affordable Care Act and opposing the series of short-term austerity deals that came to define Washington in the Obama years. It almost always lost, and groups like Third Way—which warned Democrats against the public option, for example—always won.

“Who else is the insurance industry paying off?” wrote PCCC co-founder Adam Green in a 2009 Huffington Post blog entry. “Is it entirely coincidental that Third Way—which has no grassroots membership and is fully reliant on big donors—is going to bat for a proposal that would bring billions (trillions?) to the insurance industry? If Third Way is anything other than a corporate shill, with ideas that are for sale to the highest corporate bidder, they have an obligation to make transparent how much money they get from the insurance industry.”

Green’s jeremiad got little mainstream media pick-up. Neither did Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s 2012 legislation (also announced on Huffington Post) to expand Social Security. Harkin, who’s retiring in 2014, proposed lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, recalculating the cost of living, and increasing payments. He got the plan scored: It added 19 years of full payments to Social Security’s current schedule. Duncan Black, one of the first popular liberal bloggers, used a USA Today guest-columnist gig to endorse a similar plan. None of this made it into the soup of buzzy, acceptable policy ideas known as the “conversation.”

Even the progressives, especially the PCCC, took some time to see the potential of the Harkin plan. “We were tired of playing on defense,” explains Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, who previously worked for the House Progressive Caucus. “Every time the Congress reached a fiscal crisis, you’d see the president caving on Social Security and proposing chained CPI.”

PCCC et al had been threatening primary challenges of Democrats who backed the president’s offer, but that didn’t get much coverage. Finally, on July 24 of this year, the PCCC, the DFA, and Social Security Works announced that Alaska Sen. Mark Begich—a red-state Democrat, up for re-election next year—had signed on to the Harkin plan.

“This petition and this weekend’s Ed Show appearance are the first steps,” wrote PCCC leaders on their email list. “Then come calls to Congress, local press conferences, and the release of poll numbers showing the popularity of this proposal.” The first polling, a Public Policy Polling survey in Kentucky, pegged support for the plan at 51 percent.

But there was no new traction for the plan, not outside the left. That started to change on Nov. 10, when the New Republic published a profile of Warren by Noam Scheiber, arguing that the left had found a message—and maybe messenger—as dangerous to the Clinton Restoration as Barack Obama had been in 2008. Among his data points: The aggressive promotion of Warren by groups like the PCCC, which fundraised for Warren in 2012 and printed stickers reading “I’m From the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.” One week later, to the surprise of Harkin’s staff, Warren went to the floor of the Senate to endorse the Social Security plan.

The left’s enemies responded as predictably as Godzilla swatting at Mothra. “Social Security proposals are wrongheaded,” editorialized the Washington Post. Warren was a latecomer to the idea, but she was in that sweet spot that had reporters paying attention to her and asking her repeatedly if she’d run for president. (She keeps saying that she won’t.) On the evening of Dec. 3, the Wall Street Journal published Third Way’s op-ed.

“That Social Security plan had been out there but really languishing,” column co-author Jim Kessler would later tell a radio host. “Because Sen. Warren has such a powerful compelling voice, she started talking about it, and it suddenly it became much more talked about and viable alternative.”

The op-ed circulated immediately on progressive listervs. Adam Green was asking any other progressive activists if they wanted in on a campaign to take Third Way apart. Mothra was swatting back.

“Just looking at the Third Way editorial, where it ran, who the audience was, it didn’t strike me as a policy argument,” says Progressives United spokesman (and former Feingold spokesman) Josh Orton. “It was a cultural attack. I mean, Warren didn’t even write the bill! It reminded me of what you hear from the bankers who say Obama is too mean to them. It could have been a fundraising letter to those bankers—who knows? Third Way has been a joke among progressives for years, but they didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”

Shortly before 10 a.m. on Dec. 4, the PCCC emailed its Pennsylvania list (they claim around 29,000 members in the state) with the latest on this anti-Warren outrage, and how it would affect them. “Third Way—a Wall Street-funded group that poses as a “progressive” think tank—blasted Warren and her bold economic agenda yesterday in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal,” wrote Green. “Rep. Allyson Schwartz is Honorary Co-Chair of this group that’s attacking Elizabeth Warren! Can you call Allyson Schwartz today and tell her to drop her affiliation with Third Way immediately?”

Why hit Schwartz, a congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs? One reason was that the PCCC had just met with John Hanger, a primary foe in Schwartz’s current race for governor. He was polling at 4 percent, but he was guaranteed to make this a litmus-test issue for Schwartz. Within hours, Schwartz’s campaign had told the Huffington Post that the op-ed was “outrageous.”

That advanced the story. So did Warren’s open letter to five banks asking them to disclose their donations to Washington think tanks. Politico gave anonymity to a “senior D.C. Republican,” who argued that the “normally savvy” senator had blown it, and that her “ ‘give me the names’ edict sounds uncomfortably like the kind of demand that Joe McCarthy would have made in the 1950s.” It was just the sort of stuck-pig squeal that Warren’s allies expect from the bankers and their defenders. They couldn’t have scripted it—but they sort of did script it.

The furor only lasted a few days, but the bile lingered. When I asked Third Way co-founder (and current VP for public affairs) Matt Bennett about the idea that the think tank was fishing for donors in the Wall Street Journal’s subscription list, he laughed.* “That’s ridiculous,” said Bennett. We had an op-ed in the New York Times two weeks ago and we had an op-ed in the Washington Post two months ago. There are only so many papers, and it just so happened that this wound up in the Wall Street Journal. The idea of the op-ed was really intended to create a stark choice for Democrats. Do we grapple with the entitlement crisis or not? It doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the finance sector. And by the way, we’ve taken very progressive views on financial reform. We’ve featured lectures by people like Paul Volcker and Sheila Bair who are not, shall we say, running dogs for the banks.”

But they are think tankers who give quotes to reporters about the danger of a left-wing Democratic Party. In 2012, Bennett even knocked Elizabeth Warren, and was hat-tipped by no less an admirer than Sen. Scott Brown. That was why the progressives shot at their knees. Third Way is, as think tanks go, somewhat transparent about who writes their checks. During the Warren contretemps, The Nation’s Lee Fang was able to source public records and prove that Third Way took money from corporate lobbyists and hedge fund managers. The progressives who want to mainstream a redistributive Social Security reform want, in the meantime, to discredit the people who may oppose it.

Third Way understands the game. When I asked Bennett whether his think tank was opposed to “economic populism,” he wondered whether that term was de facto positive. “It depends on how you view economic populism,” he said. “We didn’t view the president’s speech last week as populist, for example. He was talking about poverty—and that’s a Democratic point of view, what he said. We view populism the way we view right-wing populism. It’s a way to avoid making choices. Right-wing populists say that if we cut government down, everything will be better. The idea on the left is that if we can just expand entitlements, everything will be better and we don’t have to make choices. And we just don’t agree.”

Correction, Dec. 10, 2013: This article originally misidentified co-founder and vice president of public affairs for Third Way Matt Bennett as Michael Bennett. (Return.)