A couple of weeks ago, the slippery think tank Third Way came under fire from progressives when a memo surfaced under the group's letterhead arguing against the creation of a public health care plan. In place of a public plan, Third Way proposed a "hybrid" model attached to a ludicrous sunset provision of four years.
Not for the first time, the question was asked aloud: Who are these Third Way people, and why are they calling themselves "progressives"? Why does their goal appear to be to complicate the drive for public health insurance?
Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee captured the feelings of many when he organized a call campaign to urge Third Way to cease its attempts to retard momentum toward a public plan. Green also floated the idea of a campaign to de-fund and blacklist the organization.
But maybe that's going too far. Looked at another way, Third Way deserves more pity than anger. It seems the nebulous policy shop is constantly being misunderstood.
Last year, Chris Bowers of MyDD expressed confusion over why an organization billing itself as progressive would take as its name a term widely associated with the solidly centrist and market-oriented "New" politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. A Third Way staffer soon responded to clear the air. The name, he explained, refers not to the group's place on any left-right spectrum, or its desire to systematically steer Democrats toward a Clintonite center. Rather, the name refers to the group's chronological position in the history of progressive movements, which is best seen as a series of waves. See, the founders really meant to call themselves Third Wave, but somehow ended up with the loaded term Third Way, instead. A strange mistake for a group that touts its messaging expertise, but there it was.
Then there is the Third Way memo on health care. When progressive blogs and health care reform groups condemned the group for wading into the debate on the side of insurers, Third Way once again claimed a big misunderstanding.
A Third Way spokesperson told HuffPo's Ryan Grim that the memo was just a "draft," an early discharge of Third Way's evolving position on health care. No one should get the impression that the crisply argued memo, which was authored by three senior Third Way staffers, somehow represented the organization's fixed position. No, that would be silly.
How many drafts will Third Way go through before finalizing its position on a public plan? Whatever the number, the pro-business thrust of the group's thinking is unlikely to change. This thrust has been present and distinct since the group's creation. It is the reason no movement progressives take the outfit seriously. It is the reason the Democracy Alliance (a group of around 100 high-roller progressive donors who meet a couple of times a year and fund in concert to theoretically build progressive infrastructure) originally rejected the group's funding requests. As Matt Bai reported in his 2007 book, The Argument, "[Alliance partners] didn't have room for self-described centrists whose main goal was to appease Republicans." (The Democracy Alliance would later make Third Way one of its "chosen" organizations for funding on the subject of international security.)
Four years later, Third Way is still trying to appease Republicans and outflank the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But this impulse makes less sense today than ever. With Barack Obama in the White House and solid congressional majorities, the Democrats have a duty to be bold. Any "third way" is by definition an attempt to undermine the president. When it comes to throwing cold water on the public plan, it also means undermining a majority of the American people, not just those who lack health insurance.
Third Way was launched in early 2005 to produce policy papers and messaging tactics for congressional Democrats, with a focus on Blue Dog senators. It was then, as it is now, drenched in corporate money and tangled in ties to big business. These ties stretch from the board of trustees, thick with hedge-funders and investment bankers, to its lone senior fellow for health policy, David Kendall, a former Blue Cross Blue Shield consultant.
The recently leaked health care memo isn't the first time Third Way has drawn cold stares from the left during a major battle in Congress. In early 2008, it came to light that Third Way was counseling Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on how best to advocate for retroactive immunity for telecoms that had colluded with the government in warrantless spying. Among the Third Way trustees with pasts and presents in the telecom industry was Reynold Levy, a former AT&T executive.
"We thought it would be a bad idea to allow these companies to be held legally liable for cooperating with the government," Third Way Vice President Matt Bennett explained at the time of the telecom debate. Just to make sure everyone understood Third Way's position on civil liberties, he added: "You want to encourage the cooperation of not just the telecom industry, but all other industries in the future."
Going back to Third Way's prehistory, most senior staffers were also on the wrong side of the Iraq debate. Not that many Third Way principals seem to know much about national security, war, terrorism or the Middle East. The only name listed under Third Way's national security program is Scott Payne. Never heard of him? Neither has anyone else.
The staff page on the Third Way Web site provides lots of info about the outreach manager, but Payne's bio page is curiously blank. Leaving the Third Way site to hunt down more information won't get you much further: an online search for "Scott Payne" brings you to the Web site of a Chicago food photographer.