By Kevin Cirilli - 03/02/15 06:00 AM EST
Centrist Democrats are gathering their forces to fight back against the “Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSanders warns Clinton: Don't rush to compromise with GOP The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? Graham: GOP Senate could rein in Clinton White House MORE wing” of their party, fearing a sharp turn to the left could prove disastrous in the 2016 elections.
For months, moderate Democrats have kept silent, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) barbed attacks against Wall Street, income inequality and the “rigged economy” thrilled the base and stirred desire for a more populist approach.
But with the race for the White House set to begin, centrists are moving to seize back the agenda.
The New Democrat Coalition (NDC), a caucus of moderate Democrats in the House, plans to unveil an economic policy platform as soon as this week in an attempt to chart a different course.
"I have great respect for Sen. Warren — she's a tremendous leader,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), one of the members working on the policy proposal. “My own preference is to create a message without bashing businesses or workers, [the latter of which] happens on the other side."
Peters said that, if Democrats are going to win back the House and Senate, "it's going to be through the work of the New Democrat Coalition."
"To the extent that Republicans beat up on workers and Democrats beat up on employers — I'm not sure that offers voters much of a vision," Peters said.
Warren’s rapid ascent has highlighted growing tensions in the Democratic Party about its identity in the post-Obama era.
Caught in the crossfire is the party’s likely nominee in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Trump up 23 on Clinton in Ark. Mosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict McCarthy: 'No doubt' House GOP backs Trump MORE, whose husband took the party in a decisively centrist direction during his eight years in office.
Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonMosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict Making peace with the idea of voting for Clinton ObamaCare hikes leave Dems exposed MORE’s rise within the party had been aided by groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council, which believed that previous presidential nominees including Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had run on platforms that were too far to the left, resulting in crushing defeats.
But the tensions from those long-ago fights are now tangible again. Progressives distrust Hillary Clinton and are pushing Warren to challenge her from the left in the presidential election, though Warren has repeatedly rebuffed their pleas.
Warren spokeswoman Lacey Rose said in a statement to The Hill that “Warren is a relentless fighter for priorities that will help level the playing field for middle-class families.”
Publicly, Democratic lawmakers are hesitant to discuss a growing rift.
"There's no need to get me in trouble," the lawmaker said, laughing. "I don't need an angry phone call from Bill Clinton."
Privately, moderate Democrats in the Clinton tradition say they have been working behind the scenes to change the party's message.
Leaders at three centrist groups — the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the New Democrat Network (NDN) and Third Way — arranged a series of meetings with moderates after the disastrous midterm elections to "discuss the future of the party," according to a source close to the NDC.
“Democrats ought to avoid the danger of talking about only redistribution and not enough about economic growth,” said PPI President and founder Will Marshall, who addressed House Democrats during their Philadelphia retreat in January. “Economic growth is a precondition to reducing inequality. You can't redistribute wealth that you're not generating.
“There's a lot of sympathy for that view in the pragmatic-wing of the party,” he added.
Gabe Horwitz, director of Third Way’s economic program, said moderates have been arguing the case for rebranding the Democratic Party around “the middle class and middle-class prosperity.”
“In the last election, Democrats, as a party, offered a message of fairness. Voters responded, and they responded really negatively,” Horwitz said. “Democrats offered fairness, and voters wanted prosperity and growth.”
The policy proposal from The New Democrat Coalition will serve as a rejoinder to the progressive agenda unveiled last week by Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). A Facebook video of Warren discussing the plan has already generated more than 1 million views.
Cummings said progressive Democrats have “got to do a better job of informing not only our own members, but the people who sent them" about disparities in the economy. He said Warren plays a "major role" in shaping that message.
"She acts as a person who has earned the trust of the American people, and I think that more and more, you're going to hear people listening to her," Cummings said.
Even before Warren’s election to the Senate in 2012, the Democratic Party appeared to be moving in a more liberal direction.
President Obama’s victory over Clinton in the 2008 race was the harbinger of a broader shift, with the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate now further to the left than in at least a generation.
One sign of the shift is the decline of the Blue Dog Coalition, a once-sizable bloc of conservative Democrats that is nearly extinct. More than two-dozen of its members were ousted from office in 2010.
Sen. Tom CarperTom CarperYahoo hack spurs push for legislation Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Overnight Healthcare: McConnell unveils new Zika package | Manchin defends daughter on EpiPens | Bill includes M for opioid crisis MORE (D-Del.), who is viewed as a centrist, said the centrist strain of politician is declining and estimated that "there's fewer than 100" left in Congress.
"We need more moderates and centrists in both parties," Carper said. "Part of politics is the art of compromise."
The fight over the future of the Democratic Party poses a real test for Clinton, who will need to keep the factions from breaking apart should she mount her expected run for the White House.
Democracy For America founder Howard Dean, who has backed Clinton for president, said Warren is “right on policy, but the rhetoric needs to be toned down.”
“Our program cannot be soak the rich — that's a mistake and alienates middle class people. But on substance, the Warren wing is correct,” said Dean.
“The rhetoric about wealth creation needs to be scaled back because Americans like wealth creation,” he added. “The level playing field argument wins it for us. The reason you do not want to talk about ‘tax the rich’ is because when middle class people hear it, they hear ‘they're going to raise our taxes.’ Democrats can't do that.”
Warren has insisted she's not running in 2016, and sources close to the senator strongly dispute that she’s left the door open to a run.
But she has done little to silence her supporters' criticism of moderate Democrats.
During a public appearance in Springfield, Mass., in February, she said her supporters were trying to draft her for president because they're "ready to fight back."
In an appearance on MSNBC's "Politics Nation" less than a week later, Warren said voters would have to "wait and see" whether Clinton is a progressive warrior.
“I want to hear what she wants to run on and what she says she wants to do — that's what campaigns are supposed to be about,” she said.