Jonathan Cowan, president and co-founder of the Democratic centrist group Third Way, is not beloved by all Democrats, including some of the party’s loudest voices. And he’s OK with that.
As some high-profile liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have emerged, and with Democrats vowing to hammer a populist, middle-class message leading up to the 2014 elections, Cowan and his group see their role as a counterweight, pushing the party to reckon with deficits and entitlements.
That push is the latest in a lengthy D.C. career for Cowan that has seen him start a number of advocacy groups with centrist tilts over 25 years while proclaiming his Democratic ideals.
“I believe very deeply in what Democrats stand for, progressive social change and economic growth, opportunity for the middle class,” he told The Hill in a recent interview, while pointing to a Robert Kennedy campaign poster hanging on the wall of his downtown Washington office.
“The entirety of my career and my personal passion has been how to modernize the Democratic Party and its ideas.”
Billing himself as a “public sector entrepreneur,” Cowan has helped build several centrist Democratic groups, tackling issues including the deficit and gun control.
That effort has made him a target at times, sometimes from within his own party. Most recently, liberals steamed at an op-ed Third Way published in The Wall Street Journal accusing Democrats of embracing a populist economic “fantasy.”
While some liberals challenge Third Way’s cause, Cowan sees the think tank, now entering its 10th year, as the latest step in a lengthy Washington career as both an insider and an outsider.
As a Capitol Hill staffer for Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) in the early 1990s, Cowan was looking for something new after the lawmaker lost a Senate primary.
He reached out to Ross Perot before his quixotic presidential run, telling the Texas billionaire he wanted to start an organization focused on the fiscal concerns of Generation X. The end result was the group Lead ... or Leave, devoted to encouraging young voters to push policymakers on the deficit.
The project lasted just three years but garnered significant media attention, registering 175,000 college students to vote along the way.
After that it was a stint in the Clinton administration, as Cowan worked his way up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, eventually becoming the chief of staff to then-Secretary Andrew Cuomo, now the governor of New York.
It was there Cowan says he honed his political outlook, taking cues from the man many believe could be a 2016 presidential contender.
“He’s a political genius and a substantive genius, a completely different kind of Democrat who believes you can’t just have a vision, you have to be able to execute it,” Cowan said of Cuomo. “He very much set the template for how I think about politics.”
At 32, Cowan served as one of the youngest chiefs of staff under Clinton, helping lead an agency squarely in Republican cross hairs. It was a big challenge and Cowan was young, facts that were not lost on his father.
“When I told him I got the job ... he said, ‘Wow, I’m really excited, but do you know how to do that?’ ” Cowan recalled. “I learned very quickly on the job.”
After a turn as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, it was back to Washington. He was tapped by Andrew McKelvey, the philanthropist and former head of the job-hunting site Monster.com, to establish Americans for Gun Safety, a centrist gun safety group.
That project eventually morphed into Third Way, as Cowan and co-founders sought to adopt their middle-ground approach on guns to other issues. The think tank has branched out to tackle fiscal matters, energy policy and social issues like gay marriage.
“We kept hearing from a lot of Democrats that if you could bring this kind of approach to a lot of other issues ... that would be great,” Cowan said.
What started out as a four-person staff has ballooned to about 40, with a roughly $8.5 million budget, according to Cowan.
At Third Way, Cowan continues to push a centrist Democratic message, which has sometimes put him at odds with influential voices in the party.
After Cowan and a co-author declared the economic populism favored by many of the biggest names on the left a “dead end” for Democrats in a December op-ed, a host of liberal groups blasted the organization as a “Wall Street front group” and called on lawmakers associated with it to cut ties.
Some of the 12 Democratic lawmakers listed as honorary co-chairmen of the group critiqued the piece, but none pulled their support for the organization.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of those 12, told The Hill he was “proud” to be tied to the group and called Cowan a “great leader.”
“Though I don’t always agree with Third Way’s specific policy proposals ... I believe it provides a critical voice within the big tent that is the Democratic Party,” he said.
Cowan said he was not surprised by the blowback and contended that such fiery rhetoric is part of a healthy debate that all political parties should seek.
“Frankly, what happened around our op-ed is barely a kerfuffle measured against the kind of very vigorous high-profile sustained debates that both parties have had,” he said.
Many members of Third Way’s board of trustees are either current or former financial executives, but Cowan dismisses the charge that the group is beholden to Wall Street. He points out that the group backed the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the Affordable Care Act and budget deals that hike taxes on the wealthy. Rather, his group says Democrats need to be open to more fiscal changes than just tax hikes to tackle long-term issues.
“We do in fact support increasing taxes on the 1 percent,” he said. “While necessary, it’s not remotely sufficient.”
And he maintained that those board members with ties to private equity firms and Goldman Sachs that make their own personal donations should be viewed outside of their professional role.
“That’s not the financial sector. Those are private philanthropists who give because they believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re proudly pro-growth and we believe that’s where the party should be, but we have intellectual integrity.”
Other Democratic groups, including the Center for American Progress (CAP), took issue with Third Way’s argument that economic populism was a policy and political loser.
CAP President Neera Tanden wrote in The New Republic that the harms of economic inequality are “a theory at the core of the Democratic Party, adhered to by both recent and long past Presidents.”
Top elected Democrats like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have indicated populist issues targeting inequality, such as raising the minimum wage, will be a priority for Democrats during the 2014 midterm campaign.
With the near-term deficit falling, Democrats look to be putting deficit matters on the back burner — at least through the midterm elections. But Cowan contends the centrist message will continue to serve as a needed voice, as long-term fiscal challenges remain and voters will eventually tire of the increasingly partisan tone of Washington.
“Both parties are going to have to find a way to govern from the center,” he said.
“What are Democrats going to do to hold true to our values but fundamentally rethink our ideas and modernize them for a whole new era?” he asked.