Key factions of the Democratic Party, which have largely been unified through some trying times in 2013, are now turning on each other.
Amid the botched rollout of ObamaCare and plummeting poll numbers, the simmering tensions within the party have intensified — and become very public.
A flashpoint came this week when Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal bashing Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple MORE (D-Mass.) and her allies for trying to lure the party over a “populist cliff.”
They took aim at her proposal to pay for an expansion of Social Security benefits by lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Such taxes do not apply to incomes above $113,700.
Liberals punched back by demanding that congressional Democrats affiliated with the think tank condemn the essay.
This back-and-forth represented a rare display of intraparty bickering, as much of the political media has focused on the GOP tug-of-war between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans.
Some contend the internecine fight on the left could continue into the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Democracy for America pounced on Rep. Allyson Schwartz, an honorary co-chairwoman at Third Way, who is vying with a crowded field to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Pennsylvania.
Warren stepped into the fray Wednesday by calling on Wall Street’s biggest firms to voluntarily disclose how much they give to think tanks, an indirect shot at Third Way.
“Shareholders have a right to know how corporate resources are spent, and, even more importantly, policymakers and the public should be aware of your contributions and evaluate the work of these think tanks accordingly,” she wrote in a letter to the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, a division of Bank of America, have donated to Third Way, according to SourceWatch.org, a website that tracks fundraising.
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, downplayed the criticism from liberal groups.
“Politics ain’t bean bag,” he said. “We’ve heard from them before. We believe we need to have real policy debates in the Democratic tank.
“We’re big believers in a big-tent party and vigorous debates,” he added.
Democrats have maintained impressive party cohesion since losing control of the House in 2010, but fissures have emerged in the wake of the error-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
A CNN/ORC poll from late November showed Republicans now have a slight advantage over Democrats on the generic ballot question among registered voters. Democrats had a sizeable lead after the government shutdown.
While vulnerable incumbents have proposed delaying penalties and suspending requirements for health plans, liberals have grumbled over what they see as a lack of cooperation from insurance companies.
Fraying party unity has complicated the prospects of a budget deal that would cut mandatory spending in exchange for mitigating the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
Obama reached out to his party’s base Wednesday by delivering an economic speech on income inequality, a favorite topics among liberals who want to see the minimum wage boosted to $10 an hour.
The president warned the American economy has become “profoundly unequal” and called economic mobility the “challenge of our time.”
Under pressure, Schwartz on Wednesday ripped the Third Way’s op-ed as “outrageous.”
“She absolutely disagrees with what was written. She thinks it was outrageous and has told Third Way that,” said Schwartz spokesman Mark Bergman. “She’s got a long record of standing up to protect Medicare and Social Security for seniors.”
She declined to step down from her post, however.
Schwartz has also received criticism from liberals recently by spearheading an effort to repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a key component of ObamaCare.
Third Way’s Senate co-chairmen, Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), declined or did not respond to requests to comment.
The same progressive groups that slammed Third Way recently called for a primary challenge against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton has not announced her plans, but she is widely expected to run.
Many liberals were angered by reports that Clinton had received an estimated $400,000 from Goldman Sachs, a top-flight investment firm, for two speeches.
“We want to make sure it’s very clear to Democrats on Capitol Hill that what Third Way is giving them is garbage political advice based on the interest of their Wall Street funders,” said Adam Green, PCCC’s co-founder.
Third Way has pressed Democrats in recent years to support a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would curb the costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and raise revenues by closing tax loopholes.
In their Wall Street Journal op-ed, Jon Cowan, the president of Third Way, and Jim Kessler, a senior vice president, wrote: “Sen. Warren wants to increase benefits to all seniors, including billionaires, and to pay for them by increasing taxes on working people and their employers.”
They estimated her approach would result in a $750 billion tax hike over the next 10 years.
“Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats,” they wrote of Warren’s argument for economic populism.
Warren on Wednesday reiterated that she does not plan to challenge Clinton in 2016.
Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal grassroots advocacy group, said the Third Way’s congressional co-chairmen “should all be questioning how much they want to be connected to a group obsessed with cutting Social Security benefits.”
“They’re going to be on the wrong side of history,” he said. “They are definitely on the wrong side of the American public.
“We’ve polled all over this country on expanding Social Security benefits,” he said.
Justin Sink contributed.