Could the wing of the Democratic Party responsible for Bill Clinton's success be on the brink of a comeback?
Moderate Democrats believe the "fiscal cliff" negotiations are their opportunity to set the country on the right economic course.
As President Obama and Congressional leaders privately begin talks, House Democratic moderates are prepared to negotiate and achieve a "grand bargain." They've chosen eight-term Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI), a 49-year-old former Harvard quarterback, as their new leader. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, viewed as an ally to House moderates and their bridge to the more liberal leadership, is supportive of Kind's elevation and hinted that Kind and the moderates will be influential.
"Under his leadership, the [New Democratic] Coalition will play an important role in breaking gridlock and building consensus around a balanced, comprehensive plan to address the deficit and grow jobs," Hoyer said.
When the 2010 midterms eviscerated the once powerful fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, the business-friendly centrist New Democrats gained influenced. The Coalition now has 51 members and is likely to grow as recounts are finalized. It's the largest group of moderates going into the 113th Congress, making it an alliance whose endorsement will matter in any policy fight --- starting with the looming fiscal cliff.
"The New Dems are chomping at the bit to do a big deal that is right for the country," said John Michael Gonzalez, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the New Dem Coalition. "Ron is the perfect leader for this moment and has the respect of his colleagues both in the New Dem Coalition and in the House Leadership and the White House," he said.
The Coalition represents more than one-fourth of the Democratic Caucus. "That usually gives you a good seat at the table," Gonzalez said. "But just as important, Kind has excellent legislative skills which matters because he knows what his members need and how far they are willing to go," he said.
The diciest part of any deal will probably involve the negotiations over entitlement reform. Progressives are nervous that Obama and centrist Democrats may agree to a “grand bargain” that includes cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Alex Seitz-Wald reported in Salon.com last week that "progressive activists are now preparing to turn the firepower they marshaled to reelect the president against him if he looks like he's backing down on his mandate, as they see it, to preserve the social safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy." According to Seitz-Wald, Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, "said his group would 'absolutely' mobilize against the president, including running TV ads, if it looks like he's going to cut a bad deal."
But the wishes of progressive interest groups and the coalition of support amassed by Obama in his re-election may be at odds. There's a sense that the American people won't tolerate any more gridlock and quarreling, especially within Obama's own party."The president was as plain as could be that he wanted a balanced plan that included entitlements," said Jim Kessler, president of Third Way, the centrist think tank that works closely with New Dems in the House and moderates in the Senate. "He mentioned it in three debates and about $200 million in ads--but some progressive groups are trying to pretend that didn’t happen," Kessler said.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said over the weekend that she's hopeful Congress can come to a deal to avoid a year-end deficit showdown, but warned that any agreement has to include tax rate increases for the wealthy. She has also signaled her intent to shield entitlement programs from any cuts despite Obama's willingness to keep all options on the table.
"We spent 100 years seeking to construct and perfect the safety net," Kessler said. "With the passage of Obamacare, that task is now complete but the challenge going forward is affording it and there are few in Washington who seriously believe that any of the major entitlement programs are on firm footing."
Strategy will play a big role in the next few weeks and while grassroots activists on the left insist Obama should stand his ground, the moderates in Congress are more concerned with reforming entitlements while they have the clout to do so.
"The question is, do we fix these vital programs today with a Democratic president and Senate or wait for some future date for a president and Congress who may not share our values," said Kessler.
This is where Ron Kind's skills will be needed. He's considered a quintessential pro-growth progressive who knows when to use manners or muscle when bargaining with the broader caucus. "Congressman Kind will be able to bring not only votes to the table but a smart, policy-focused set of 'third way' solutions that can bridge the divide," said Gonzalez.
In 1991, when Governor Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic Leadership Council in Cleveland, he staked out "New Democrat" positions emphasizing middle-class values of working hard, playing by the rules and taking individual responsibility.
"Our burden is to give the people a new choice, rooted in old values, a new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsive government--all because we recognize that we are a community, we are all in this together, and we are going up or down together," Clinton said.
He announced his candidacy for president five months later.
Nothing cost President Clinton more capital with the progressive wing of his party than his advocacy for welfare reform--moving people from welfare to work, as he put it. He also worked with Republicans to balance the budget, streamline the government, and on deregulation. Clinton antagonists on the left derided his political triangulation as a betrayal and Clinton himself as a "Republican" president.
Many of those on the left who complained about Clinton's triangulation in 90's champion the results today--22 million jobs, record surpluses and a historically successful welfare reform program.
Are they the same crowd threatening to revolt if President Obama wants changes to entitlement programs? And could they stop him?
"When you look at who votes for a winning Democratic candidate, invariably the largest number come from moderates," Kessler said. "That doesn’t mean Democratic presidents cannot be bold, but it does mean that policies must be infused with moderate sensibilities and values."
The DLC had its time in power. Now it's the "New Democrats" turn. And the progressives are still spoiling for a fight.