Rep. Clyburn too conservative? Signs of emerging Democratic divide

James Rosen | Tribune Media

Rep. Jim Clyburn is used to political foes calling him liberal. They’ve been doing it for years. Now, though, prominent liberals are coming after him for being too conservative.

Several left-wing groups are criticizing South Carolina’s Clyburn, the No. 3 Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, for his relationship with one of the party’s influential centrist policy organizations.

The founders of that think tank, Third Way, attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., last week for pushing tax hikes for the rich and increases in Social Security benefits and for taking other stances that they said represented risky fiscal approaches and bad political strategies.

Allies of Warren, a freshman lawmaker who’s a rising star in Washington, struck back quickly. Four liberal groups asked Clyburn and 11 other Democratic members of Congress who are “honorary co-chairs” of Third Way to repudiate the condemnation of Warren and to sever their ties with the organization.

“We’re calling on James Clyburn to do the right thing and immediately drop his affiliation with the Wall Street-backed Third Way for attacking Elizabeth Warren’s agenda,” Adam Green, a leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told McClatchy. “Third Way had little credibility to begin with. If Clyburn dumps Third Way, it will deal them a major blow.”

Clyburn declined the demand.

“Mr. Clyburn is a fan of Sen. Warren and he’s a fan of Third Way, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with either of them all the time,” said Patrick Devlin, a Clyburn spokesman.

Among other Democrats in Congress, liberal groups have targeted are three other Third Way honorary co-chairs: Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania.

Democratic activists demonstrated Wednesday outside the downtown Washington office of Third Way.

The controversy is evidence of an emerging split in the party, which in recent years has been fairly unified while feuding intensified between ultraconservative and more moderate wings of the Republican Party.

And like so much that happens in Democratic Party circles, the dispute traces back to Bill and Hillary Clinton and their presidential ambitions.

Third Way, a research center established in 2005 as a counterweight to several well-known liberal groups closely tied to the Democratic Party, advocates some fiscal and social views that are more conservative than the ideas promoted by many members of the party’s activist base.

Those centrist notions were championed by former President Bill Clinton, who ran for the White House in 1992 as a “New Democrat” and, once there, embraced welfare restructuring, deregulation, capital punishment and other policies at odds with traditional liberal stances.

Two founders of the Third Way organization, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion column last week that sent shock waves through Washington.

Cowan, who served in the Clinton administration, and Kessler, a former Senate aide, attacked Warren, who’s becoming a hero in left-wing Democratic circles for her full-throttled liberal stances.

“Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats,” they wrote, than the spread of the “economic populism” promoted by Warren and by New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

Cowan and Kessler aimed most of their ire at Warren. Despite her disavowals of interest, some liberals are pushing Warren as an alternative Democratic presidential candidate to Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state, who polls show is the current prohibitive favorite for the party’s 2016 nomination.

Branding her fiscal views as reckless, Cowan and Kessler wrote that “Sen. Warren and her acolytes are irresponsibly pushing off budget decisions (with stances) that will guarantee huge benefit cuts and further tax hikes for Generation X-ers and Millennials in a few decades.”

Warren chose an indirect response. Without naming Third Way, which some liberals accuse of being bankrolled by wealthy Democrats, she sent a letter to the heads of six major banks, asking them to disclose their “financial contributions to think tanks.”

Her political allies went further, targeting the members of Congress tied to Third Way. The influential left-wing blog Daily Kos said it wouldn’t endorse any candidates with connections to the group.

By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau