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Congressman Scott Peters

Representing the 52nd District of California

Scott Peters and the “New Democrats” Take Aim at the Warren Wing of the Party

Apr 3, 2015
In The News

Jim Miller - This week a “right to work” bill that will gut the union movement in Wisconsin is likely to hit Governor Scott Walker’s desk and no doubt he will sign it.

While there is much discussion in Democratic circles of how Walker is doing this to position himself even more solidly on the right to please potential Republican primary voters, there is much less discussion about how this latest assault on workers’ rights helps speed the runaway train heading toward plutocracy that is the United States.

Indeed, the very same corporate forces and reactionary billionaires who want to buy the 2016 election are the key beneficiaries of this “right to work” policy, but some Democrats don’t seem to be bothered by that. So instead of standing up for an American labor movement under assault, a group of Democratic neoliberals, the New Democrat Coalition (NDC), is more interested in checking the progressive wing of its own party.

Meet one such Democrat: Congressman Scott Peters.

Last week the Daily Kos reported yet another dismaying vote by Congressman Peters who was one of only 12 Democrats to defect from his party and join Republicans in voting to hold Homeland Security hostage for the sake of political gamesmanship. This follows his earlier foray across the aisle to join the right in an effort to gut Dodd Frank by weakening the Volker rule, watering down derivative provisions, and undermining investor protections.

Peters wants to pretend that he is just stuck in the middle between two equally “extreme” forces on the left and right as he is trying to “get things done.”

Observing this one might be tempted to dismiss these votes as nothing more than the usual triangulation by a corporate Democrat in a vulnerable swing district who wants, as the Daily Kos puts it, “their voting record to reflect that they are no different from a Republican.” But the fact is that Congressman Peters doesn’t just want to cover his posterior on the right, he wants to move the entire party and country in that direction with him.

So rather than railing against the historic level of economic inequality in America and the continuing war on working people, Peters wants to pretend that he is just stuck in the middle between two equally “extreme” forces on the left and right as he is trying to “get things done.”

As Doug Porter noted last week, Peters wants to impose his kind of politics on the national party. Indeed Peters and the New Democrat Coalition are drawing up a game plan to fight the Warren wing of the party and its focus on income inequality in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Democrats are gathering their forces to fight back against the “Elizabeth Warren 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.

While it is easy sport to demolish the a-historical banality of Peters’ Mr. Nice Guy version of soft McCarthyism with regard to Warren, the historical significance of the New Democrats is well worth remembering.

A ProPublica story from a while back sums up the origins of Mr. Peters’ Club succinctly:

The New Democrat Coalition was formed as a House caucus in 1997, following in the footsteps of the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC] and President Bill Clinton’s “third way” policies designed to make Democrats and their platform more business friendly. When launched, the group lacked a fundraising PAC and had no legislative staffers. However, they did have allies at the highest levels of the Democratic Party and access to the party’s political and fundraising machine.

The New Democrats were as pro-business then as they are now. Many of the group’s members, including Kind and Crowley, supported the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed marquee financial legislation passed after the Great Depression and paved the way for financial institutions to become “too big to fail.” A year later, many also voted for the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, which curtailed regulation of financial derivatives, including the products that played a major role in the collapse of energy firm Enron in 2001 and helped to bring the world economy to the brink of disaster in 2008.

Though the driving force behind both bills was Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who left Congress just after their passage to lobby for the Swiss bank UBS, they were pushed hard by Clinton administration officials like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, signed into law by Clinton, and supported by congressional groups like the New Democrats.

Thus the DLC and its NDC offspring are part of a movement to push the Democratic Party away from economic liberalism to a business friendly cultural liberalism. The fact that fellow Democrats like Scott Peters would see a rising star such as Elizabeth Warren as a threat only illustrates how thorough and deep the transformation of the Democratic Party has become since the nineties when the Clinton presidency moved the whole party away from the old Labor-Democratic coalition that had prevailed since the thirties.

The great success of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was to position the Democrats in the political “center” in a myriad of ways—the complete embrace of NAFTA, welfare reform, and a nearly total adoption of neoliberal economic policies.

…it’s just as important to understand the conservative ideological and financial networks inside the contemporary Democratic Party as it is study the right-wing think tank network that has spawned folks like Carl DeMaio.

At the time, critics like Jesse Jackson called the DLC “the Democratic Leisure Class” but this largely fell on deaf ears. Even the landslide congressional election defeat that Bill Clinton suffered in ‘94 did little to chasten him as he continued to out-maneuver the Republicans who fumed with evermore venom about the “extreme liberals” in the White House even as the Clinton team was doing all it could to transform the Democratic Party into a culturally liberal, economically neoliberal party that differed little from the Republicans on economic matters.

Consequently, folks like Elizabeth Warren represent a threat to this vision (even if they aren’t running for President) so they need to be marginalized. What the New Democrat Coalition is interested in doing is unmooring the Democratic Party from its economic populist roots so that the mainstream of the party won’t scare away the big money that is the mother’s milk of their corporatist agenda.

Unfortunately, as I have written here before, it’s just as important to understand the conservative ideological and financial networks inside the contemporary Democratic Party as it is study the right-wing think tank network that has spawned folks like Carl DeMaio.

Once you make those connections, you really see what plutocracy looks like. As Dennis Keith Yergler explains, the New Democrats’ effort to move the party to the right has been well-funded by the Fortune 500 from the beginning:

Over the coming years the corporate contributors to the DLC read like a “Who’s Who” of Corporate America. As Nichols writes, “Those corporate contributors … include(d) Bank One, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, the Health Insurance Corporation of America, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, Occidental Petroleum, Raytheon, and much of the rest of the Fortune 500.” [T]he DLC had become “rooted in their philosophy of turn-your-back-on-organized labor and open-your-pockets-to-corporations.” More pointedly, the author Kenneth Baer, in his book Reinventing Democrats, concluded that the DLC had become nothing more than “an elite organization funded by elite-corporate and private-donors.”

Now of course, the rallying cry amongst the “centrists” in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is that what matters most is “winning” and it is only by moving to the right and not offending business interests that the Democrats can do that. And if that means taking a half-step to the right every time the Republican Party lurches further off into the lunatic fringe, so be it. It also means you marginalize economic populists at a time of historic economic inequality.

The bottom line is that being a good New Democrat is all about positioning yourself between what you call the two “extremes” on the mythical extreme left and the bogeyman right as the discourse veers not toward the middle but further right and our country is bought lock-stock-and barrel by moneyed interests with a genuine disdain for working Americans. When people point that out, you call them partisans and seize the mantle of pragmatism and moderation, principle be damned.

And really, who cares if a bunch of progressive activists don’t like you—the fat checks are coming in from Wall Street and the lords of the New Economy anyway.

But the big gamble here is that the Democratic base is either so stupid and/or desperate to beat the Republicans that they’ll tolerate no end of disappointment from you. On the other hand, what the New Democrats might be missing is that it’s equally possible that when you don’t stand for anything but plutocracy lite, your base just might not show up at all.

Why would that be?

For the answer, I yield the floor to Robert Reich whose recent post shows precisely why Peters and the New Democrat Coalition are so profoundly wrong-headed.

Reich here clearly outlines the vicious cycle we are in that is caused not by the Warren wing of the Democrats being too partisan but by the economic realities that have profoundly altered the lives of most Americans and our politics:

The see the vicious cycle we’re in, connect these 10 dots:
1. Almost all the gains from economic growth have been going to the very top. As a result
2. America’s vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy moving forward, without going deep into debt. As a result
3. The debt bubble that burst in 2008 has been followed by an anemic recovery that’s still not reaching most Americans. Which has contributed to
4. More intense competition by average Americans over smaller slices of a shrinking pie.Which has meant that
5. Rather than join together we’re divided and polarized. Native-born Americans are threatened by new immigrants; private-sector workers are resentful of public employees; non-unionized workers are competing with unionized; the working-class is pitted against the poor. Which has led to
6. A meaner, nastier, and more cynical politics in which little or nothing gets done for average working people. Meanwhile, as income and wealth have risen to the top
7. Political power has also moved to the top in the form of massive campaign contributions and swarms of lobbyists. As a result
8. The very rich pay half the tax rates they paid 35 years ago; effective corporate taxes are far lower; labor protections have been trampled and unions slammed. As a result
9. Safety nets have been slashed and public investments in education and infrastructure have been cut. And workers no longer get a fair share of corporate profits. Which has meant
10. Back to #1 through #9, above.

So how do we reverse this vicious cycle?

Answer: not by not talking about inequality.

Perhaps this is why Reich has recently joined the chorus of voices urging Elizabeth Warren to run for President . And nobody can accuse Reich, a Clinton Administration alum, of being anti-Clinton in any personal way, so what this move shows is how little faith he has in this wing of the Democratic party to do the right thing and stand up for ordinary Americans, a record number of whom are not even reflected in the unemployment statistics because they are no longer even participating in the economy.

Perhaps these 91 million Americans might be more willing to show up to vote if they felt somebody was on their side rather than splitting the middle.