Claire McCaskill’s “Third Way” Chair And What She Should Do With It

“Well, Senator McCaskill, which side are you on? People who rely on Social Security to get by, or Wall Street movers and shakers?”

—Michael Bersin, Show Me Progress

My only useful United States Senator is, of course, Claire McCaskill. As a liberal, I have defended her many, many times, despite the fact that she does not subscribe to all of my liberal views. And I have defended her despite the fact that she would never, not in a thousand light years, refer to herself as a liberal. But I respect the political reality here in mixed-up Missouri. This isn’t New Jersey. Wait a minute. New Jersey isn’t New Jersey anymore.

In any case, Senator McCaskill, who often—too often for my tastes—brags about being a centrist, is an honorary co-chair of a public policy group called “Third Way,” a group that is causing third way logoquite a negative stir among activist Democrats.

I want to direct you to the group’s own definition of what it is about, which begins this way:

Third Way represents Americans in the “vital center” — those who believe in pragmatic solutions and principled compromise, but who too often are ignored in Washington.

That is, in fact, who Claire McCaskill says she is. She has many times talked about her pragmatism and her middle-of-the-road credentials. She even campaigned on them in 2012. And while I agree that compromise is often part of a healthy political process, some folks who fashion themselves as moderates think the compromise should happen at the beginning of the process, not at the end. This is an incredibly important point. Moderation in politics ought to be defined as what is left over after a vigorous fight between visions, not the vision itself. Here’s more from the group’s website:

Our mission is to advance moderate policy and political ideas.

What? No one can “advance” a moderate policy or political ideas. Why? Because if that is where you start, if you start in the middle, the compromise will always be toward the reactionaries because change has a tendency to scare people. These Third Way guys have to know that. As with similar efforts in the past, “moderate” means allowing conservatives to frame the economic issues in terms of debt and deficits, and not in terms of people and empowerment. Thus, the apparent purpose of Third Way (which has been around since 2005) is to shoot the liberal lions in the Democratic Party, or, to put it more kindly, to capture them and put them in zoos so they can do no harm to the interests of those, mostly moneyed Wall Streeters, who fund so-called centrist groups like Third Way.

As you have no doubt heard by now, last week a couple of Third Wayers, the group-think tank’s president and its senior vice president for policy, published a piece (Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats”) in, yep, The Wall Street Journal. The piece might be considered the loudest shot so far heard in what the self-described centrists apparently want to be an all-out war for the soul of the Democratic Party.

The authors, sounding like any right-wing talk radio host you know, attacked Bill de Blasio, an unashamed liberal who will soon become the next mayor of New York, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has become a hero among liberals and progressives and anyone who can see the difference between people and corporations. The reason for the attack on these two liberals was because of what the authors called their “populist political and economic fantasy.” When you get away from the Limbaugh-like description, what the shoot-the-lions, Wall Street-friendly folks at Third Way are attacking is the idea, advanced by Senator Warren and others, that we should increase Social Security benefits, not look for ways to slash them.

She told Mother Jones, in response to the Third Way article attacking her, that,

We should stop having a conversation about cutting Social Security a little bit or a lot.

Yes. Democrats, including President Obama, should stop agreeing with Republicans about cutting the most effective government social program in history. And Senator McCaskill should relinquish her “honorary” chair title at Third Way. Why? Because McCaskill, running against teapartier Todd Akin in 2012, essentially ran as something of an economic populist herself.

Six weeks before the election, the St Louis Beacon reported on McCaskill’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s nutty remarks “disparaging Americans who don’t pay income taxes”:

“Congressman Akin has made similar type statements,” McCaskill said, “talking about the ‘velvet chains’ of government dependency…”

Such comments by Akin and Romney, she continued, “just show they are out of touch with so many Missourians who have worked hard all their lives, who have retired, and who believed that Social Security would be there for them, and believe that Medicare would be there for them.”

McCaskill’s point during the conference call was to paint Akin as an “extremist” on such issues, citing his campaign statements criticizing both programs.

“He wants to privatize, voucherize” Medicare, she said, and also privatize Social Security.

McCaskill said that the financial problem facing Social Security could be fixed simply by increasing the cap. Now, any income over roughly $110,000 is not subject to the Social Security tax.

“Simply changing the cap,” she said, “secures (Social Security) for 75 years.”

As for Medicare, a program that the Third Way moneyed elites ostensibly want to save by making a “grand bargain” with Republicans, McCaskill also played the economic populist card:

Jim Hagan, a retired teacher and coach in his 70s from Springfield, Mo., recounted the numerous health problems that he and his wife recently have encountered. “We’d be totally bankrupt if we had to pay” for all the surgeries and medical bills, he said. Medicare, said Hagan, “saves lives, including mine.”

McCaskill contends that the GOP approach, as proposed by now-Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, is to allocate a certain annual amount to the elderly and then tell them “now it’s your problem” to find insurance coverage.

Hagan said that most elderly, including himself, wouldn’t be able to obtain insurance because of pre-existing conditions.

McCaskill’s campaign has focused heavily on Medicare, Social Security and government-backed student loans.

Now, if that isn’t the same kind of economic populism that Third Way honchos attacked in The Wall Street Journal, please tell me what it is. And tell me why Claire McCaskill would continue to be an “honorary” co-chair—co-chair!—of a group so adamantly opposed to what she ran on just a year ago?

Not only that, as The Nation reported, in order to raise funds, Third Way hired one of the top corporate lobbying firms in Washington—a firm whose “largest client is the US Chamber of Commerce.” The same Chamber of Commerce that hammered Claire McCaskill in 2012! Something is wrong with that picture.

The Nation also noted how “several Third Way trustees gave campaign money to Mitt Romney.” Huh? Remember the gist of that Romney campaign? Most of us are moochers and President Obama was some kind of left-winger who was going to turn the country into a European socialist state quotefull of even more moochers. How can Senator McCaskill co-chair a group that has as trustees people who invested in Mittens?

Now we have HuffPo reporting that one of the writers of the Third Way piece in last week’s WSJ admits that Elizabeth Warren’s liberalism was beginning to gain traction and the money-men had to move fast. Jim Kessler, Third Way’s senior vice president for policy who co-authored the infamous op-ed, said:

The impetus was really — we saw after the most recently, this push that okay, it’s time to really move the national Democratic Party to a much more liberal agenda, in this case, Senator Warren was the standard bearer — she’s on the cover of a lot of magazines. We were a bit alarmed by that…

That Social Security plan was the final moment for us. That Social Security plan had been out there but really languishing — because Senator Warren has such a powerful compelling voice, she started talking about it, and it suddenly it became much more talked about and viable alternative.

As I said, the “Social Security plan” that scared the Democrat out of those wealthy “Democrats” at Third Way is very closely related, if not identical, to what Senator McCaskill told Missourians she supported, when she was seeking our votes in 2012. And if Senator McCaskill meant what she said about Social Security last year, if she truly meant it, then she should not only give Third Way its honorary chair back, she should give it back by publicly pounding its pooh-bahs over the heads with it.

senator mccaskill and third way



  1. It’s a mess, isn’t it? I like Senator Warren more than I like Senator Clinton, but I don’t want Warren to run for President. I don’t think most Americans are smart enough (at the moment) to recognize how much better off we’d be with true liberal leadership in Washington, so I opt to root for candidates from the “electable center” in order to avoid the right wing crazies. This may be pragmatic, but it is not satisfying. I am part of the problem.
    If Warren or Sanders or Kucinich wewre to get the nomination, would I vote for them? HELL, YES! But do I think they will? No — and I’m okay with that. Claire is better than Todd — and that’s part of the problem.


    • King Beauregard

       /  December 10, 2013

      I say Warren does more good where she is now than she would in the Oval Office. We need a Congress willing to draft and pass progressive legislation; the person in the Oval Office need only be willing to sign that legislation into law. Plus, with Warren as “a Senator” she is freer to speak for the Left than she would be as President, where she would be somewhat constrained on how bluntly she should tear into the right.

      “Progressives” routinely ignore the reality that Congress matters. That’s why they keep shooting themselves in the foot. Well, one of the reasons.

      Hillary, too, was best as a Senator. Back in the day she was known for being able to work with Republicans and get them to get their heads out of their asses. Even guys like Graham used to concede the irony of how they had demonized Hillary for years, and yet here they were working with her. I like to think she could have helped moved things along over the past few years, gotten a handful of Republicans to ease up on the odd bill or appointment. Then again, if the Republicans have made unreasonableness their mission — and they have — any arguments based on reason immediately fail.


    • General,

      I don’t disagree with you and your practicing realpolitik. As a former conservative, I have adapted Bill Buckley’s “rule” on voting for candidates, in that I will vote for the most liberal candidate who has a chance of winning. You can’t govern from the loser’s bracket. Sometimes that requires making a close call.

      Let’s say Senator Warren did decide to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016. I would face a dilemma. I prefer by far Elizabeth Warren. But I would have to make a judgment as to her chances of winning. If I decided she could not win the general election and Hillary could, then I would likely vote for Hillary. I know that may surprise some people, given how liberal I am on many things (especially the things Warren cares about), but it reflects reality, as least as I would perhaps see it at the time.

      As I said, and as liberals should try to understand (and maybe tattoo it on their pronated hand) that no liberal, no matter how talented or committed, can govern from the loser’s bracket.



  2. Duane,

    It used to be that the crazy season came during political campaigns. Now it’s the crazy season all the time. But that’s what happens when you have a dysfunctional Congress with a grade of F minus. Ergo, anyone trying to provide a rational explanation of what any individual Senator or Congressman might do or not do at any given time is likely to end with a trip to the psych ward.

    I mean, when the fundamentalist/evangelical Republicans ask “what would Jesus do?” and the answer is “ask Ayn Rand,” can the white coats with the long sleeves be far behind?

    Now, I don’t know much about Claire McCaskill, but a play to the center is probably a good move. After all, Todd Akin got over a million votes to her 1.5 million, which is almost 40% of the votes cast. Sadly, I know some of those Missourians who actually voted for Akin. On that basis, I suspect though that even if McCaskill could morph into St. Mary, she would still lose that million votes.

    Like I said, crazy.



    • Herb,

      Oh, I agree McCaskill tacking toward the center is, at least here in Missouri, a good political move. When I was out knocking on doors for her last year, I actually ran into Republican women who said they would vote for her. (But that wasn’t necessarily because she was viewed as a centrist, it was just that Todd Akin was, is nuts.)

      What I am saying is that the center, for McCaskill and for others who want to govern there, ought to be the destination, not the starting point. To begin in the center, in this political environment, inevitably means you won’t end up in there; you will end up in a place that is marked, in fresh paint, as “the center,” but is in reality much farther to the right than it should be. And I submit much further to the right than the country would or should tolerate, if the country were only paying attention.



  3. angelfire

     /  December 9, 2013

    Oh, I wouldn’t mind some changes to SS and Medicare. I don’t understand why employers have to contribute…I mean, they’re not our parents. I am of the thought that the person who uses SS should pay for it. Instead of 6.2% the individual would pay 12.4%. I also think a person should be able to UP the amount they contribute so that they can have a larger monthly income upon retirement. What’s wrong with that? We’ve all heard that SS was NOT meant to live on but rather to supplement a pension. With pensions becoming rare (thank a Republican today) employees should be allowed to contribute more into their retirement accounts.

    Just sayin’.


    • Angelfire,

      The fact that employers have to contribute half of the taxes that support Social Security is not a matter of patriarchy, but a matter of distributing the burden of paying for such a valuable social good. Sure, there are some who argue that taxes are not actually paid for by the businesses, they are simply passed on to the customers or passed on via lower wages for employees (or both). However one looks at it, though, the fact remains that the way we finance Social Security is already baked in the overall economic cake. To disturb it now would cause all kinds of mischief.

      As for whether employees should actually be contributing more in order to receive greater benefits, I don’t disagree with that. The problem is that most Americans would rebel at the idea. Many of them, largely because of Republican scaremongering, already fear they won’t get the benefits promised as it is. Any politician who proposed raising the Social Security tax would not be a politician for very long.



    • Anglefire,

      Here is a really well-written article from Forbes that provides a kind of “Social
      Security for Idiots” overrview that’s easy to understand.

      There are number of related articles on that same page that I found very informative as well.



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  December 10, 2013

    Two challenges were suggested above. First, who do you support, someone on SS or a Wall Street fat cat.

    My answer is BOTH of them, as both of them are Americans. It should NOT be a one side wins and the other losses.

    Same for a labor – management negotiation. Why not support BOTH of them in the final outcome?

    Good government is supposed to be good for ALL the people so governed.

    Now, should we increase SS payments? Might I suggest that before we do so, let’s actually pay for current SS (or Medicare, etc.) benefits and stop borrowing money to sustain them. Set that as your goal and THEN increase the payments if needed along with a new tax bill to actually pay for the increased benefits.



    • Sedate Me

       /  December 10, 2013

      I largely agree. Nothing should be bought on credit. Nothing should go unpaid for. Because, at the end of the day, nothing does go unpaid for. It just winds up getting paid for with interest. So, it’s far better to pay as you go.

      If shoring up Social Security means that billionaires must keep their old Lambo for another year, or the NSA’s budget must be shrunk so they can only spy on 50% of Americans, or that the military has to close the German bases that have kept America safe from Hitler since the end of WW2, or it means that the average schlep can’t buy a 3D big screen TV…then so be it. These are the kind of sacrifices required to make a better society.

      Unfortunately, as a society, we’re incapable of sacrificing our unnecessary spending, even for something we consider a high-priority social good. We’d rather let Grandma freeze in the dark (as the guys from Enron said) then make such “painful” personal sacrifices as skipping a couple $7 milky, sugary, coffees a week. To be fair, we’d rather our grandparents not freeze in the dark….just so long as we can pass the bill to our grandchildren, who will ultimately freeze in the dark, and probably before they become grandparents.

      Cause them Chinese bankers gots to get paid!


    • Anson,

      You said,

      Good government is supposed to be good for ALL the people so governed.

      Okay. You’re right. When will ALL the people get the good? We know that most of the wealth created since the end of the Great Bush Recession has gone to the top 1%. So in that sense government has been berrrrrrry, berrrrrry good to them.

      Then you said,

      …let’s actually pay for current SS (or Medicare, etc.) benefits and stop borrowing money to sustain them. 

      We aren’t “borrowing money” to sustain, say, Social Security. The money that is now being used to make up the shortfall in revenue going into that program comes from money that has been banked (and that is in the form of special government bonds) from previous FICA taxes. And, as even Claire McCaskill has admitted, fixing Social Security in the future may be as simple as raising the cap on income subject to FICA taxes.

      The financing of Medicare is much more complicated, given it has two trust funds from which money is drawn, but even in Medicare the problems you suggest are in the future. Does something need to be done? Of course. We have discussed that many times. But without generating more revenues or cutting benefits (but only to more affluent Americans) or a combination of both, the problem simply can’t be fixed. And your side in this debate has decided that generating more revenues ain’t gonna happen. So it seems to me that the irresponsibility, at least right now, is with Republicans.



  5. Sedate Me

     /  December 10, 2013

    I laugh every time I hear “Third Way”. The Third Way poster child, Tony Blair, was a completely spineless, wanker who ruined the Labour Party, stood for absolutely nothing, and achieved exactly that in his 10 years as Prime Minister (For Americans: the PM job falls just short of dictator). If you were rich or powerful, Tony would fellate you like a vacuum cleaner. The Third Way ultimately means nothing more than “I want to get elected so I can…uh…get re-elected.”

    I wish Democrats would give up on the idea that something significant can be achieved via the White House. Presidents aren’t Prime Ministers. They can’t order legislation to be passed. As we’ve seen, having a Democrat in the White House is almost as useless as being a Vice President. Lots of perks, but minimal power.

    Sure, Obama can now (thanks to the laughably named “nuclear” option) appoint Flavor Flav to the Supreme Court. He can kill Yemeni teenagers by remote control Flying Death Robots, or he find out what toppings Angela Merkel likes on her pizzas. However, even with Democratic majorities in both houses, almost dick-all got done in the progressive department.

    Congress is where it’s at. There’s no hope of achieving anything remotely liberal without a Democratic Congress made up of as many liberal Democrats as possible. Even then, you can count on those spineless wussies to bend over for lobbyists and the moneyed classes.


    • No, presidents are not prime ministers (I, for one, often wish we had such a system). But they aren’t nothing either. I completely disagree with what you said:

      As we’ve seen, having a Democrat in the White House is almost as useless as being a Vice President. Lots of perks, but minimal power.

      As we’ve actually seen, having a Democrat in the White’s House has been quite valuable. And I won’t even point to the legislation that was passed before the Tea Party came to visit. I will just point to the effect, the lasting effect, that a president can have upon the judiciary. That alone is worth winning the White House. You make fun of that fact, but for the many millions upon millions of Americans who have had their lives changed for the better by just the Supreme Court, it is no laughing matter. We sometimes forget that things might have gone a lot differently in the 20th century, if the Court had continued to strike down New Deal legislation, thwarted efforts to kill Jim Crow, nullified the Voting Rights Act, or found that women had no right to control their bodies.

      I also disagree with your contention that “Congress is where it’s at.” It’s only where it’s at if you have a two-thirds majority, and a unified two-thirds majority at that. Without a reliable veto-proof majority, compromises will have to be made. And that’s where you and I see things so differently.

      You say not much “got done in the progressive department.” That’s arguable. But what’s not really arguable is that Democrats did not have effective control of the government for a long enough time to get the kinds of things done that you and I might agree need to be done. Even for the short time Democrats had a so-called filibuster proof majority in the Senate, that majority comprised several non-liberal Democrats and thus was not necessarily a unified majority. I agree we need “as many liberal Democrats as possible.” But when we don’t have them, we can’t expect liberal policies to rule the day. And we certainly shouldn’t discount the fact that absent a overwhelming number of liberal Democrats in Congress, that it is essential to have a Democrat in the White’s House.



  6. Jane Reaction

     /  December 10, 2013

    Maybe you never received a pay slip Angel, or didn’t read it, I am afraid you misunderstood some things about SS. First, the people receiving SS DID pay for it. Some who could afford to do so DID put in more of their own money. Should they not get to keep it rather than throw it to lobbyists to distribute?

    The vast majority of workers did NOT receive pensions, and going forward hardly any will again. Pensions went out largely when the 401k plans came in to replace them. Over half of employees don’t have that option. The 401k was the biggest con going, especially when a company could force employees to buy their own company stock. Ask an old Enron employee.


  7. The problem with left and right politics in this country, as I see it, is that it tries to deal with something that seems politically unmanageable, and that is the economy. The economy is not something that was planned but something that evolved, a Frankenstein’s monster of disparate parts that include a tax code (the pancreas?) that grew from constant Congressional tinkering, a Military Industrial Complex that is dysfunctional (the Cold War is over), and of course, the rickety social engineering that is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

    Given all the competing interests, and given that the right has increasingly abandoned reason in favor of religion-flavored ideology, I see little hope of resolution. An attack by aliens from outer space would . Another all-out war would also do it, but China has discovered a form of capitalism that seems to be a better alternative.


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