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Third Way to Nowhere

A new report on the 2020 election is self-serving nonsense from the consultant class

Last November, the “blue wave” that was predicted to define the 2020 election, at least in the fevered tweets of luminaries like Brooklyn Dad Defiant, was ultimately more a “blue trickle” in spite of record turnout. As results became slowly clearer in the days following the election, Democrats confronted the reality that although Joe Biden had won the presidency, the results in the Senate and House—to say nothing of state legislatures—were far from a ringing endorsement of the Democratic Party.

Unsurprisingly, little time was wasted blaming the results on those that tried to save the Democratic Party from itself: the left. Business-friendly centrist Democrats castigated “The Squad,” blaming them for Republican attacks on “Defund the Police” and accusations of socialism. Abigail Spanberger—one of twenty-three Democrats unusually endorsed for reelection by the right-wing, anti-labor U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a proud alumna of the CIA—ripped the left in a post-election caucus phone call, decrying “socialism” as the reason for the underwhelming election results.

There was little sense to be found in the huffs of indignation: after all, Republicans have never needed an excuse to call Democrats socialists; it’s been their mantra for over a decade. Even milquetoast political programs like the Affordable Care Act draw screams of a new “Red Menace” from Fox News. If you’ve been listening to conservative media for the past thirteen years, and far too many have, we’ve been teetering on the verge of Red Dawn since the moment Barack Obama was elected.

But the genre of indignation first piloted by Democrats within days of the polls closing was given new heft earlier this month when the corporate think tank Third Way dropped a seventy-three-page report on the 2020 election. The Third Way—which boasts Board trustees like former Goldman Sachs executive David Heller, and for which Joe Manchin serves as an honorary co-chair—primarily publishes policy recommendations and conducts public research. Its about page touts a New York Times description of the Third Way team as “radical centrists.” The think tank is perhaps best known for its close connections to Wall Street and the financial industry, openly admitting that the majority of its funding comes from the financial sector. Unsurprisingly, Third Way’s report was met with glowing praise in the mainstream media, with the Times calling it “perhaps the most thorough soul-searching done by either party this year.”

The report, a product of collaboration with the Latino Victory Fund and The Collective PAC, was authored by Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran, formerly of the consulting firm 270 Strategies, who joined the Department of Transportation this month. According to Federal Elections Committee filings for 2020, 270 Strategies worked with Michael Bloomberg, Amy McGrath, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That’s right: the consultants that helped craft the DCCC’s campaign also analyzed its spectacular failure. Quelle surprise: Third Way hired the gunmen to do the autopsy.

Far from a “thorough soul-searching,” the report is an exercise in cynical rationalization.

One of their core takeaways? That the enemy of electoral success is socialism. According to Third Way, Republicans “universally attacked Democrats” as socialists, and moderates “struggled to counter since some within the Party identify as Democratic socialists.” The result was a “Dem potpourri” of criticisms; the report specifically highlights AOC—the mere fact of her existenceas a line of attack. Laughably, the report admits that it has no evidence to substantiate that accusations of radicalism were damaging but alleges it anyway. In some cases, the report goes so far as to wave away contradictory evidence: it quotes candidate Candace Valenzuela observing that while campaign polling showed that “Defund the Police” was not uniquely damaging, she still “suspected these attacks were more pernicious and damaging than polling indicated.”

To the authors of the report, the party’s primary issue is one of messaging. The “message,” they argue, was too centered on Donald Trump, and in the “absence of strong party branding,” candidates were vulnerable to counter-messages claiming they would “burn down your house and take away the police.” Democrats were also being “painted . . . as the Party that wanted to keep the country shut down,” a problem that should have been addressed, according to a “leader of a national nonprofit organization” who made pointed remarks about the “nanny state,”  by “[making] clear . . . we stood for getting the economy, schools and stadiums open ASAP.” Let’s not reflect on over 600,000 coronavirus dead, and the policy failures that led to this unspeakable tragedy. Democrats should telegraph that they want to do less for public health in order to score points with reactionaries—ones who would likely never support them anyway.

So what exactly should the party’s missing brand be? Third Way wants to “reimagine our Democratic Party message and narrative,” as one that “[champions] all working people—including but not limited to white working people.” They want it to be “exciting to be a Democrat,” and believe that the party must “be more differentiated and targeted in how we communicate across these many-splendored communities.” This is the language of corporate marketing: political affiliation is effectively the same as brand loyalty. What any of that really means is anyone’s guess: the authors leave out substantive policy or political recommendations.

That’s because the Democrats have no problems of substance, according to Third Way. Too much of the electorate simply believed the other guys instead of us. We’ll recalibrate for the next time, don’t worry; we’ll find a way to make means-tested social programs and corporate tax incentives sound exciting. Left to the side is the question of what, if anything, the Democratic Party had to brand. What were they offering to the electorate then, and what are they offering now? Their failure to explain their positions isn’t just a failure of communication—it’s a failure to even have positions to communicate, at least positions that resonate with voters.

Far from a “thorough soul-searching,” the report is an exercise in cynical rationalization. Third Way’s own allies like Manchin have ensured that Senate Democrats more resemble a clown car than the adults in the room. Even with control of the House and the Senate, Democrats can’t govern—and the enemy isn’t even the Republican Party, it’s the people Third Way wants to keep in power. The Democrats that Third Way champions are the kind of Democrats—like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—who are sabotaging the Democratic Party’s lackluster attempts to legislate, focusing instead on bipartisan gimmicks like the “Problem Solvers Caucus.” Defining a “strong Democratic Party brand,” one which will assuredly leave the Left on the “outs,” won’t change the reality that the Democratic Party would rather negotiate against itself than govern: it’ll simply try to make it sound more palatable.

The Democratic Party is already facing headwinds heading into the midterm elections: the historical pattern of anti-incumbent backlash, the continued fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, rising crime, and the party’s feckless attempts at legislating. If Third Way’s report is any indication, the Party’s boat isn’t just rudderless; it’s without a paddle. They’ll continue to get paid no matter how disastrous the defeat, of course. That’s how consulting works, after all. The rest of us will be left to deal with the consequences.