Third Way, a centrist think tank that portrays itself as a Democratic group, has some advice for the party: avoid economic populism at all costs. In a column for the Wall Street Journal today, the group argues that the party should steer clear of creating a strong safety net, and criticizes Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s call for universal pre-K funded through an upper-income tax increase as a foolhardy idea for national Democrats.
As many have noted today, in reaction to the column, Third Way’s attacks on Social Security and Medicare fail on the merits. It’s bad policy, and it’s equally bad politics.
But for Third Way, a group founded in 2005 that is highly active on Capitol Hill, the think tank is merely defending the special interest groups that allow it to exist.
Buried inside the annual report for Third Way is a revelation that the group relies on a peculiar DC consulting firm to raise half a million a year: Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart. Peck Madigan is no ordinary non-profit buckraiser. The group is in fact a corporate lobbying firm that represents Deutsche Bank, Intel, the Business Roundtable, Amgen, AT&T, the International Swaps & Derivatives Association, MasterCard, New York Life Insurance, PhRMA, and the US Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The two organizations complement each other well. Peck Madigan signs as a lobbyist for the government of New Zealand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal; Third Way aggressively promotes the deal. Peck Madigan clients push for entitlement cuts, and so does Third Way.
Notice that Humana, a major health insurance company, lists its $25,000 donation to Third Way not as a donation to a think tank, but as part of its yearly budget spent on lobbying activity, up there with the Florida Chamber and other trade associations. The company views financial gifts to Third Way as part of its strategy for increasing its profit-making political influence.
What’s more, Third Way’s leadership has tenuous connections to the Democratic Party it hopes to shape. Daniel Loeb, a hedge fund manager listed as a trustee on Third Way’s 2012 annual disclosure, bundled $556,031 for Mitt Romney last year. Third Way board member Derek Kaufman, another hedge fund executive, also gave to Romney.
There is a long and storied tradition of corporate, right-wing interests seeking to shape the economic policies of the Democratic Party. The DLC, another Third Way-style group that folded in 2011, was funded by none other than Koch Industries. Richard Fink, a strategist to the Koch brothers who helped found what is now known as Americans for Prosperity, was on the DLC’s board.
Washington’s big business-friendly press has greeted the Third Way column as a “game changer.” But these arguments aren’t new, and neither are the strategies. Large corporations have many ways of finding useful surrogates, and Third Way is a prime example.
UPDATE: Daily Kos’s Hunter has a nice post noting how Third Way’s hatred of Senator Elizabeth Warren may relate to the fact that Third Way’s board is made up almost entirely of investment bankers and other Wall Street executives. Also worth considering, the anti-privatization drive of those “economic populism” types might rub some Third Way board leaders the wrong way — especially the one who sits on Correction Corporation of America’s board.
This post first appeared at The Nation and is reposted here with permission.
Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, now known as Type Investigations.