Personal Health

Bogus Think Tank "Third Way" Pops Up to Thwart Health Care Reform

Third Way is drenched in corporate money, tangled in ties to big business and bent on Clintonian triangulation. How dare it call itself progressive?

A couple of weeks ago, the slippery think tank Third Way came under fire from progressives when a memo surfaced under the group's letterhead arguing against the creation of a public health care plan. In place of a public plan, Third Way proposed a "hybrid" model attached to a ludicrous sunset provision of four years.

Not for the first time, the question was asked aloud: Who are these Third Way people, and why are they calling themselves "progressives"?Why does their goal appear tobe to complicate the drive for public health insurance?

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee captured the feelings of many when he organized a call campaign to urge Third Way to cease its attempts to retard momentum toward a public plan. Green also floated the idea of a campaign to de-fund and blacklist the organization.

But maybe that's going too far. Looked at another way, Third Way deserves more pity than anger. It seems the nebulous policy shop is constantly being misunderstood.

Last year, Chris Bowers of MyDD expressed confusion over why an organization billing itself as progressive would take as its name a term widely associated with the solidly centrist and market-oriented "New" politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. A Third Way staffer soon responded to clear the air. The name, he explained, refers not to the group's place on any left-right spectrum, or its desire to systematically steer Democrats toward a Clintonite center. Rather, the name refers to the group's chronological position in the history of progressive movements, which is best seen as a series of waves. See, the founders really meant to call themselves Third Wave, but somehow ended up with the loaded term Third Way, instead. A strange mistake for a group that touts its messaging expertise, but there it was.

Then there is the Third Way memo on health care. When progressive blogs and health care reform groups condemned the group for wading into the debate on the side of insurers, Third Way once again claimed a big misunderstanding.

A Third Way spokesperson told HuffPo's Ryan Grim that the memo was just a "draft," an early discharge of Third Way's evolving position on health care. No one should get the impression that the crisply argued memo, which was authored by three senior Third Way staffers, somehow represented the organization's fixed position. No, that would be silly.

How many drafts will Third Way go through before finalizing its position on a public plan? Whatever the number, the pro-business thrust of the group's thinking is unlikely to change. This thrust has been present and distinct since the group's creation. It is the reason no movement progressives take the outfit seriously. It is the reason the Democracy Alliance (a group of around 100 high-roller progressive donors who meet a couple of times a year and fund in concert to theoretically build progressive infrastructure) originally rejected the group's funding requests. As Matt Bai reported in his 2007 book, The Argument, "[Alliance partners] didn't have room for self-described centrists whose main goal was to appease Republicans."(The Democracy Alliance would later make Third Way one of its "chosen" organizations for funding on the subject of international security.)

Four years later, Third Way is still trying to appease Republicans and outflank the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But this impulse makes less sense today than ever. With Barack Obama in the White House and solid congressional majorities, the Democrats have a duty to be bold. Any "third way" is by definition an attempt to undermine the president. When it comes to throwing cold water on the public plan, it also means undermining a majority of the American people, not just those who lack health insurance.

Third Way was launched in early 2005 to produce policy papers and messaging tactics for congressional Democrats, with a focus on Blue Dog senators. It was then, as it is now, drenched in corporate money and tangled in ties to big business. These ties stretch from the board of trustees, thick with hedge-funders and investment bankers, to its lone senior fellow for health policy, David Kendall, a former Blue Cross Blue Shield consultant.

The recently leaked health care memo isn't the first time Third Way has drawn cold stares from the left during a major battle in Congress. In early 2008, it came to light that Third Way was counseling Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on how best to advocate for retroactive immunity for telecoms that had colluded with the government in warrantless spying. Among the Third Way trustees with pasts and presents in the telecom industry was Reynold Levy, a former AT&T executive.

"We thought it would be a bad idea to allow these companies to be held legally liable for cooperating with the government," Third Way Vice President Matt Bennett explained at the time of the telecom debate. Just to make sure everyone understood Third Way's position on civil liberties, he added: "You want to encourage the cooperation of not just the telecom industry, but all other industries in the future."

Going back to Third Way's prehistory, most senior staffers were also on the wrong side of the Iraq debate. Not that many Third Way principals seem to know much about national security, war, terrorism or the Middle East. The only name listed under Third Way's national security program is Scott Payne. Never heard of him? Neither has anyone else.

The staff page on the Third Way Web site provides lots of info about the outreach manager, but Payne's bio page is curiously blank. Leaving the Third Way site to hunt down more information won't get you much further: an online search for "Scott Payne" brings you to the Web site of a Chicago food photographer. 

For an organization attempting to influence policy across a range of weighty issues, the Third Way brain pool is shockingly small and welterweight. How can it claim to know how Democrats should position themselves when it doesn't have any real expertise on the issues?

The result is depressingly thin progressive-policy gruel. In the measured words of beltway blogger Matt Yglesias, "There are a variety of issues that [Third Way] have nothing whatsoever to say on, and what policy ideas they do have are laughable in comparison to the scale of the problems they allegedly address."

Let's go back to that first question people have when Third Way rears its little gopher head: Who are these people?

Leading the way at Third Way is its 43-year-old founder and president, Jonathan Cowan. There is only slightly more information about Cowan available online than there is about his go-to national security guy Payne. What we do know about this would-be power broker is that he cut his political teeth as a staffer for Democratic California Congressman-turned-lobbyist Mel Levine. At 27, Cowan co-founded Lead ... or Leave, a mid-'90s curio of youth activism that raised hell over the deficit by protesting in favor of entitlement reform on the steps of the AARP's Washington offices. In the second Clinton administration, Cowan was a deputy director at Andrew Cuomo's Housing and Urban Development. He would later boast that while at HUD he worked to "blow up public housing," some of which was replaced with upmarket private condos. Cowan then went on to launch Americans For Gun Safety, a Washington-based gun-control advocacy group that briefly tag-teamed with the ascendant Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.

It was at AGS that Cowan built a reputation as a messaging tactician for Democratic policies. Along the way, he networked like hell and hired Jim Kessler and Matt Bennett, both now vice presidents at Third Way.  

Third Way launched just after the Democratic defeats in 2004. At the time, the group lacked its current eagerness to embrace the "progressive" label while distancing itself from the politics of Blair and Clinton. Shortly after Third Way's launch, John Harris of the Washington Post described, without controversy, the organization's mission as "using moderate Senate Democrats as the front line in a campaign to give the party a more centrist profile." The analysis that led to this strategy was a founding mission document titled, "The Politics of Polarization," penned by two veterans of the New Democrat Network, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck.

As Guy Saperstein wrote on AlterNet in 2007, the essay is based on the dubious argument that because self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals, Democrats must move right and avoid advocating "polarizing" progressive policies. In other words, let today's deranged conservatism define the placement of the coveted center, instead of doing the hard and necessary work of dragging that center left. Saperstein argued:

What "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way choose not to do is precisely what made the conservative movement so effective: Challenge the existing status quo and educate the public about a new vision. What "The Politics of Polarization" and Third Way fail to do is precisely what progressives need to do: Change the underlying terms and norms of political discussion.

Whether Third Way's political vision is defined by caution bordering on cowardice because it genuinely believes this is the way forward, or whether they are merely doing the bidding of those paying their office rent and salaries, doesn't really matter. When an organization that masquerades as part of a progressive coalition injects a policy paper into the health care debate that could have been written by a mischievous insurer's group and then nervously claims it didn't really mean it, that organization deserves scorn and ridicule.

Which isn't to say there should be no role for Cowan's group of former gun-controllers and national security experts, who may or may not also be food photographers in Chicago. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee leaves open the possibility that Third Way could find a useful role in Democratic politics by reinventing itself as an animal with ambitions better suited to its size and talents.

"Third Way actually could have a constructive role in the movement, if they stuck to designing policy ideas and talking points on wedge cultural-divide issues like abortion and guns," writes Green. "Third Way's role should not be to push [these] wedge issues as they often do in a quest for relevance. … Instead, Third Way should recognize that their relevance comes from getting the ideas ready and sitting back and waiting ... being ready to go if Democrats are put on defense."

As they dust off their old gun-safety position papers, Third Way staffers should retire from debates over civil liberties, war and health care. If they insist on saying something, at the very least they should scrub their Web site of the word "progressive." This would help avoid any future misunderstandings.

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer.