Democratic Divide on Social Security Spills Into Streets

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

Elizabeth Warren speaks with the media as she campaigns after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Framingham, Massachusetts, Sept. 14, 2011.

On a brisk, sunny Wednesday afternoon a handful of protesters stood outside of 1025 Connecticut Ave NW in Washington, while a boisterous woman led the group’s chants. “What is America going to be?” they asked. “Corporate Greed or Democracy?”

People from all across the country, including retirees and caregivers from Illinois, Montana, and North Carolina, had been brought together by leftist organizations Social Security Works and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) to denounce Third Way, a centrist democratic think tank, and their stance on social security.

“Up with America,” they jeered at the façade of the building housing the group’s headquarters, holding signs that read “We are from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” a signal of support for the freshman senator who supports expanding Social Security.  “Down with Third Way.”

Alex Lawson, one of the organizers of the protest and a meeting on Capitol Hill with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told TIME,” Everyone came here to raise their voices with one clear consistent message, the American people are for expanding Social Security.”

“[Third Way] is standing with Wall Street on this,” he said. “They’re wrong. It’s wrong for the party and it’s wrong for the American people.”

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On the surface, the group of protesters and Third Way should be allies. Both are democratic, both support tighter gun control policies and some social reforms. Yet their differences overwhelm the similarities. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published earlier in December, Jon Cowam and Jim Kessler, the first and second in command at the think tank, wrote that Social Security is “exhibit A” of a “populist political and economic fantasy” being touted by newly elected Democratic leaders such as Warren and New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. The two, they said, are disregarding the programs “undebatable solvency crisis.”

They warned Democrats not to follow liberal Dems over of the “populist cliff,” where tax hikes and entitlement reform abound. “Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016,” they wrote. “Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.”

Many viewed the op-ed as proof that, like their counterparts on the right, centrists Democrats were waging war against the more extreme members of their party. The PCCC urged members to call on their Congressional representatives to decry Third Way. Many, including Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), spoke out against the editorial.

Senator Warren sent a letter to bank leadership urging them to disclose their donations to think tanks, which many perceived as a passive-aggressive attack on Third Way, whose executive board is made up of former Wall-Street honchos. She also renewed her call for reform, telling both the Huffington Post and Mother Jones in interviews that the conversation about cutting Social Security should end. “If we made no changes at all to Social Security it would continue to make payments at the current level for about 20 years,” Warren told Mother Jones. “Modest adjustments will make certain… we could increase benefits for those who need it most.”

Third Way leadership has largely agreed to disagree with Warren and wants to make clear that their disagreement is no cause for alarm. Although they stand by her in the push for donor disclosures, they do not have any plans to change their stance on Social Security. “We have some disagreements; all parties do,” said Matt Bennett, the director of public affairs at Third Way. “In the end we are all democrats and we’re all after the same goal.”

But, Ann Marie Cunningham, 76, a retiree who traveled from Chicago to join Wednesday’s protestors and meet with Congressional leaders, said their stance on Social Security neither aligns with her goals nor the goals of most Americans. “Many people use the word ‘entitlement’ when talking about Social Security,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s a good word; I’m entitled to what I spend my whole life working for.”

She added, “The middle class today really needs social security.”

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