What started out as a fairly obscure op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day may answer the political question of the year for Pennsylvania in 2014.
Specifically, in a time where unashamed liberalism seems to be on the rise -- spearheaded by the likes of Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren and New York City's Bill de Blasio -- do progressives have any clout in the purplish state of Pennsylvania? If so, is it enough to determine who replaces Gov. Corbett in January 2015 -- and to torpedo an early frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz?
Earlier this year, I wrote about the Schwartz conundrum for Pennsylvania Democrats. In the mind of many voters, including some liberals, Schwartz burnished her progressive credentials when she emerged in the 1990s as a fierce fighter for the right to choose and other gender issues, in an era when abortion was the hot-button issue in the Keystone State.
But since her election to Congress nearly a decade ago, Schwartz' record on other issues hasn't really been that progressive. She sided with the big banks on a bankruptcy bill, backed the status quo on government spying on citizens and on the state's signature issue of the 2010s -- fracking -- she may be to the left of Corbett (who isn't?) but she's to the right of some of her rivals on the 2014 race for governor, in which she's one of an ever-growing slew of Democrats.
Then there's her politically problematic tie to the centrist (i.e., non-progressive) nominally Democratic think tank called Third Way that was formed in 2005 when the re-election of a GOP "war president" with just 51 percent of the vote somehow convinced them that liberals can't win an election. They've persisted even after the liberal wing of the Democratic Party delivered the 2008 nomination and then the presidency to Barack Obama (ironically, a centrist...but I digress). But the Third Way is so in sync with Schwartz's non-progressivism that she's an honorary co-chair.
Which brings us to the near present, when two Third Way "thinkers" named Joe Cowan and Jim Kessler published that op-ed in that left-wing rag* known as the Wall Street Journal attacking an actual liberal idea that has support with the rank and file and a small but growing number of lawmakers, which is increasing Social Security (a notion first pushed here in Philly, by the way, by the economist and blogger Duncan Black). It's a direct challenge to the fantasies of hedge fund billionaires and Beltway pundits that the Republic will perish if our minimal support to working-class retirees is not slashed (despite considerable evidence to the contrary.) Schwartz had already been been one of a handful of House Democrats to vote for a plan called "chained CPI" that would have reduced Social Security benefits.
In the Third Way's op-ed, expanding Social Security was lambasted as "exhibit A of this populist political and economic fantasy" of liberals. But, to paraphrase the uberpopular website Upworthy, you won't believe what happened next. Liberals rose up. rivals in the Pa. gubernatorial race lambasted Schwartz for even having an honorary tie to Third Way -- and the Philadelphia-area congresswoman undertook a massive retreat. She not only branded the op-ed as "outrageous" but she has now signed onto legislation that would expand Social Security, a seeming flip-flop from her past stance.
Soooo....."I am Pennsylvania liberal, hear me roar?" Maybe. The primary is still six months away, so maybe Schwartz has time to re-brand herself as an actual progressive. But there's a lot of intriguing candidates who seem poised to steal her thorny crown as one-time frontrunner, including former DEP commissioner John Hanger (the most liberal positions, but with some fracking baggage), former revenue commissioner Tom Wolf (unknown, but lots 'o money), treasurer Rob McCord and another former environmental chief Katie McGinty. Yogi Berra once said, "It gets late early out there." I kind of wonder how Schwartz can recover with so many alternatives.
If so, this would be a watershed moment for liberals in Pennsylvania, whose past watershed moments have included...hmmm, I'll get back to you when I think of one. The state's "top" Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey, is anti-choice and was solidly pro-gun until he softened his stance (admirably) after Newtown, and the archetypal Pa. Dem is former Gov. Ed Rendell, who left office to write letters for Big Fracking and work for an anti-liberal billionaire-shill group called Fix the Debt.
Some liberal! But that was certainly Pennsylvania's reputation, that its Democratic Party was dominated by white deer-hunting union-card-carrying Reagan crossover voters, but I think the reality of that stereotype died out with Rick Astley and "Family Ties." Pennsylvania will never be de Blasio's New York, but my sense is that Democrats here now look more like the Obama majority coalition nationally -- young people, minorities. urban professionals...a.k.a. liberals.
And so the Third Way of 1-Percenter Democrat-ism typified by Rendell and Schwartz may have finally hit its dead end.