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Is Economic Populism A Problem Or A Solution For Democrats?

The fight over taxes, entitlements and income inequality has clearly been reignited in the Democratic Party, sparking questions about whether, and how hard, to push economic populism as the party approaches the 2014 midterm elections and beyond.

The latest flare-up came between centrist Democrats at the Third Way think tank and liberals who view Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as their champion.

Two Third Way co-founders panned Warren's approach — more specifically, her call to expand Social Security and raise taxes on the wealthiest. That their op-ed ran on the conservative opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal didn't help matters.

Was it a sign of things to come, another intraparty tug-of-war reminiscent of the mid-1980s when the now-defunct, centrist Democratic Leadership Council was formed to pull a very liberal party to the political center?

Steve McMahon, a Democratic political strategist with Purple Strategies, doesn't think it will get to that point in 2016.

"I don't think Elizabeth Warren is going to run for president, and Hillary Clinton is more a centrist than a Ted Kennedy liberal," McMahon said in an interview. "I don't think we're going to have that" 1980s-style fight between liberals and centrists.

"People on the left understand that pragmatism wins elections," he said. They have two two-term Democratic presidents as proof of that proposition.

"Hillary Clinton is progressive but pragmatic, as President Obama and President Clinton both are and were," McMahon said. "And that's what wins."

Clinton hasn't announced that she's running in 2016, but she's widely expected to and already has a commanding lead among Democrats in preference polls.

One thing the economic populists have going for them is that the issue set resonates with many voters. Last April, Gallup polled this question: "Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country today is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people?"

Fifty-two percent of respondents supported redistribution. More than a quarter of Republicans agreed with that. That suggests the existence of a healthy audience out there for a message of economic populism.

President Obama has teed up economic fairness issues for the 2014 and 2016 elections with his vow to address income inequality and social mobility for the rest of his time in office.

Obama's support for raising the minimum wage and closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and corporations, backed by most congressional Democrats, is part of that economic populist push.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit


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