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Insider Interview: Third Way's Matt Bennett

The lasting image of the 1988 presidential race is of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) riding on top of a military tank clad awkwardly in a too-big helmet and jumpsuit.

Matt Bennett of Third Way
Bennett says Democrats "have got to win not just a majority of moderates but a supermajority in a lot of places in order to win." (Photo courtesy of Third Way)

The media, as well as GOP nominee George H.W. Bush, cast the image as a symbolic of Dukakis's weakness on national security issues and awkwardness on the world stage -- defining factors in his defeat that fall.

Matt Bennett, at the time a 21-year-old campaign aide working advance for Dukakis at that fateful event, remembers the day well. In fact, the jumpsuit that Dukakis donned that day hangs in Bennett's closet to this day -- nearly two decades later. (Jack Weeks, Dukakis's trip director during the '88 campaign, has the helmet, Bennett said.)

One might think that after such a searing early experience in politics, Bennett might have moved on to other, lower-profile pursuits. Not so.

Bennett worked for Bill Clinton's advance team in 1992, in the Clinton White House from 1996 to 2000 and then as communications director in retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign in 2004. In between he managed to graduate from law school, work for a firm in Washington (King & Spalding), and play a crucial role in the formation of Americans for Gun Safety -- a group organized to blunt the traditional Republican advantage on 2nd Amendment issues.

Convinced that Democrats needed to craft a message to appeal to moderate voters rather than focusing their message on motivating the liberal base, Bennett joined two other veterans of Americans for Gun Safety in the aftermath of the 2004 election to form Third Way. Their goal, he said, was to "challenge progressive orthodoxy on a range of things." (The group's Web site offers a somewhat more conciliatory description of Third Way as a "strategy center for progressives.")

At its creation -- and to this day -- many operatives and activists wondered what distinguished Third Way from the Democratic Leadership Council, a long-standing voice of centrism within the party.

Bennett admits he has been asked the question repeatedly over the past 18 months and has a pat answer prepared. "They're the big direction-setting organization," he says. "Their focus is on presidential politics and developing the next generation. Our focus is Congress -- both members and candidates."

Third Way is neither a traditional think tank focused on policy development nor a political action committee dedicated to funding candidates. Instead, its goal is to work with members of Congress and candidates to develop issue positions that can help get them elected -- with a special focus on appealing to moderate/conservative voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party over the past decade.

Take abortion. Republicans have used Democrats' support for abortion as a tool to strip away culturally conservative voters in the South and Midwest -- two regions that were once Democratic strongholds. Hoping to counter the GOP message, Third Way delved deeply into the "substance and politics of abortion," said Bennett, developing a position the group believes gives Democrats their best chance at appealing to voters while also staying true to the core convictions.

"We believe the message should be that there are 1.3 million abortions in America every year and that's too many," said Bennett. "We have developed a whole series of policy ideas that we're working with members on legislation to cut down on unwanted pregnancies."

Although one of the founding members of Third Way was Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Bennett insists that the group is "purely ecumenical" when it comes to the 2008 Democratic presidential race. He points out that Third Way staff have worked with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) on her "American Dream Initiative", met with Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and chatted with staffers for ex-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. "We are trying to be as completely available to every candidate as we can," Bennett said.

Bennett's assertions aside, Third Way may find itself at the heart of that debate in 2008. Many within the party are painting the 2008 nomination as struggle between those who want the party to tack further to the ideological left (best represented by the liberal blogosphere) and those, like Third Way and the DLC, who believe only by appealing to the center can Democrats regain the White House.

For many the battle has already begun. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the popular Daily Kos blog, has derided the DLC as a "divisive, fundamentalist organization willing to sell any and all progressive ideals to the altar of big business." Marshall Wittman, a fellow at the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute, dismissed bloggers' complaints as "utter ominous McCarthyite warnings about the 'enemy within.'"

Bennett characterized this heated rhetoric as more "healthy debate" than fight to the death. But he left little doubt about where he stands in the disagreement -- not only did John Kerry lose in 2004, he noted, but Democratic candidates were defeated in seven of the eight most competitive Senate races in the country.

"Because our base is 50 percent smaller than the conservative base, we have got to win not just a majority of moderates but a supermajority in a lot of places in order to win," said Bennett.

According to 2004 exit polling, 21 percent of voters described themselves as liberals, compared to 34 percent who called themselves conservatives and 45 percent who said they were moderates.

Third Way doesn't advocate sacrificing what it means to be a Democrat, according to Bennett., however. He noted that his two Third Way co-founders boast impeccable progressive credentials -- Jon Cowan served as chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, and Jim Kessler was a longtime senior staffer for New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

"Anything we do preserves core principles," said Bennett of Third Way. "We believe that any political movement has got to evolve in order to survive."

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 24, 2006; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Insider Interview  
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