Monday, December 22, 2008

A Third Way?

Updated below on Dec. 23.

By now, if you read more than a couple of the blogs on my blog roll, you've read about this already:

This is Jennifer Palmieri, acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Most readers know that the views expressed on Matt’s blog are his own and don’t always reflect the views of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Such is the case with regard to Matt’s comments about Third Way. Our institution has partnered with Third Way on a number of important projects - including a homeland security transition project - and have a great deal of respect for their critical thinking and excellent work product. They are key leaders in the progressive movement and we look forward to working with them in the future.

A Special Note Re: Third Way

This article was put onto Matt Yglesias' blog by Palmieri. To my way of thinking, and to that of many of the commenters to that article, she was stating the blindingly obvious, which is that the articles on Yglesias' blog contain his opinions, which are not the official position of Think Progress or the Center For American Progress, which funds the site. Since most readers of the blog are smart enough to know this, the question that occured to many was why this needed to be said. This comment expressed a fairly typical sentiment, albeit in an atypically clear manner:

I don’t have a problem with clarifications like this per se, as long as they’re unaccompanied by pressure that Matt self-censor or moderate his statements. I read the blog because I trust him as an independent journalist, and any doubts I might have about his independence undermines the value of the Web site (not to mention my goodwill toward CAP.)

It’s hard for me to believe, after a late-night intrusion like this, that he’ll feel no pressure to self-censor.

A Special Note Re: Third Way

Which is basically how I feel about this. Matt Yglesias later wrote his own reaction to this post:

I wish the guest post from Jennifer Palmieri that I put up Sunday evening had been handled differently in a variety of ways since just sticking it on the blog and then going to bed seems to have given people a lot of misleading notions about the site being somehow “hijacked.” But when you get right down to it, all she was doing was reiterating what’s always been the case — I’m posting un-screened posts on an un-edited blog and covering every issue under the sun. Under the circumstances, it’s better for me, better for CAP and CAPAF, and better for everyone to understand that I’m writing as an individual not as the voice of the institution. Pointing that fact out isn’t contrary to me having an independent voice, it’s integral to having one. Nobody has deleted my post criticizing Third Way, or forced me to retract those criticisms, or prevented me from following up with a more substantive critique of something they wrote.

Teach the Controversy

This, plus the fact that the next article that Matt wrote on Third Way didn't strike me as different in tone or content from his previous ones, leads me to believe that this was just a rather foolish gesture on Palmieri's part.

This begs the question, though, of just what it is she was making that gesture for.

Third Way, if their website is any indication, appear to be another of those tiresome "message shaping" firms of which there are far too many of in DC. This particular one, despite calling itself progressive, has some views that don't strike me as very progressive. Here's what Yglesias originally wrote that started this furor:

Third Way is a neat organization — I used to work across the hall from them. And they do a lot of clever messaging stuff that a lot of candidates find very useful. But their domestic policy agenda is hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit. There are a variety of issues that they 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. Which is fine, because Third Way isn’t really a “public policy think tank” at all, it’s a messaging and political tactics outfit. But Barack Obama’s policy proposals aren’t like that. At all. Nor do personnel on his policy teams — including the more ideologically moderate members — stand for anything that’s remotely as weak a brew as the stuff Third Way puts out. And yet, Third Way loves Barack Obama and says he’s a moderate just like them. Which is great. But everyone needs to see that these things are moving in two directions simultaneously. At the very same time Obama is disappointing progressive supporters on a number of fronts, he’s also bringing moderates on board for things that are way more ambitious than anything they were endorsing two or three years ago.

The New Moderate

What does he mean by a "weak brew"? Let me give you an example. I've been reading what Third Way bills as a manual for the Homeland Security transition team. In a nutshell, it's thirty pages of wankery. Here are the basic steps it recommends:

➤ Make selection of the DHS Secretary a Tier 1 choice, announced along with the first wave of appointees (Treasury, Defense, etc.).
➤ Engage early and often with the Bush administration security team and transition council.
➤ Conduct a table-top exercise with the new leadership team prior to the inauguration to clarify roles and responsibilities in the event of a terrorist attack.
➤ Integrate the existing White House Homeland Security Council within the National Security and Domestic Policy Councils, but maintain an Assistant to the President (and Deputy National Security Advisor) to oversee homeland security policy functions.
➤ Organize a homeland security summit within the first 100 days, bringing together federal, state, local, and private sector leaders to review the state of intergovernmental cooperation and public-private partnership, particularly in light of the unfolding economic crisis.

Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative (PDF)

See anything that isn't blindingly obvious there, assuming you think homeland security is a priority? I suppose the "table top exercise" might be a good idea, since it's nearly inevitable that when positions are actually filled with real people they have trouble figuring out who's doing what. The rest of it is just DC mumbo-jumbo. What follows these bullet points is twenty-seven more pages of such pap, consisting mainly of recommendations on when to hold meetings and visits. Occasionally, they'll address issues like what it is that people are supposed to talk about at these meetings, usually in the most general terms they can manage. Someone with half Obama's IQ, which is a group of people that almost certainly includes John McCain, would have known most of this already.

The only thing about this that I take seriously is that someone actually bothered to write it down. What a waste of time, money, and paper.

As Dana Hunter observed, Third Way was a big supporter of telecomm immunity. How do you solve the energy crisis? Why, nuclear power, of course. Matt's description of their ideas on retirement plans, which is basically that they're warmed over nonsense, strikes me as more restrained than is merited. While they look better on issues like abortion and gay rights, on the whole these guys aren't doing the progressive movement any favors.

In retrospect, Matt Yglesias having not explained why a post ended up on his blog that he didn't write has given me a glimpse into the machinations of what passes for our progressive infrastructure. It turns out to be as flimsy as a bridge that hasn't been maintained for decades. The next time someone asks me why progressives can't make any headway, even when they allegedly have the power, I'll point them to this site.

UPDATE (Dec. 23): Fixed the link to that Third Way "manual". Now you can be impressed by it as I was.

UPDATE 2: Ezra Klein adds some context to all this:

CAP is not a blog publisher. They are a think tank. They are the nerve center of the Democratic governing class. Their president has led Obama's transition effort. It's fairly uncharted territory for a think tank of that prestige -- indeed, of any prestige at all -- to hire a young progressive blogger and let him retain his voice on their site. Brookings doesn't do it, and nor does EPI, or Heritage, or the Urban Institute, or the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. But CAP is following a model in which they provide income support to promising progressives so their work isn't lost to law school or the commercial sector. That requires giving them a fair bit of editorial freedom, which will inevitably lead to conflicts and uncomfortable moments. As Ben Smith says, there are real consequences if Third Way is seen to be disfavored by CAP. And CAP has to balance that against their desire to support bloggers.

The fact that Palmieri's message was public is, I think, a good sign. It's transparent. They could have called Matt into the president's office, explained that he would never ever write anything like that ever again, and the editorial intervention would have been simultaneously invisible to readers -- no one would be criticizing CAP -- and much more pernicious. They did not do that.

Blogging And Independence

The truth is that there are times when employers find that publicly slapping down an employee is a useful technique, but I don't think that's what was going on here. My point about how this was handled was simply that it was handled clumsily. As a result, people rightly questioned why someone was stating the obvious on someone else's blog. Matt Yglesias and Jennifer Palmieri both made mistakes handling this, and hopefully they will learn from them.

The rest of us, meanwhile, learned a little something about how progressive institutions work these days.


Dana Hunter said...

Ain't that the truth!

Not to mention, if they suck this badly at damage control, I have no idea why any one would take them seriously. They strike me as Republicon lite: tired old ideas wrapped in pretty packages, complete with a hit squad to bludgeon anyone who points out what inane twerps they are.

Their ideas on DHS are laughable. But one good thing came out of them: your line on John McCain's IQ. Instant classic!

Bustednuckles said...

Yglasias has a lot of talent and he struck a nerve with someone who unfortunately has the power and access to rebut his message on the platform he originated his opinion on. He must get paid for his work, you and I and thousands of other Bloggers don't have this problem because we do it for free.

I have dirty fingernails and a very foul mouth.
I don't have to worry too much about someone over riding my opinion on my own Blog, how bout you Cujo?
You have any problem with that?

Cujo359 said...

On Blogspot? Not so far, Bustednuckles.

Bustednuckles said...

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha, I open my big mouth..
Google says I am a Spammer and took over.

I got news for them.

Cujo359 said...

They clearly haven't read your blog. It's about as far from spam as it gets.