Life is getting more difficult for Democrats clinging to the political center. Rep. Allyson Schwartz abruptly cut ties Thursday with several moderate Democratic groups as she runs for governor in Pennsylvania.
Schwartz's campaign said Thursday that the Philadelphia-area congresswoman would no longer serve as an honorary chairwoman of the centrist think-tank Third Way, a group that enraged liberal activists in December when its leaders wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing the party's populist agenda.
Schwartz, who faces a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, immediately came under fire from rank-and-file liberals for her association with the group, but only this week formally separated herself from it.
Schwartz's announcement emphasizes that in addition to leaving Third Way, she's also leaving her leadership post with the New Democrat Coalition and her position on the House Budget Committee — an apparent attempt to cut her ties to Washington while her campaign heats up in Pennsylvania.
"As the May primary approaches, I had long planned to step aside from other commitments," she said in a statement.
But a spokesman for her campaign, Mark Bergman, told National Journal that Third Way's op-ed "made the decision that much easier."
Schwartz's departure was first reported by the liberal blog Daily Kos.
Her decision is a revealing sign about the current state of Democratic Party politics. It's evidence of a growing rift between the party's base, which is fighting for a more robust progressive agenda, and some of its more moderate elements, which want it to emulate the centrist tack taken by former President Clinton. To date, the dispute has manifested itself most keenly in the debate over possible presidential contender Hillary Clinton, whose close ties to Wall Street have spurred calls for Elizabeth Warren to launch her own presidential campaign. (The Massachusetts senator has said she won't run.)
Now, the dispute appears to be spreading. Schwartz is the early front-runner in the Keystone State's gubernatorial primary. But she faces a handful of qualified opponents, all of whom could exploit the perception that she isn't liberal enough for the party's primary voters.
The Third Way op-ed, which criticized liberals who oppose Social Security cuts, immediately drew condemnation from Schwartz, who called it "outrageous" and signed onto a bill that would expand the entitlement program. In formally separating herself from the group now, she signaled the growing clout of the party's liberal base.
Progressive groups immediately declared victory.
"As a Wall Street front group, Third Way had little credibility to begin with — and that credibility is nearly nonexistent now that their own cochair is dumping them," said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Third Way's attack on Elizabeth Warren's economic-populist agenda, including expanding Social Security benefits, is something that no smart Democrat in the country would embrace — and Allyson Schwartz deserves credit for making a smart decision."
Whether the congresswoman's decision hurts her in a general election remains to be seen. Liberal activists argue that Social Security is an overwhelmingly popular program, and huge swaths of voters oppose all cuts to it. But doing so can also make a lawmaker look beholden to the party's liberal base, a perception that could alienate middle-of-the road voters.
"Today, Allyson Schwartz proved that she will do whatever it takes to appease her extreme liberal base," said Megan Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. "After months of denying it, Allyson Schwartz has finally embraced her status as a tax-and-spend radical liberal. Now she can tout her new taxes and plans for increased government spending without worrying about keeping up a centrist façade."
A spokesman for Third Way declined to comment.
If Schwartz wins the Democratic nomination, she'd face Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who is one of the most vulnerable governors up for reelection in 2014.