I Wish Elizabeth Warren Was The Democratic Party’s Future, But She Isn’t

Published November 11, 2013

Noam Scheiber’s big piece on Elizabeth Warren is out at TNR, and he starts with the frame of a party divided between her natural political backers and Hillary Clinton’s machine.

On one side is a majority of Democratic voters, who are angrier, more disaffected, and altogether more populist than they’ve been in years. They are more attuned to income inequality than before the Obama presidency and more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. They’ve grown fonder of regulation and more skeptical of big business. A recent Pew poll showed that voters under 30—who skew overwhelmingly Democratic—view socialism more favorably than capitalism. Above all, Democrats are increasingly hostile to Wall Street and believe the government should rein it in. On the other side is a group of Democratic elites associated with the Clinton era who, though they may have moved somewhat leftward in response to the recession—happily supporting economic stimulus and generous unemployment benefits—still fundamentally believe the economy functions best with a large, powerful, highly complex financial sector. Many members of this group have either made or raised enormous amounts of cash on Wall Street. They were deeply influential in limiting the reach of Dodd-Frank, the financial reform measure Obama signed in July of 2010. But as central as this debate is to the identity of the party, Democrats won’t openly litigate it until they’re forced to ponder life after Obama.

Scheiber believes the populists can win this battle, pointing to the rise of Bill de Blasio and the decline of Bill Daley. I’d certainly welcome a battle between two parties more willing to engage in these issues. A party headed by people like de Blasio and Warren is one that is more ideologically strident, but at least has the admirable quality of philosophical consistency and a rejection of the cronyist, corporatist approach to governance embraced by right and left alike in recent decades (Where have you gone, William Jennings Bryan?).

For her part, though, Warren seems reluctant to challenge the 2016 machine: it’s early, but her answers have been “Oh, stop.” and “That’s a no.” And who can blame her? Hillary’s machine will likely be bigger, better, and even more focused on their last shot at the White House.

Even if she ultimately runs, I’m far more skeptical about Warren’s ability to actually beat the Hillary machine, in part because of the differences and similarities between the last inspiring progressive Senator who stole Hillary’s rightful place on the throne. The Obama nomination came out of nowhere – the explosion of an organic internet-driven fundraising challenger to the Clinton machine fueled in part by dramatic hopes for history-making achievement combined with a thriving cult of personality – and is unlikely to be replicated with Warren, who has nowhere near that kind of appeal nor the apparent ambition to go after the party establishment directly. That’s how she’s different.

But consider how she’s the same: for those Democrats on the fence between the two frames Scheiber describes (and I think there are a lot of them), the lesson of Obama’s presidency may turn out to put them off upstarts for a cycle or two. Forget ideology: doesn’t Obama’s eight years serve as a cautionary tale for the left of what happens when you put so much faith in an inspiring speaker without much experience in actually running things? The nation is certainly disappointed by the failure of Obama’s dramatic, uplifting rhetoric to come to fruition in his policies: on the economy, health care, and more, Obama’s failed to meet their expectations (indeed, the one area Obama is most popular is in the arena of national security, where his acceptance of Bush era approaches to policy and endless drone war has wiped away any memory of the candidate whose rise depended, above all, on being right about Iraq).

The funny thing is that if you just put their potential agendas side by side, it’s Warren’s populist message which fits the times, not Hillary’s triangulating technocracy. The real problem for the Clintons, and what may prove their undoing, is that they’ve lost the southern populism that elevated them originally. They’re simply too One Percent these days. But they’re too powerful to take on without a network like Obama’s, and even though Warren may speak to the heart of the anti-war single payer progressives, an inspiring message of uplift and possibility for progressivism may have to come from another source – one who will likely lack Warren’s appeal. Hope and Change candidacies come in waves, and the disappointment following the Obama presidency is likely to lead to a return of the Democratic Party to the steadier hands of the Baby Boomer elite – the adults in the room once again, same as it ever was.

[Originally posted on The Federalist]