Elizabeth Warren’s Real and Imaginary Appeal

Friday night on the floor of the U.S. Senate as part of a doomed effort no one is much paying attention to is not the ideal context for a Big, Memorable Speech. But the excerpts of Elizabeth Warren’s speech against the Wall Street derivatives swap language of the Cromnibus touted by Miles Mogulescu at HuffPost are indeed pretty powerful, though again, comparing them to Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech viewed live by a big chunk of the politically active population seems more than a bit of a stretch.

If, however, Warren keeps this up, she could very quickly make herself the kind of big public figure she has long been to smaller circles of progressive activists. What’s most interesting about her speech is that she placed as great an emphasis on Wall Street influence in the Obama administration Treasury Department as she did on the legislative provisions in the Cromnibus. She’s pulling no punches. And not only does this indicate she will go to the mats to stop the nomination of Antonio Weiss to a top position at Treasury–a fight she looks likely to win–but that she’s launching a broad challenge to the acceptability of any recent Wall Street vets in the ranks of Democratic executive branch officials or advisors. This represents a clear collision course with the administration, and with Hillary Rodham Clinton (Warren’s constant references to Citi in her speech–so closely identified with the key Clintonian advisory Robert Rubin–could not be a coincidence), even if Warren’s public disavowals of interest in a primary challenge to Clinton represent an unshakable private conviction. You could see, say, Bernie Sanders taking up the banner of a primary challenge with Warren playing a key role in the background whether or not she’s formally in the insurgent camp.

Mogolescu, however, probably reflects the views of a lot of Warren’s fans in thinking that she and only she can topple Clinton, but that she can also put together the transformative super-partisan coalition that progressives once thought Barack Obama might spearhead:

It [Warren’s speech] transformed the conventional wisdom about American politics that the main divide is between left, right, and center, when it is really between pro-corporate and anti-corporate. Her declaration that neither Democrats nor Republicans (meaning the voters, not the Washington politicians) don’t like bank bailouts rings loud and true. Tea party supporters don’t like bailouts and crony capitalism any more that progressives do.

I’m afraid we need to call B.S. on this idea of Elizabeth Warren (or any other “populist) becoming a pied piper to the Tea Folk, pulling them across the barricades to support The Good Fight against “crony capitalism.” Yes, many “constitutional conservatives” oppose corporate bailouts. But they also typically support eliminating not just subsidies but regulation of big banks and other corporations; oppose most if not all of the social safety net (and certainly its expansion); and also oppose legalized abortion and marriage equality, for that matter. It’s not even all that clear that Warren-style “populism” will improve Democratic prospects with the white working class, which harbors a host of grievances with the traditional liberalism that Warren embraces beyond her signature financial “issues.”

To most Democrats most of the time, Warren is raising important and legitimate concerns about Wall Street that must be addressed, not just dismissed as “class warfare.” To some Democrats some of the time, she represents a decisive break with the Clinton and Obama traditions that is morally necessary. But let’s don’t pretend there’s a slam-dunk “electability” case for this kind of politics. Yes, the “median voter theorem” of politics that dictates a perpetual “move to the center” by general election candidates has lost a lot of its power just in the last few years. But the countervailing “hidden majority” argument for more ideological politicians of the left and the right is hardly self-evident, and has in the past often been fool’s gold.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.