The notion that Elizabeth Warren should challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination has been optimistically tossed around in left-wing circles for a while now. Activists at Netroots Nation recently chanted “Run, Liz, run.” And no doubt, the excitement generated by Warren is a function of her ideological sincerity—a sincerity that’s most obvious when contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s lack of earnestness and pandering.
Still, it seems to me that a lot of people are overestimating the appeal, uniqueness, and popularity of Warren. What’s most enticing about Warren right now is the perception of her, not the reality.
For starters, once you get past her impassioned sermons, and they can be quite entertaining, the most striking aspect of Warren’s big-message progressivism—the driving principles are laid out in the much-discussed “11 commandments” speech—is how small and ordinary it all is. She might offer Americans more “commandments” than God, but most of her directives can found on the “issues” page of any middling Democratic candidate’s website:
We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.
We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.
We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.
Immigration reform. “Science.” Protecting Social Security and Medicare. Equal pay. Rolling back some religious freedom and free speech … and you know the rest. As far as I can tell, Hillary supports every single one of these items. Then again, you probably don’t believe her.
It’s when Warren goes full Progressive that she sounds like a irate union boss. She promises to “fight” for all of you, yet not one doctrine of the modern Left according to Warren has anything to do with broad economic growth. Put it this way: one the fundamental Progressive “commandments”—top 11! according to Warren—is this:
We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.
Not exactly a shining city upon a hill.
Maybe American idealism has degraded to the point that a politician who promises to stand on a picket line with fast food workers rather than a politician that promises to help fast food workers find better paying jobs is the one that captures the imagination of grassroots activist. Maybe progressivism has always been that way. It seems unlikely, though, that this kind of superficial populism will capture the imagination of the average voter. As the economy improves, in fact, inequality mongering will likely lose some of its political power—a development Barack Obama could probably confirm these days. When it worked, Obama’s rhetoric could be uplifting. He promised all of you health care. Warren promises you $10.10 a hour.
Even the most appealing aspect of Warren’s politics, her alleged commitment to weakening Wall Street’s influence over Washington, is unconvincing. People were surprised when she offered to support the corporate welfare Export-Import Bank last week. But it wasn’t hypocrisy. We sometimes confuse those who try to restrict and control markets with those who have genuine anxieties about crony capitalism. It’s similar to the way we often confuse the coddling of rent-seeking corporations with “capitalism.”
It’s worth noting that Warren was appointed chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP. Most of her focus, then and later, was on how we spend bailout funds, not if we should spend them. Warren’s anti-cronyism is incidental; a byproduct of a Progressive political agenda that supports the funneling of nearly all serious economic choices (from mortgages to energy policy to health care) through Washington—the kind of policy that breeds the unhealthy relationships she claims to abhor. The “system is rigged,” Warren likes to say. And maybe she’s right. She just wants to rig it her way. Warren doesn’t have a problem with big banks or corporations. She has a problem with banks and corporations that make profits in ways that she finds morally intolerable. She is an opponent of dynamism, not cronyism.
So where is the crossover appeal? And where’s all this support I keep reading about? When a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Democrats not only dislike “Wall Street” and big business, but believe these institutions are inflicting harm on them personally, Aaron Blake argued that the table was set for a Warren run. And shouldn’t that be the case? Yet, as Scott Conroy points out, in the latest RealClearPolitics national polling average for 2016 Democratic nomination, Warren sits around 60 points behind Clinton—with similar numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Update: David Weigel contends that the movement to elect Warren president is “make believe.”)
That’s not to say Warren can’t happen. Clinton proved there’s no such thing as iron-clad inevitability in politics. Though she’s a fresh political face, Warren is only about a year younger than Hillary. People tend to forget her time to run is also short. And I hope Warren does go for it. She would offer a more honest reflection of Democratic Party’s drift to the far Left on economics. But if anyone believes Democrats have another 2008-Obama on their hands, they haven’t really taken the time to listen to Elizabeth Warren.