The progressive face of a regressing party

October 20, 2014

The rhetoric of liberal Democrats is just that--rhetoric--writes Elizabeth Schulte.

ELIZABETH WARREN may not be running for office this year, but she sure is hitting the campaign trail. The Massachusetts senator is traveling around the country trying to rescue the Democratic Party in states where it could lose important seats to Republicans in the November elections.

By April, she had already raised $1.2 million for Senate candidates during this election season. "Most members of Congress are not capable of raising that much for their colleagues," Viveca Novak, editorial director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told Mother Jones. "She's a rock star."

With Republicans threatening to make big gains in the November elections, including re-taking control of the U.S. Senate, Warren is a major factor in the Democrats' plans. The hope is that her populist profile will win back some support for a party whose sitting president, after six years of broken promises, has reached a new low point of revulsion.

As such, she's one of the only leading figures in the party to criticize Obama from the left. In an interview with Thomas Frank in Salon, Warren declared: "They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Eric Haynes)

A former Harvard law professor and consumer advocate, Warren was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012 on the basis of her opposition to the federal government's bailout of Wall Street and her stated concern about the decline in working-class living standards.

Warren's tough talk sounds good to a lot of people. The list of talking points at her campaign speeches and the speaking tour for her book A Fighting Chance include raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women, lowering the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans, and restoring regulation of the banking industry.

In her book and personal appearances, the details of Warren's coming-of-age story also earn her more respect--her mother had to get a minimum-wage job to support the family after her father, a janitor, fell ill; her own struggle to complete law school, care for a family and have a career.

As chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, appointed during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, Warren was an outspoken opponent of letting big banks off the hook for the crisis. She fought for the formation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) with the goal of making mortgages and lending transparent and uncovering predatory practices--and was expected to become its chief when it was finally created.

But all the good speeches in the world can't make up for the actual record of the party Warren belongs to. Like so many other liberal figures before her, Warren's main impact is to put a populist façade on a Democratic Party that stands for preserving corporate power.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party may be putting Elizabeth Warren out in front in certain campaigns--though not others where the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats need to run to the center. But her prominence as a party spokesperson doesn't translate into mainstream Democratic support for the policies she advocates for. And Warren is more than willing to take a backseat when the party wants her to.

Which begs the questions: Is Elizabeth Warren really on the side of the people she claims to speak for?

In 2011, Warren claimed to support Occupy Wall Street in an interview with the Daily Beast. "I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do," she said, referring to her research on the impact of consumer debt. "I support what they do."

But Warren's support only went so far--and she wasn't around when the police rounded up and arrested Occupy protesters in her hometown of Boston.

Sarah Palin may think she's a Marxist, but the truth is that what Elizabeth Warren advocates is actually pretty modest. As James Surowiecki pointed out in the New Yorker in 2011, while the banks may be terrified at the prospect of greater regulation:

Warren is far from the anti-capitalist radical that her critics (and some of her supporters) suppose. Indeed, an empowered CFPB could actually be a boon to business.

The core principle of Warren's work is also a cornerstone of economic theory: well-informed consumers make for vigorous competition and efficient markets...And, at a time when Americans profoundly distrust the financial industry, a Warren-led CFPB could turn out to be the friend that the banks never knew they needed.

Likewise, many of her recent talking points, so celebrated by liberals, should be the bare minimum of what Democratic supporters should expect of their candidates. But because the Democrats have drifted so far to the right, Warren sounds like a radical to a lot of them.

This is the same person who didn't decide to leave the Republican Party until the mid-1990s. While she won't say whether she ever voted for Ronald Reagan, there's no avoiding the fact that the Republicans and their embrace of an unfettered free market ushered in an era of record prosperity for Corporate America.

In her book The Two-Income Trap, Warren has some pretty conservative formulations about women, work and family. This includes stating that the middle-class family arrangement of old--in which men were the sole income-earners and women stayed at home with the children--was better for U.S. families.

In the book, Warren argues that the mother played a role as a kind of family insurance policy, in case the man became ill or unemployed--swooping in the take on a job if the family needed more income to survive. While Warren acknowledged that women who want to work should be able to do so and that most families couldn't get by on one income, she does open the door to a conservative criticism of women working outside the home.

Her views include this rather inaccurate characterization of the 1960s struggles and their demands:

On the left, the women's movement was battling for equal pay and equal opportunity, and any suggestion that the family might be better off with Mother at home was discounted as reactionary chauvinism...Feminists assumed that women's entry in the workforce entailed no real costs--only benefits.

IN SOME of Warren's recent voters as a senator, she took the side of business over working people, including a vote to repeal a core element of the Obama administration's health care law--the medical-device tax--so as not to hamper medical manufacturers based in Massachusetts. She also voted with Republicans in support of repealing or reducing the estate tax levied against the heirs of millionaires if it could be implemented without adding to the federal deficit.

And then there are the subjects, like foreign policy, where Warren sounds no different from the most bloodthirsty of Democrats.

In August, as Israel rained destruction on Palestinians in Gaza, Warren joined fellow Democrats in voting for $225 million in emergency spending for Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system--sending a clear message of support for Israel's terror. When challenged about her vote at a public appearance in Hyannis, Mass., Warren stood by it, explaining:

America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.

Warren went on to defend Israel's assault on civilians:

[W]hen Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself.

During her Senate campaign in 2012, Warren voiced support for sanctions against Iran, which was believed at the time to be a significant nuclear threat, even though the Obama administration couldn't provide any real evidence to prove it. In one campaign debate, Warren complimented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama on their Iran policy, saying Obama's "done a first-rate job. He's taking nothing off the table."

Warren argued that military action was one possible option against Iran. "Our number one responsibility is to protect Americans from terrorism," she told supporters at a campaign stop in Gloucester in 2011. "That's our job, so being tough on terrorism is enormously important."

As for the latest chapter in the never-ending "war on terror," the U.S. offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Warren is just as dedicated to this project as most Democrats. "We need to be working now, full-speed ahead, with other countries, to destroy ISIS. That should be our number one priority," Warren told reporter Katie Couric in early September.

Warren supported renewed U.S. air strikes on Iraq, saying, "The point is there has to be a negotiated solution in Iraq, but we don't negotiate with terrorists." She told reporters, "This is partially a question of whether the U.S. government negotiates or whether we have the Iraqi government doing these negotiations, and how we help support them as they try to maintain an integrated country, and a country that better represents all of the people who live there."

WARREN WAS filled with fiery rhetoric last May when she spoke at the New Populism conference. "The game is rigged," she told attendees at the conference sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future. "We can whine about it or we can fight it. I've decided I'm fighting back."

Warren's rhetoric was so forceful that it led some people to think she might be in the running for president. This summer, a group that said it was drafting Warren for 2016--Ready for Warren--showed up at the Netroots conference in Detroit.

But Elizabeth Warren is about as likely to challenge the Democratic Party establishment's choice for president as she is to leave the Democrats.

Likewise, the effort to "recruit" Warren for the 2016 nomination race has nothing to do with elevating progressive ideals or shifting the Democrats to the left--and everything to do with bringing disappointed base supporters of the Democrats back into the fold.

The points that Warren highlights in many of her speeches--corporate greed and the plight of American workers--are actually popular ideas among the people who vote Democratic. But within the party establishment--the people who actually make and carry out policy--they're not as popular.

The hope among so many Democratic liberals is that people like Elizabeth Warren will bring the Democratic Party back to its true populist roots. But the opposite is true. The role of liberal figures like Warren--like Dennis Kucinich or Jesse Jackson or many more before them--is to pull progressive supporters of the Democrats back to the party at election time. As Lance Selfa wrote for

Politicians like [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio and Warren, who have never made any noise about pursuing a "progressive agenda" outside the Democratic Party, can always be relied on as loyal soldiers in the end.

In fact, this is one of the most important roles they can play in Democratic Party politics. When a right-winger like [New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo] needs to sew up support from unions he bashes on a regular basis, he has to lean on someone like de Blasio to corral that support. And because de Blasio's loyalty is to the Democratic Party first and foremost, he can be counted on to urge his supporters to get behind more conservative Democrats.

Elizabeth Warren is no different. She isn't a challenger; she's a conciliator. She doesn't want to raise expectations, but lower them. She won't bring progressive issues to the Democratic Party table--her role is to tell us to be happy for the scraps we're offered.

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