Warren’s Clear Populism Beat Brown’s Half-Hearted Populism

Bill Scher

One of the most populist Senate campaigns in the 2012 election season was the successful campaign of Elizabeth Warren. Her bread and butter strategy for overcoming Sen. Scott Brown’s lead in the polls is ably recounted over at WageClassWar.org.

In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren took on Wall Street with her demands for more financial reform, which made her a top target of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and banking industry PACs.

She defended Obamacare; hammered her opponent, incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, for voting against equal pay for women; and attacked the Romney/Ryan plan to “voucherize” Medicare. She took the lead and kept it after her Democratic National Convention speech, in which she announced, “We don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”

The campaign’s key decision was to emphasize Warren’s work in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and lead on the theme of fighting for those who are marginalized by those at the top and whose voices are not heard.

Her speech at the Democratic National Convention typified how she positioned herself as a champion of the middle class: “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them. Anyone here have a problem with that? Well I do.”

Analysts may overlook the national significance of Warren’s success. It’s just liberal Massachusetts after all. But there are several reasons why Warren’s successful message should not be discounted.

1. The majority of Massachusetts registered voters are not Democrats or Republicans but “unenrolled” in either party.

2. The plurality of actual voters in Massachusetts this year called themselves “moderate” as opposed to “liberal” or “conservative,” and “independent” as opposed to “Democrat” or “Republican.”

3. Northeast moderates are highly coveted voters. Republicans will have a very hard time being competitive in presidential elections, or be in reach of reclaiming the Senate, if they can’t appeal to them.

Having said all that, it is notable that Warren did not win these segments of the Bay State population, though she was competitive. Scott Brown won with moderates 55%-45%, and with independents 59%-41%.

But Warren did better with conservatives (22%) than Brown did with liberals (14%), ultimately proving to have the broadest appeal across ideological lines.

And Brown’s relative success is because his campaign tried to be populist too, and tried to argue Warren wasn’t a true populist.

His bumper stickers bore the simplistically populist slogan, “He’s For Us,” and he led his final rallies with the chant, “people over party.” He hugged President Obama as hard as a Republican could, to cosmetically buttress his claim as an independent-minded problem solver. His negative campaign against “Professor Warren” highlighted her six-figure salary as one of the reasons why college costs are soaring, and he twisted her legal consultant work to claim she fought for corporations and not for workers and consumers.

But Brown couldn’t square that rhetoric with other right-wing rhetoric out of the traditional Republican playbook. He stuck with his support for repealing “ObamaCare.” He defended low taxes for the top two percent, saying in one of the debates, “that two percent you’re talking about [are] the people that are actually out there creating jobs.” He tried to share credit for Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, while also slamming President Obama’s regulations as harmful to small business.

In the end, Brown’s campaign rhetoric was too incoherent, and Warren’s was too sharp. She relentlessly tagged him as standing for the “millionaires, billionaires and oil companies” instead of the middle class, and Brown repeatedly walked into her trap by defending conservative tax policies.

As a result, he couldn’t consolidate the conservative and moderates, and he couldn’t make significant inroads among liberals.

The lesson is that Brown’s short-lived senatorial career gives Republicans half of a road map to rehabilitate themselves in the Northeast and elsewhere. But they can’t take an a la carte approach to middle class populism. The positions and messages have to hold together, else they will fall apart when faced with a fully honed and refined vision for middle class resurgence.

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