On November 6, Elizabeth Warren will do a star turn before 400 progressive leaders, activists and legislators at the annual awards gala sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future. Her prominence is a tribute to her stunningly rapid ascension as a leader of what former Senator Paul Wellstone dubbed “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” (Disclosure: CAF is where I hang my hat.)
Like Barack Obama, Warren captured national attention with an electric speech at the Democratic Convention in 2012 while still a Senate candidate. She then raised record sums of small contributions and enlisted an army of volunteers in sweeping to victory against the incumbent tea party favorite, Republican Scott Brown.
Arriving in Washington, Warren has been careful to keep a low profile and do her homework. But she quickly stood out for her willingness to take on Wall Street lobbyists and somnambulant bank regulators.
Her first major piece of legislation called for offering students the same interest rate that banks get for their overnight loans – somewhere around 1%. If we subsidize the big banks that blew up the economy, she argued, why in the world wouldn’t we subsidize the young students who are vital to the future of the country?
She then joined with Republican John McCain to sponsor a bill to revive a modernized Glass-Steagall Act, once more divorcing the government backed consumer activities of banks from the investment-house gambling in the financial casino. Meanwhile, the agency that she conceived and parented – the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – has already challenged the banks’ credit card abuses and returned some $1 billion that had been bilked from American consumers.
It is this focus that makes Warren special. The Democratic Party is replete with politicians who combine social liberalism with Wall Street/Silicon Valley economics. The latter was best articulated by Robert Rubin, the former head of Goldman Sachs who became Clinton’s Treasury secretary and economic guru. Rubinomics touts fiscal austerity, corporate trade policies, and banking deregulation – the full catastrophe that led to Gilded Age inequality at home and the financial wilding that blew up the global economy.
Warren, from the start, has made herself the champion of families on what she calls the “ragged edge of the middle class.” In her speech to the Democratic National Convention, she embraced America’s
hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth—the game is rigged against them.
But she not only embraces them, she is willing – all too rare in modern politics – to challenge the powerful interests that fix the game against them.
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. I talk to small business owners all across Massachusetts. Not one of them—not one—made big bucks from the risky Wall Street bets that brought down our economy. I talk to nurses and programmers, salespeople and firefighters—people who bust their tails every day. Not one of them—not one—stashes their money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”
This is the Warren trademark – a passionate and informed populist temper that stands clearly with working families and is willing to name names and take ‘em on. That’s why she was the only national elected official outside of President Obama invited to keynote the AFL-CIO national convention this year. Her stirring speech called out the pro-corporate gang of five that dominates the Supreme Court. “You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business,” she said.
She indicted the trade deals, negotiated behind closed doors that fix the game for global corporations:
For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public. Because it’s a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors…From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.
Why are trade deals secret? I’ve heard people actually say that they have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed. Think about that. I believe that if people would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.
She made it clear that Americans in overwhelming numbers stood with workers and their unions. Raise the minimum wage. Protect Social Security. Provide affordable health care.
“We have a mandate—a mandate to build a fair tax code, one that isn’t rigged to give breaks to big oil and billionaires while it crushes working families. We have a mandate to invest in the future – in infrastructure, in research and innovation, and in education. And we have a mandate to create jobs – jobs right here in America, jobs for hard working people!
So here’s my message: Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate!”
This passionate, informed and hard-hitting populism is spot on in this age of extreme inequality and money-drenched politics, where the richest few pocket all the rewards of growth and working families struggle to stay afloat.
Naturally, Warren is a sensation in the progressive blogosphere and media, with extended discussions ongoing about how to draft her to run for president. Warren, sensibly, has dismissed any talk of a presidential run and joined in the letter sent by Democratic Senate women encouraging Hillary Clinton to run.
But all of this is way premature. What is clear is that there is a growing debate within the Democratic Party between its Wall Street wing and its Democratic wing – and Elizabeth Warren is already playing a leading role in defining the agenda and electrifying the base of that Democratic wing. She knows the rules that are rigged against working people. She knows the entrenched interests that are rigging them. And she is willing to take them on.
With the emerging Democratic majority – the “rising American electorate” of millennials, single women and people of color – struggling in this economy, Elizabeth Warren is likely to find thousands of activists and millions of Americans ready to stand with her.
Photo by Tim Pierce.