Elizabeth Warren and The New Populist Challenge

Robert Borosage

A powerful new populist challenge is emerging from the reality of an economy that is not working for working people. It is expressed not by the Koch-funded, rabidly anti-government Tea Party, but by the new populists, inside and outside the Democratic Party.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as its champion. Her speech at the New Populism Conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future on May 22 summarizes the case.

For the mainstream media, the headline from the conference was Warren’s reiteration that she has no intention of running for president. Like all such statements, that pledge is written in water, inevitably impacted by times and tides. For progressives, the real news was the expanded agenda that she announced she was ready to “fight for,” and her forceful commitment to reframe the national debate.

Warren began with her basic case: Americans know that the “game is rigged.” That injustice is exposed in everyday scandals, from the tax dodges that allow millionaires to pay lower taxes than their secretaries, budget priorities that lard the most profitable corporations in the world while cutting funding for education, a justice system that jails kids for possessing “a few ounces of pot,” while bankers launder billions in drug cartel profits and “no one even gets arrested.”

This forces, Warren argues, not only a “fight over economics, over privilege, over power,” but also a “fight over values.” Conservatives are guided by their age-old principle: “I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.”

“But we’re guided by principle, too. It’s a simple idea: We all do better when we work together and invest in our future.”

Then she outlined an agenda based on core values that the new populists “are willing to fight for.” This includes the senator’s signature issues: Cracking down on Wall Street; protecting consumers in from the “tricks and traps” of the financial world; giving every child a fair shot at an education, beginning by insuring that college is affordable; ensuring there is equal pay for equal work.

But her agenda also embraced big ideas that she has only just begun to champion. The commitment to retirement security requires not just defending, but expanding Social Security. The new populists, she argued, have to fight for “the right of workers to come together, to bargain together” for wages and working conditions. Strikingly, she called for a trade policy that works for Americans and not just for global corporations, noting the current discussions are secret because Americans would reject the deals if they knew about them.

She pledged to fight for the public investments vital to our future – from rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure, to expanded R&D, to affordable, high quality education for every child. And, of course, repeated her commitment to fair taxes on the rich and corporations to pay for what we need.

With this speech, Warren dramatized the fault lines between the new populism and core elements of the conservative economics of the last decades, from Reagan to Clinton to Obama: coddling Wall Street, peddling corporate trade accords, enforcing fiscal austerity, going AWOL in the war on workers, and now pushing cuts in retirement security to help pay down the debt amassed from the economic collapse caused by Wall Street’s excesses.

Warren’s list is not a fringe agenda. Elements have been adopted by Senate Democrats, even in an election year featuring a struggle to defend relatively conservative Democratic incumbents in largely red states. Their “fair shot agenda” includes raising the minimum wage, pay equity, and cracking down on wage theft. They’ve embraced the Warren proposal to refinance existing student loans at far lower rates, paid for by closing tax loopholes for millionaires. Democratic leaders Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have blocked a vote on “fast track” trade authority before the election. Democratic senators are increasing the pressure on the Justice Department and regulatory agencies to enforce the law on the big banks.

Warren’s commitment to “fight for” this agenda, already influencing the 2014 campaign, will surely help define the debate in 2016, whether the senator ultimately throws her hat in the ring or not. This will pose some “hard choices” to Hillary Clinton’s formidable candidacy. Hillary is Wall Street’s favored candidate. The new populism insures greater strain between Democratic voters and many of its donors. Hillary is quintessentially the candidate of experience. The new populism demands change.

Hillary and Bill have been reframing his presidency in more populist terms, sensibly contrasting the jobs growth and broadly shared rewards with what has followed. But Clinton embraced many of the conservative follies of the time – the NAFTA and China trade accords, tax cuts on investor income, tax breaks for CEO stock options, fiscal austerity, deregulation of Wall Street and escalating financial crises, welfare repeal, three-strikes-and-out sentencing and soaring imprisonment. Hillary will need to figure out how to tout the Clinton record while arguing that new realities require new directions.

With Americans discouraged by the economy and increasingly outraged at the rigged game, presidential candidates – in both primaries and the general election – will have to present themselves as clear and compelling champions of change. Warren and the new populists are setting down the markers that define what change is. That will have a major impact in 2016, whether Sen. Warren ultimately runs or not.

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