Warren 2014 Is More Important Than Warren 2016

Bill Scher

Over at Politico Magazine today, I analyzed the meaning of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s busy 2014 schedule, stumping and raising money for a wide range of Democratic candidates on the ballot this November.

Many speculate this has something to do with 2016, but she has repeatedly and emphatically denied any presidential bid. Instead, people should pay attention to what she is saying on policy matters, how she is saying it, which candidates are following her lead, and gauging how well her message works on the trail.

She is pioneering an “us-versus-them” argument that fingers “Wall Street” as the obstacle to progressive reform, an approach that’s subtly different from what President Obama is delivering on the stump. From my Politico article:

In her recent appearances alongside Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes and West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant, she portrayed the options before voters as “a choice between billionaires and students” or between someone who will “stand up for Wall Street” or “stand up for the families.” She name-checked Citibank and Goldman Sachs as among the Wall Streeters who already have “plenty of folks in the United State Senate who are willing to work on their side,” suggesting they don’t need to hold on to eager recipients of financial industry campaign cash like Sen. Mitch McConnell or Rep. Shelley Capito. And she used her signature student loan bill that would pay for refinancing by closing tax loopholes, filibustered by Republicans but embraced by the two Appalachian Democrats, as a case study of whose side each candidate is on…

..Contrast … Warren’s blunt binaries with the example President Barack Obama sought to set during his recent heartland swing … In Minnesota, he slammed Republican “obstruction” that “is keeping a system that is rigged against [middle-class] families.” In Texas, he defended the liberal principle of active government for the common good, chastising Republicans who believe “if we just take care of folks at the top, or at least if we don’t empower our government to be able to help anybody, that somehow jobs and prosperity will trickle down and we’ll all be better off. And that may work just fine for folks at the top … But it doesn’t help you [or] your communities.”…

…he stops short of embracing Warren’s us-versus-them framework. “Wall Street,” or its unpopular representatives, are never mentioned by name. Obama prefers the word “everybody,” as when he declared in Colorado, “we’re fighting for the idea that everybody gets opportunity” with robust investments in infrastructure, energy and education, along with a higher minimum wage and increased workplace flexibility. Clinton is singing from the same hymnal, reportedly using the line “we’re all in this mess together” when discussing her thinking on economic issues in recent speeches.

What’s behind this rhetorical distinction? Obama is embracing the “inclusive populism” or “everyone economics,” as described by Center for American Progress’ Ruy Teixeira. He argued that “What worries [Americans] is less the size of statistical gaps in income or wealth, and more their sense that the system is rigged in favor of the powerful to prevent average people from having opportunities to move up the ladder … The most effective way to sell the progressive vision for the economy is everyone economics language focusing on providing opportunity for those who lack it today, not simply taking from some and giving to others.”

Meanwhile, Warren is employing the “active voice populism” favored by our own Robert Borosage, who argues it is superior to “passive voice populism” because it names the “culprits that must challenged,” and properly fingering the cause more directly leads to fundamentally transformative policy solutions.

A race to watch when assessing the effectiveness of Warren’s approach is the Senate race in West Virginia. The Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant starts out as a 10-point underdog, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge Warren based on whether she can win outright. But Tennant is closely modeling her anti-Wall Street rhetoric on Warren’s, and her Republican opponent is particularly allied with the banking industry. If Tennant can turn that race from a blowout to a competition, Warren’s rhetorical strategy would deserve the credit.

And as other contested races heat up in the fall, keep an eye out for other candidates adopting Warren’s “active voice populism.” The better those candidates do, the more leverage Warren will have in the policy battles ahead regarding financial regulation, tax reform and trade agreements.

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