Everybody’s eyes are on Hillary Clinton, but Elizabeth Warren might be the one Democrats should be watching if a golden calf is what they hope to avoid.
In one scene from the 1956 Bible epic “The Ten Commandments,” a photogenic, pre-NRA Charlton Heston, playing the role of Moses, appears to his people after hearing the Lord up on Mt. Sinai. Depressingly, he finds his people worshipping a golden calf in an orgy of decadent self-indulgence, wherein, in their fear, they abandon Yahweh for a new god made of gold. Fashioned as a symbol of penitence and supplication for mercy to the pharaoh they had just rebelled against, the story of the calf has come to represent abandonment of the true faith and the elevation of materialist safety-seeking ever since.
As a metaphor, one can’t but help but see some similarities between the protagonists in that old Cecil B. DeMille classic and today’s Democrats, who must soon choose between two very different approaches. Those choices? The calf of electability, as represented by the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, and Elizabeth Warren, the populist junior senator from Massachusetts who has become a progressive darling of late due to her increasingly combative — yet ever so polite — call for progressives to get out and fight the good fight traditionally fought by Democrats. Only whereas Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, Warren is attempting something far more difficult: a sundering of the cozy, corrupt relationship between big money, corporate America and the party once known for sticking up for the little guy.
The progressives’ exile in Egypt
For Democrats, bondage to the calf began in the late 1980s, when fresh off of humiliating defeats in 1980, 1984 and 1988, a coterie of Southern governors and other Democrats concerned about the party’s drift into the unelectable left began making appeals to business interests and the wealthy. Organized under the banner of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, these new “Third Way” Democrats bridged the divide between America’s organized left and right by adopting a pro-business economic agenda while also paying lip service to the left’s views on social issues.
As a political formula, it turned out to be a brilliant success, and in 1992 it allowed the Democrats — led by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas — to defeat an incumbent president who had just won a war, safely put an end to the Cold War, and had at one point enjoyed approval ratings of nearly 90 percent. It was something of a political revolution that proved immensely popular with voters, to say the least, and the approach even found adherents and admirers outside the United States. What’s important, though, is that for the Democrats it ended over 12 years of wandering in the political desert and allowed the party — or at least its the business-friendly parts — to once again taste and wield power.
However, for progressives and others on the left still concerned with issues of social justice and economic equality, the Clinton administration remained a period of exile. Like the Biblical prophet whose warnings of disaster went unheeded, progressives and their allies looked on as the relationship between the Democratic Party and big business deepened. Money flowed into the party’s coffers from big-dollar donors like manna from heaven, while members of the business and financial elite allied themselves to, and even went to work for, the Clinton White House.
It couldn’t last, of course, and in hindsight the policy concessions made by the Clintons and the New Democrats in Congress now seem to have been very poor decisions. The mad rush to financialize anything and everything began on President Clinton’s watch, while at the same time, efforts to first regulate the speculative instruments that would later bring down the economy in 2008 were crushed by Clinton’s top economic advisors. Tradedeals championed by Clinton that were meant to make Americans better off, instead largely benefitted corporate America by generally diminishing labor’s bargaining power, especially for lower-skilled workers, while welfare was reformed in ways that actually made it less capable of helping people when an economic crisis actually occurred.
Go down, Moses
In general, the policies put in place by the New Democrats and their Republican allies helped set the stage for our current economic malaise in which — six years after the most devastating economic crisis the world had seen since the Great Depression — job growth is disappointing and wages stagnant, while economic inequality has hit Gilded Age levels. What’s worse, though, is that in erasing much of the differences between Republicans and Democrats when it came to big business and big money, the New Democrats effectively helped elect George W. Bush.
After all, if there were no longer major differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues, why not vote for the more honest representative of the right-wing worldview? One would at least know what one was getting with George W. Bush, and a vote for Bush would allow working and middle-class whites grown disenchanted with Democrats’ positions on social issues to voice their solidarity with conservatives. Values don’t trump pocketbook issues all the time, of course, but at a time when the party of the little guy was wining and dining the fat cats as heavily as the Republicans, there seemed little to gain from, and not much to lose by, voting for the GOP.
The disastrous eight years of the George W. Bush administration taught us differently, and the country — progressives included — were startled enough by Bush’s unfolding disasters that they supported a young, untested black senator from Illinois who, by dint of who he was, seemed altogether different from what had come before. Lofted into office on airy rhetoric and promises of “change you can believe in,” that junior senator was elected president and promptly set to work by repairing some of the massive damage caused to this country by the White House’s previous tenant.
Not all has gone smoothly, though, and while great advances have been made to dig us out of the hole in which we found ourselves, President Barack Obama’s insistence on treating conservatives fairly and in good faith, despite unprecedented levels of vitriolic obstructionism, has made him less popular in the party than he once was. Coupled with the usual fatigue that sets in this far into a two-term presidency, and naturally, the public, including Democrats, are pining for someone different to lead them. Moses, then, is retreating into his tent, so who will replace him?
Like the frightened Hebrews bereft of Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, it would seem that without a charismatic, progressive-leaning leader to unify them, Democrats are in danger of returning to the false promise of the golden calf — that is, raw electability. While Obama may not have the popularity left in him to reprise his role as Moses, the party’s newest leader, Elizabeth Warren, might actually be able to pick up the proverbial burning bush laid down by the president and serve as the Joshua to Obama’s Moses. If so, then the Democrats’ fortunes in 2014 and 2016 might not be as dire as some pundits are forecasting.
That’s because Warren — the former academic policy expert who seems to exude honest earnestness and white-hot righteous anger all at the same time — is proving to be quite the force on the campaign trail. Already incredibly popular, she has leveraged her growing influence within the party to raise funds and stump for Democratic candidates across the country. She has, for instance, campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates in Tennessee and West Virginia — both deep-red states — and raised money for Democrats in blue states like Oregon and Michigan. She did this, it should be noted, all while on a platform as anti-Wall Street as it comes. She has even attracted the notice of Republicans, who deem her a big enough threat to vilify her wherever she goes.
All this has provided grist for the rumor mill that Warren might be setting the stage for a run at the White House in 2016, making her at the moment the presumptive anti-Hillary in a race the former Secretary of State is seen as likely to win. Now that Warren’s written a book and campaigned and raised money for others, all that’s left is for her to issue some wide-ranging statement of philosophy that appeals enough to the party’s core voters to attract attention and further support for a future run at the White House.
Which, as it happens, she’s just done at a venue close to the heart of those young, networked activists who sent Obama to the White House in 2008. Dubbed her “11 Commandments” by party watchers keeping tabs on the senator, it’s mostly an anodyne collection of left-populist positions that any Democrat — and certainly any progressive — would agree to. Indeed, in terms of policy preferences, there is little that actually separates her from Obama. Even Hillary Clinton — in those few, unguarded moments in which she might feel free to express an honest, uncalculated opinion — would probably agree with them, too.
So what’s the big deal? Why is an articulation of basic principles something worthy of time or attention? Well, for one, there is the way she delivered it — forthrightly and without a hint of backtracking or centrist triangulation. She is as certain of her position as any on the right, and she is a breath of fresh air for a Democratic Party still too close to big money and rife with centrist time-servers. “No Drama” Obama might get things done — when he can — but after six years, his steady hand and rather large accomplishments have been undermined by a stale personality that doesn’t seem to have much fire left its the belly.
Perhaps that’s a good thing, given how hard it is to run a country as divided as ours currently is, but it certainly inspires no passion and leaves the president open to charges of being unmotivated and wishy-washy. In politics, a realm in which perception is often everything, this can dispirit one’s supporters and give rise to opposition hope that they can use frustration and disappointment to snatch away power. If Warren can step into the leadership gap at the White House and allay those fears by bucking up the spirit of listless Democrats, then she could be well positioned to not just limit damage to the party in November, but also to take up the mantle of presidential leadership as we head into the post-2014 presidential landscape.
And who, exactly, will shepherd the party into the future is going to be a vitally important question, not just for 2014, of course, but for 2016 and the election cycles coming after it, too. That’s because the combination of changing demographics and the scheduling of Senate elections will be increasingly favorable to the party. Not only will left-leaning groups comprise a larger and larger portion of the electorate in coming years — making it increasingly difficult for the GOP to win a presidential election — but more Republicans in more vulnerable Senate seats will be up for re-election as well. Happily for Democrats, this means they will be able to go on the offensive after a long period of playing defense.
Thus, if the Democrats can stave off a truly terrible defeat in November they might be positioned to retain — with the right candidate — not just the White House in 2016, but also enough seats in the Senate after 2016 to push them past 60, the magic number required to break a filibuster. What’s more, the next census and its mandated redistricting of House seats is only six years away, so if Democrats play their cards right, they might be able to retake the House, too, if they gerrymander out of existence enough seats currently held by Republicans.
This means that nirvana for Democrats — control of both the House and the Senate, in addition to retaining the White House — could be just around the electoral corner. If that’s the case, then whoever leads the party now during the waning, unpopular years of the Obama presidency — the desert after Egypt — will be the person most likely to direct this oncoming Democratic majority if it should actually appear.
For progressives just recently let out of the bondage of the long Clinton-Bush interregnum, it would thus be a shame for them to put their faith in a golden calf like Hillary Clinton — no matter how electable she may seem today — when Warren and the Promised Land beckon from just around the corner.