WASHINGTON – Not many political “rock stars” inspire audience members to knit, but, even by Washington’s sedate standards, the darling of America’s new left is a quiet revolutionary.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard professor turned Wall Street scourge, is one of a clutch of unlikely radicals giving hope to those disenchanted with mainstream Democrats.
Hours before a rare public appearance last week, one of the largest rooms in Congress begins slowly filling up with an odd mix of groupies: policy wonks, finance geeks, Occupy activists, and yes, the type of political conference attendee who brings their knitting in.
Warren proceeds to calmly recite numbers that could inspire even librarians to storm a few barricades. The Wall Street crash has cost the U.S. economy $14 trillion, she says, but its top institutions are 30 percent larger than before, own half the country’s bank assets and are in receipt of an implicit taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion a year because they are deemed “too big to fail.”
“We have got to get back to running this country for American families, not for its largest financial institutions,” concludes Warren, before noting how little President Barack Obama has done to achieve that.
When the same message was delivered to union leaders in September, she had them standing on their chairs. But for the first time since the banking crash, the argument is connecting at the ballot box too. Mayoral elections in Boston and New York two weeks ago saw left-wing candidates with similar messages about economic inequality win by surprising landslides.
Meanwhile, Terry McAuliffe, the former Clinton fundraiser who epitomizes the business-friendly Democratic mainstream, saw his substantial poll lead in Virginia all but evaporate under attack from populists on the right.
Whereas the tea party has worked relentlessly since the financial crash to recast the Republican Party as a perceived challenger to Wall Street, Democrats such as Obama and his potential successor Hillary Rodham Clinton rely heavily on financial donors and have veered away from confrontation. But the popularity of senators such as Warren in Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown in Ohio has combined with recent mayoral election wins by Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston to raise hopes that the left could yet exert the same pull on Democrats.
“The challenges the Democratic Party has faced since 2009 have largely been a result of the public’s perception that the party isn’t clearly enough on their side,” argues Damon Silvers, policy director for the AFL-CIO union umbrella group. “Republicans have exploited that very skillfully, even though Republicans are totally owned by the financial class.”
Adds Silvers: “What’s happening now is the emergence of politicians — De Blasio and Walsh being recent examples — that are just not interested in that type of politics. And those people are being successful. They are stepping into a political vacuum that is all about authenticity in relationship to issues of inequality and the power of financial interests.”
Though the similarity only goes so far, the shared interest of America’s new left and tea party conservatives in challenging the economic status quo also shows how figures such as Warren might attract broader support beyond traditional Democratic voters.
One self-confessed Warren groupie is David Collum, a Cornell University chemistry professor and amateur investor, whose enthusiasm for free market economics previously led him to endorse libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul. Collum has been exchanging regular emails with Warren since before the crash and says she captured his imagination because her brand of intelligent populism transcends traditional political boundaries.
“If you look at her and Ron Paul, it’s the same thing: they appear to speak from the heart,” he explains. “Here you have Warren saying the banks are thugs, she supports the consumer, which has a natural left-wing sound to it, but I don’t think it’s putty-headed liberalism, I think she is just an advocate for the small person.”
The buzz around Warren reached fever pitch last week with an article in New Republic magazine predicting she could challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Widely-read, if not endorsed, across Washington, the piece entitled “Hillary’s nightmare” was followed by a similar analysis in Politico describing the prospect as “Wall Street’s nightmare.”
Like many eventual nominees, Warren is emphatic that she does not want to run for the White House — a fact her supporters claim makes her ideal — and the notion resulted in skepticism from some Washington insiders.
But the question of whether it is Sen. Warren or one of the other emerging left-wingers who challenges the Clinton orthodoxy in 2016 may prove besides the point if even the talk of her running causes team Hillary to reassess its rumored dependence on Wall Street fundraising and helps pull the party away from big business.
Political pundits in the media have often been slow to capture public mood changes, ignoring the Occupy Wall Street movement for months, for example, and were also caught by surprise by de Blasio’s win in New York.
The man who took America’s biggest city back under Democratic Party control for the first time in two decades was not even endorsed by the liberal New York Times, which opted for a more mainstream candidate, Christine Quinn.
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post was predictably blunter, calling de Blasio a pro-Cuban communist, while The Washington Post got into hot water with a column suggesting “people with conventional views” in other states would have to “repress a gag reflex” when considering him because he was married to an African-American who used to be lesbian.
In the end, de Blasio won the support of 73 percent of New York’s voters with an unapologetically left-wing campaign: arguing for tax increases on the rich to pay for better schools and using his afro-haired son to promote a campaign against police harassment of young black men.
The skepticism among political elites that such policies will translate outside liberal bastions like New York may be warranted. Howard Dean, the last such candidate seen as a serious presidential candidate, crashed and burned when he was seen as too “shouty.” Ralph Nader, who ran to the left of John Kerry as an independent candidate in 2004 arguably cost him the election that made way for George W. Bush.
But what has changed is that mainstream Democrats and Republicans in Washington seem even less popular today than the perceived outsiders on the left and right.
Both Obama and the Republican Party hit record lows in the polls recently after the government shutdown and botched launch of health care reforms exacerbated a national feeling that Washington is broken.
“I think the lesson that we have to draw from [these polls] is that the American people are not satisfied,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
In this atmosphere, anyone who doesn’t appear part of the Washington mainstream is by definition a populist.
But whereas right-wing challengers in the tea party can lump public dissatisfaction with Washington, Wall Street and the government into one big anti-establishment message, radicals on the left have a finer line to tread especially after Obama’s botched health care launch led to such mistrust of their preferred public sector solutions.
Other rising stars, including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — also tipped as a left-wing challenger to Hillary in 2016 — have done it by marrying liberal policies with managerial success at the state level.
The former mayor of Baltimore has introduced gun control legislation, abolished the death penalty and legalized same sex marriages all while successfully increasing government spending in areas such as transport.
Nonetheless, compared with Clinton, both O’Malley and Warren remain virtual unknowns nationally and would face a huge challenge in winning the Democratic primary let alone the White House.
Warren describes her battle with the banks as a “David and Goliath struggle.” But whether David can take on the Goliaths of the Democratic party is a whole other matter.