Is there any doubt that Elizabeth Warren is the most interesting and exciting figure in American politics today? In the land of the bland (Mitch McConnell), the boring (John Boehner), the cranky (John McCain), the self-involved (Barak Obama), the grating (Hilary Clinton), the creepy (Ted Cruze), the weird (Rand Paul) and the bombastic (Chris Christie) she stands out. Her message is simple and straightforward – the system is rigged against the average Joe and Washington, Wall Street and, especially, the Republicans have rigged it. She’s a straight shooter, an excellent speaker and, at age 65, charismatic. Jon Stewart, one of her biggest admirers, has said on The Daily Show that he’d like to make out with her. What’s her story and does she have a chance of becoming President? Her story is quintessentially American and a good one. But no, she has no chance of becoming President.
Like many of today’s liberals, Warren refers to herself as a progressive, partly to avoid the continuing stigma of the liberal label and partly to associate herself with the Progressive Movement of the 1890’s to the 1920’s. Progressives of that earlier age reacted in part to the excesses of America’s Gilded Age and the Panic of 1893 and ensuing depression. In addition to a package of social causes (education reform, woman’s suffrage, prohibition), on the economic front these earlier progressives stressed breaking up corporate monopolies and enacting business regulation. Champions included both Republicans (Teddy Roosevelt) and Democrats (Woodrow Wilson). The bubble economy of the late 19th century was the result of over-investment in railroads and the aftermath was not unlike our own recent experience – a long period of elevated unemployment. The progressives successfully enacted business regulation (ICC and FTC in the 1890’s, Clayton Act in 1914), instituted an income tax in 1913 and broke up Standard Oil in 1911. Warren’s primary focus is on economic policy and her targets are similar: break up the giant corporations (in this case the banks) and enact new business regulation (Warren was the driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank Act). She’d like to be TR, without the monocle or the mustache.
Warren’s message is appealing to the American middle class, which continues to feel economically depressed and still blames Wall Street. Like her progressive forebears and unlike many of her Democratic colleagues, her message is strong and clear: break up the banks! As the former chair of the Congressional TARP Oversight Panel and now a member of the Senate Banking Committee she has been the scourge of bankers and government officials who have been required to face her; see her grilling of Tim Geithner on Youtube (titled the “Classic Takedown of Geithner”): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Egc_5UAJIIk. In recent days, Warren has led the expression of liberal outrage at the relaxation of Dodd-Frank requirements (derivatives trading by banks and delay of the implementation of the Volcker Rule) and the appointment of Lazard banker Antonio Weiss to the post of Undersecretary of Treasury for Domestic Finance. She’s the champion of the liberals, now disappointed with Obama and wary of Hillary, and calls for her to run for President are rising.
Warren’s appeal is bolstered by two interesting facets of her political profile. First, she has a classic American personal story: born in Oklahoma, father was a janitor who died when she was young, champ of the debate team, waitress, dropped out of college to marry her high school sweetheart, finished college, was a stay-at-home mom and then a working mom, divorced, remarried, went to law school, became a successful law professor, rose to the top at Harvard. Second, she does her homework and has thought and written a lot about middle class woes in the contemporary US economy. Warren is the author or co-author of ten books, including The Two Income Trap and Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt. She’s lived it, she’s thought and written about it and she comes across as authentic.
Elizabeth Warren will undoubtedly have a voice in the upcoming Presidential election. If Hillary falters, she may even run. But Warren has too much ideological baggage to be a winner. For one thing, she’s too liberal. She made a famous speech while running for the Senate in Massachusetts 2012 in which she said of businessmen, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” Later, this sentiment was re-worked as “You didn’t build that” and picked up by Obama. Such thoughts drive Republicans crazy and are a bit much for most Americans. In addition, Warren has no foreign policy credentials; that will be a problem at a time when the international situation looks increasingly ominous.
Still, the voice of Elizabeth Warren is strong and refreshing. Oddly, she resembles Ronald Reagan in her authenticity and clarity. Also like Reagan, she switched parties. Warren voted Republican until 1995, claiming she sided with the pro-market party until it was no longer pro-market. Having spent a few years in Cambridge, Warren has picked up some New England starchiness and comes across as a sort of political Olive Kittridge – an admirable scold. Elizabeth Strout should write a book about her.