Podcast: Warren vs. Sanders on Med4All, Credibility, Electability, and More.

Keaton and Russell discuss Warren vs. Sanders in terms of their tenacity, strategy, credibility, electability, and more. Also check out Russell’s article below, which accompanies the recording!

Warren Turns Down the Elvis Gig

by Russell Dobular

In 1953, an 18-year old truck driver walked into Sun Records to record a cover of “My Happiness” for his mother’s birthday. Sam Phillips, the owner, specialized in blues, gospel, country, and the new, emerging rock n’ roll sound being produced almost entirely at the time by African American artists. But Phillips knew he would never be able to penetrate the culture with black artists the way a Frank Sinatra or a Bing Crosby could. No white parent was going to allow their teenage daughter to lay in her bed at night with a poster of Little Richard staring back at her. What he needed was a white singer with a “negro” sound. What he found that day was Elvis Presley, whose eventual designation as “the King of Rock n’ Roll” was a source of bitterness to his far more gifted contemporary Chuck Berry, to his dying day.

In similar fashion, establishment Democrats and the corporate media have been casting around throughout this election cycle for their Elvis; a neoliberal centrist with a populist sound who can command the adoration of the masses. Kamala Harris was the first to audition for the role, but it became obvious pretty quickly from the loathing she received among progressives before even announcing her candidacy that she would never be able to sell it; not with her horrific record as a prosecutor hanging around her neck.

Next came the tulip mania of Beto O’Rourke. Unburdened by Harris’ history, gender, or race (they never said that last part, but they were always thinking it), the press spent months pumping up a half-bright Congressional back bencher mostly in the hope that he could steal away Sanders’ base of progressive millennials. This, in spite of the fact that anyone who cared to look would have found that he had one of the most conservative voting records among Democrats in Congress. Columnist Jennifer Rubin’s gushing tweet back in March, “Beto fundraising number suggests Bernie now officially yesterday’s news, faces stiff competition for youth vote,” sums up the tone of the coverage at the time and makes one marvel yet again at the fact that these people get paid real money to offer these kinds of insights.

Beto, God bless him, tried his best to play along, even jumping up on diner tabletops and flapping his arms around, like the King himself might have done in one of his campy Hollywood outings before grabbing a guitar and singing something forgettable. But Clambake just doesn’t play well in serious times, and the almost immediate implosion of Beto’s campaign left the party establishment and its courtiers-cum-journalists in a bind. There was really no one else in the field who was cutting that populist record, who could also be relied on to govern as a centrist, a la Obama. With the threat of a Bernie Sanders nomination looking very real, they reluctantly started to line up behind old-school crooner Joe Biden, but never with very much enthusiasm and never with the kind of screaming teen devotion they had shown to Harris and Beto, who at least represented the kind of change on the outside, continuity on the inside, politics they prefer (even if Beto was just another dopey white guy, at least he represented a generational change. Hell, it’s something).

Enter Elizabeth Warren. Whereas Sanders had been singing the same song for forty years, (an FDR cover with a Marxist bass line), and there was absolutely no doubt that if elected he would try to do every filthy thing he was promising, from universal health care to (worst of all for this crowd), outlawing lobbying by former politicians, Warren had been a Republican until 1997. She also took great pains during the campaign to avoid getting Bernie’d by the establishment, calling herself a “capitalist to [her] bones,” kissing the Clinton ring, and avoiding the kinds of attacks on the party that are a regular feature of Sanders’ riffs. Sure, she might actually mean some of this stuff, they began to reason, but that doesn’t mean she, like, means it, means it. Thus the brief love affair between Warren and the Third Way Democrats began.

That love affair ended very quickly last week when she doubled down on M4A by releasing a plan to pay for it. Clearly Warren was not the cross-over artist they were looking for. The candidate they were looking for would have kept it vague, maybe throwing in some buzz words like, “aspirational,” when discussing universal health coverage. Indeed Warren had hit that note before by indicating there were “many paths” to health care for all, which, combined with her lack of a specific plan in a campaign whose slogan literally has the word “plan” in it, led a lot of the centrist mafia to assume she was just peddling this stuff to the rubes, with no intention of actually following through if and when she should assume the Presidency. 

By releasing a plan to pay for it, Warren took ownership of M4A in a way that she hadn’t when she was simply endorsing Sanders’ plan. To make matters worse, she followed up by tweeting out an attack on Biden that could have come from persona non grata Tulsi Gabbard in its I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuckedness, “Democrats are not going to win by repeating Republican talking points and by dusting off the points of view of the giant insurance companies and the giant drug companies who don’t want to see any change in the law that will bite into their profits. But if anyone wants to defend keeping those high profits for insurance companies and those high profits for drug companies and not making the top 1 percent pay a fair share in taxes and not making corporations pay a fair share in taxes, then I think they’re running in the wrong presidential primary.”

In true Mods vs. Rockers fashion, the main charge against Warren from the Sanders side has been that she’s a poseur; a fake progressive who’s going to put out a double-live album of neoliberal standards the second she gets into office. By going full-on Never Mind the Bollocks this week, she should have effectively put those claims to bed. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to prefer Sanders over Warren. Warren is a technocrat, while Sanders is an activist. Only one of them will go on TV and start naming names, in the course of calling for a general strike, and it ain’t Warren. We’re well past effective regular order democracy now and she doesn’t seem to understand that.

Warren largely brought these suspicions on herself by trying to support progressive policies AND maintain good relations with party leadership. Hopefully she’s realized from the swift and brutal reaction to her plan by Pelosi, and the rest of the usual centrist suspects that its one or the other; in a system this corrupted by money, you can never be on the side of the people without earning the wrath of the establishment. Inviting that wrath this week by choosing to double down on M4A when the smart play would have been to keep it vague should earn her some respect, even from (maybe especially from) the Sanders side. Sanders never had a chance to be the Elvis, even if he wanted to be. Old, white, and very Jewish doesn’t play with this audience. Female and Ivy educated is more in their wheelhouse. Warren had the contract in hand, just awaiting her signature. They were about to make her their Elvis, but she turned down the gig. If we’re luckier than we as a nation deserve, in the end Sanders and Warren may be singing a duet as nominee and running mate, each bringing something to the table the other lacks (Sanders willingness to go outside the system, balanced by Warren’s deep understanding of how that same system is put together). That album might not have centrist appeal, but for the majority of voters, particularly those who have long given up on the whole political scene as one big corporate sell-out, it will represent the first new sound they’ve heard in at least a generation and for the most part, they’re really gonna dig it.

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