by Keaton Weiss
A recent Monmouth University poll showed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tied atop the 2020 Democratic field at 20 points apiece. Warren’s rise in the polls over the summer has prompted, and in some cases revived, a debate amongst progressives as to who exactly she is. To some, she’s the best suited to further the progressive agenda and enact progressive reforms. To some, she’s a close second to Bernie; to some, a distant second. To others, she’s a fraud; a neoliberal wolf in a progressive sheep’s clothing.
The latter group cites Warren’s silence throughout much of the 2016 primary campaign and her eventual endorsement of Hillary Clinton as one reason, among many, why she can’t be trusted. Warren’s recent affirmation that she met with Clinton to discuss a VP slot on the 2016 Democratic ticket has made many progressives wonder if she hadn’t been angling for that role all along, which would explain her reluctance to endorse Sanders in the primary, despite his policy set being much closer to hers than Clinton’s. A recent flurry of reports that Warren is working behind the scenes to reassure the Democratic establishment that her campaign is not a hostile takeover of the party has bolstered the convictions of Warren’s harshest critics and has further raised the eyebrows of her skeptics.
Warren’s cozying up to the Clintons in 2016 and her courting of the Democratic elites in 2020 has earned her the “new Hillary” moniker in certain progressive circles. I’d argue, though, that Warren’s 2020 candidacy has more in common with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign than either of Hillary’s failed runs for the presidency. Her campaign model is more of an Obama update — Obama 2.0, if you will. And to call that “marginally better” would be an overstatement.
Elizabeth Warren, like Barack Obama in 2008, is running as a progressive alternative to the Clintonian Democratic establishment. Obama won the 2008 primary in large part by both out-lefting his opponent, a Clinton herself, on major policy issues, most importantly, at the time, the Iraq War, and by making vague, rhetorical appeals to boldness and idealism. Warren is doing the exact same thing this time. She’s staking out left positions on healthcare, student debt, and regulatory policy, while also expressing a more general appeal to broad-based reform. Obama said “Yes We Can,” Warren says “Dream Big, Fight Hard.” Obama sold us “Hope and Change,” Warren is promising “big structural change.”
In case the parallels still aren’t obvious to you, I’ll refer you to the recent CNN.com opinion piece by President Obama’s Chief Strategist David Axelrod, in which he writes, “Warren has put critics of her grand plans on the defensive in much the same way Barack Obama put Hillary Clinton on the defensive in 2008…Warren is positioning herself as Big Change vs. the status quo. Yes We Can vs. No We Can’t.”
So you see, Axelrod himself sees Obama’s strategy in Warren’s campaign.
“But wait,” you say, “Elizabeth Warren is running far to the left of Barack Obama, and she’s come out with a litany of detailed, researched ‘plans’ to implement her policy goals. So this isn’t really a fair comparison.”
And you’d certainly be correct to point out that she is running to the left of Obama, and she has been more specific in defining her agenda and explaining much of the fine print. But then again, doesn’t she have to? After all, you can’t sell the same bullshit twice. So if Obama was able to excite the progressive wing of the party with sweeping reform rhetoric that was light on specifics, and Elizabeth Warren is now trying to appeal a similar swath of progressive voters who are disillusioned with the moderate, business-as-usual Democrats, it stands to to reason that she can’t simply parrot the Obama campaign, because too many progressive voters have already seen that movie, and its disappointing ending is still fresh in their minds. In other words, if an Obama 2.0 candidate were to come around, he or she would have to sound just like Elizabeth Warren; they’d need to dial up the reform rhetoric and refine the specifics, otherwise their message wouldn’t sell again.
Remember, Obama’s message of “Change” won out in the 2008 primaries against the stale, uninspiring Hillary Clinton, and we progressives thought we had won an earth-shaking victory. Surely, we thought at the time, as Obama himself put it, “Change has come to America.”
Then, Obama staffed his government. It has since been revealed via Wikileaks that Obama filled his administration with cabinet members from a list of names pre-approved by Citigroup in an email their executive Michael Froman had sent the campaign three weeks after the financial crisis hit, and just a month before the November election. Let’s just briefly review what this “Change” we’d been promised had come to look like.
- Vice President: Joe Biden, who now, eleven years later, is the Democratic front-runner for president, running on an explicit anti-change message.
- Attorney General: Eric Holder, US Deputy Attorney General under President Bill Clinton, and Citigroup’s first choice for the position.
- Secretary of Defense: Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush Administration, whose foreign policy Obama had won the presidency by running against. Also Citigroup’s pick.
- Secretary of the Treasury: Timothy Geithner, a central banker who had served in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Dept., one of Citigroup’s three preferred candidates for the job.
- Secretary of State: On this, Obama defied the Citigroup list. They wanted John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president. Instead, Obama picked…that’s right, Hillary Clinton herself, who, once again, he had campaigned against, and defeated, with his message of “Change.” After the first Obama term, she left the job to prepare for her second ill-fated run, and Obama appointed, of course, John Kerry, Citigroup’s first choice to begin with.
And that’s just the half of it. Janet Napolitano, Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, and Susan Rice were all on Citigroup’s wish list, and they all got top jobs in the Obama administration. This was hardly “change we could believe in,” but rather a giant bait-and-switch.
In the case of Elizabeth Warren, we’re already seeing recent history begin to repeat itself. She’s positioning herself as the progressive firebrand within the party, emphasizing the word “progressive” to primary voters while emphasizing the word “within” to the Democratic establishment, in order to assure them she doesn’t pose the same kind of threat to their power structure as Bernie Sanders. Jonathan Martin writes in his recent column for The New York Times:
“She is signaling to party leaders, that, far from wanting to stage a ‘political revolution’ in the fashion of Mr. Sanders, she wants to revive the beleaguered Democratic National Committee and help recapture the Senate while retaining the House in 2020.”
He continues later in the piece to assert that Warren “is taking steps within the party to make clear that she does not want to create a competing power base should she become president.” This is a very revealing insight, and is yet another hint that we may be getting, in Warren, Obama 2.0.
Warren, while stopping well short of Sanders’ “revolutionary” rhetoric, has recently expressed her intention for starting and sustaining a grassroots movement that would help elect her president, and, ostensibly, push her agenda through a dysfunctional Congress. Given the kinds of assurances she’s made to party leadership behind closed doors, however, this seems like an especially dubious idea. And we can once again look to the Obama presidency for context.
Barack Obama, during the 2008 primaries, had created an unprecedented grassroots organization that he wanted to nurture and grow through the general election and into his presidency. This became known within the campaign as Movement 2.0. This would-be grassroots organization that Obama was set on building was going to be an alternative “power base” to the Democratic National Committee. It was for this reason that Democratic Party insiders shunned the idea, and the Obama team then obediently abandoned the effort. This story is documented extensively in a great piece in The New Republic called “Obama’s Lost Army.” In it, journalist Micah L. Sifry explains why Democratic insiders rejected the creation of such a movement. He writes:
“It seemed, the Obamaites and their tech wizards wanted to disrupt the Democratic Party, diverting money and control from the DNC into an untried platform, while inviting “input,” and possibly even organized dissent, from Obama’s base…What if Obama’s base didn’t like the health care reform he came up with, and rallied independently around a single-payer plan? Besides, grassroots movements, no matter how successful, don’t reliably yield what political consultants want most: money and victories for their candidates, with plenty of spoils for themselves.”
The article also cited a Wikileaks release of an email from Democratic consultant Paul Tewes, in which he writes, regarding Movement 2.0:
“As both of you know, I have many concerns about this….. as a lover of “Party” I really don’t like this.
I think the decision needs to be made and discussed on “this vs. party” or “this and party.” The discussion should focus on—What is best for Barack Obama, his politics, his agenda and his future.
If the first step is to move outside the party with your organization, the political ramifications and “future” ramifications need to be thought through. Further, a discussion should be had of party over this—why and why not?
Marching into this seems premature and secondly creating something before hand (before e-day) has appearance problems in my opinion.
I would ask that we postpone any of this till after the convention and do a little gathering where we can discuss. Please.”
So given the party’s staunch aversion to any kind of grassroots organizing that doesn’t toe the party line, and given that this “party line” is decidedly to the right of Warren’s agenda, how can we square Warren’s “big, structural change” rhetoric with her assuring party insiders that she’s willing to play ball? The two seem irreconcilable, and that’s because they probably are. The recent example of Obama’s 2008 campaign sure lends itself to this understanding, as does Bernie Sanders’ call for a “political revolution.”
Bernie isn’t an independent for no reason. He also doesn’t call for “revolution” for no reason. He’s existed for decades outside the two-party duopoly because he understands that a system, especially one as powerful as the Democratic Party, cannot be fundamentally changed on its own terms. And it certainly cannot be transformed in any meaningful way with the express written permission of its most entrenched bureaucrats.
In other words, if Elizabeth Warren is successfully wooing the Democratic Party establishment, it’s most likely because her calls for “dreaming big and fighting hard” will prove as empty as Obama’s line that “Change [had] come to America.” Whereas Hillary Clinton overtly made mainstream Democratic Party orthodoxy the selling point of both her presidential campaigns and promised no structural reforms whatsoever, Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren have both presented themselves as bolder, more exciting, more ambitious, more aspirational candidates, while still playing nice with the Clintonian party hierarchy.
Again, we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. Warren isn’t the new Hillary, she’s the new Obama. And that’s not a compliment.
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