Will She, Won’t She? What the Elizabeth Warren debate tells us about US politics

18 Dec 2014

 

It may not be a scientific measure, but the increased frequency of Elizabeth Warren’s name appearing in my Twitter feed in recent days is indicative of the new wave of attention that the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts has been receiving from politics-watchers. At a surface level, this flurry of interest in the Massachusetts Senator stems from her vocal criticism of the ‘CRomnibus’ bill moving through Congress late last week. So-called for being a mixture of an omnibus bill and a continuing resolution for government funding (in a Brangelina-style fusing of American political jargon), CRomnibus essentially funds the federal government until the close of the financial year: its provisions total some $1.1 trillion. What Warren objected to, loudly and publicly, however, was something more specific: language which would weaken parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, designed to reform the financial sector after the crisis of 2008.

 

Criticising Wall Street, and the revolving door between large financial firms and Washington DC which sees so many former executives enter government positions (and vice versa), has been Warren’s hallmark since she was first elected in 2012. A former academic who taught at Harvard Law School, Warren also chaired the Congressional oversight panel tasked, in 2008, with overseeing the huge government bailout of organizations deemed ‘too big to fail’. In other words, she has a longstanding interest in Wall Street, and in moving it away from the kinds of behaviour that led to the crisis of 2008. It is, then, unsurprising that she expressed such hostility to the provisions of the CRomnibus.

 

Despite Warren’s best efforts, the CRomnibus bill did, just, make it through both chambers of Congress. Yet in her opposition, Warren garnered copious column inches that were less about the spending bill and more about the bigger picture: the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton is, of course, the presumptive Democratic nominee (not that she has officially confirmed she will run yet, but let’s not allow that to prevent a bit of speculation.) But what about Elizabeth Warren? Could she? Would she? Will she?

 

In fact, speculation about a possible Warren bid has been around for some time: over a year ago, Noam Schreiber of The New Republic labeled Warren "Hillary Clinton’s nightmare". At first, early discussion seemed to be the collective punditry casting around for something to talk about, given that Clinton was assumed so early on to be the Democratic nominee for 2016. Yet since the midterms in which Warren campaigned across the country, leading The New Yorker to proclaim "Elizabeth Warren wins the midterms" (admittedly, before the Democrats’ less-than-stellar results were in), the speculation has had more basis to it. Warren’s activities have helped in this, too: she published a book, something of a rite of passage for any American considering a presidential campaign, entitled A Fighting Chance. An allusion to her own presidential prospects, perhaps?

 

Not only is there merely speculation amongst the cottage industry that is the presidential campaign guessing game; there are plenty of people in the US who want to see Warren for President. Last week, over 300 former Obama campaign staffers wrote an open letter calling on Warren to run; and the group MoveOn.org is seeking to organize for Warren in the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. What many of those calling on Warren to run share, is membership of the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party; they are not quite sold on centrist Clinton.

 

Warren, then, seemingly has a decision to make, in which there are multiple factors for her to consider: could she win the nomination, let alone the election? Does she want to do that or merely play the role of a stalking-horse, creating debate within the party and moving it to the left? How would this affect the party? Would she have another chance if she didn’t run in 2016? In an interview with NPR on Monday, Warren reiterated that she is not running for president; when challenged on her use of the present tense, she did not opt to definitively state that she won’t run in the future.

 

Regardless of whether Warren runs or not, the debate over her (currently) hypothetical candidacy nonetheless illuminates a few interesting features of the American political scene.

 

It is clear that the politics of the financial crisis and the bailout has not been fully worked through. Despite being some six years on, the resentment and disillusionment which both these events created remains in place. In large part, this is due to the sense that there has been no real paradigm shift in the treatment of Wall Street. Although Dodd-Frank brought about some greater regulation and oversight of the financial sector, and there has been some tougher rhetoric, there has not been a fundamental reassessment of Wall Street’s place in the American political economy. It is this, and Warren’s clear desire to bring about reform, and question executives and policymakers alike, that makes her such an appealing candidate for so many people. It seems odd that, despite the summer of crisis occurring in the midst of the 2008 campaign, it may be the 2016 election in which it becomes a defining issue.

 

The surge of interest in Warren also serves as a reminder that American politics does not clearly follow party lines in the ways that it used to. The rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements, both in response to the financial crisis and bailout, has demonstrated that some issues transcend party divides. Whilst one group was more right-leaning, and the other more left-leaning, they nonetheless shared concern at the government bailout of Wall Street firms.

 

Indeed, comparisons have been made between Warren’s rhetoric and that of the Tea Party-backed Republican Ted Cruz (whether Warren or Cruz would find such comparisons flattering, I’m not so sure.) Although the loose structure of parties in the US means that the Democrats and the GOP have always been big tents, they are now more like large marquees. No longer is it enough to know if a politician is a Democrat or a Republican: another adjective is needed. Are they progressive, liberal, moderate, centrist, conservative, libertarian, left-leaning or right-leaning? For a long time, it has been assumed that the major faultlines existed within the GOP; the debate over Warren reminds us that there are different elements of the Democratic Party, too.

 

Tying both these themes together, perhaps, is a sense of unease amongst many about what we might term the Age of Clintons. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton was a staunchly centrist Democrat, with many in his administration having had, or going on to have, links to Wall Street. Clinton allowed for greater deregulation of Wall Street, and to many his administration bears some responsibility for the events of 2008. It is entirely unfair, and sexist, to conflate a woman’s politics with those of her husband (although many doubtless will), yet Hillary Clinton’s own stated positions tend not, in general, to be particular dissimilar to those of Bill. She, too, is a centrist Democrat perceived as not entirely uncomfortable with Wall Street. It is the weaving together of these themes, complicated political reactions to an economic crisis precipitated at least in part by one Clinton, that may yet make Elizabeth Warren a major challenger to another Clinton.


By Alice Lilly

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