Harvard to high office: Senator Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Photo: Getty
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Encounters in a Harvard canteen, Elizabeth Warren’s options and the charm of John McCain

The shadow foreign secretary reports from a four-day trip to the States. 

The day before the long Easter weekend, the papers are filled with coverage of David Axelrod joining the Labour campaign. After the Easter break, I’m on a plane to the US, where I’ll be staying for four days.

My first destination is Harvard. In the hotel canteen for breakfast, I unexpectedly run into my shadow cabinet colleague Tristram Hunt. It turns out that he’s on campus for meetings on education policy. Next, I see Mark Penn – Hillary Clinton’s pollster in 2008 and Labour’s pollster in 2005. It’s that kind of place.

After breakfast, I meet Larry Summers – now back at Harvard as a professor after his work with Clinton’s and then Obama’s economic teams. He offers trenchant views on the impact of austerity on the British economy and outlines his concerns about the risks of “secular stagnation” in key industrial economies. He tells me that George Osborne was in town the previous week and we then discuss the work he’s doing with Ed Balls at the Centre for American Progress on sustainable growth in the global economy. In the early 1990s, there was significant dialogue between New Labour and the New Democrats about how to meet the common challenges of that time. Now, on both sides of the Atlantic, the challenges of securing sustainable growth and tackling rising inequality are dominating policy conversations – and shaping the outcome of political races.

 

Open Democratic choices

Conversations about the US economy aren’t just happening in the offices of Harvard professors; they are happening at kitchen tables across the country. Indeed, the public anger over the fraud, crash and bailouts of the American banks has already carried another Harvard professor, Elizabeth Warren, all the way from her lecture hall to the US Senate. As an academic specialising in bankruptcy, she was brought to Washington by President Obama to set up an agency to protect consumers from being ripped off by financial services companies. Her work there on behalf of working families in turn helped her defeat the popular Republican senator Scott Brown.

I last saw her speak at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. That night she brought the crowd to its feet with a fiery speech declaring that, for ordinary American families, the game is rigged – rigged to work for those who have money and power. Now she has a new book out, A Fighting Chance. The one question this book, and her media appearances to promote it, leave unanswered is whether Warren is eyeing a run for the White House. As one friend put it to me, “She’s in the optionalising business.”

 

Different ball game

Personally, the only race I run the next day is against myself in the gym. There, early in the morning, I catch the live interview with David Axelrod on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the broadcast is aired live from the legendary baseball stadium Wrigley Field in Chicago. In the middle of the diamond-shaped field, in pre-dawn freezing conditions, there is Labour’s latest recruit, holding forth on the coming midterm elections, resplendent in his beloved Chicago Cubs jacket.

The interview makes me more relaxed about the British weather he will encounter when he arrives in London in a couple of weeks, but rather more nervous about the appropriate dress code for his strategy meetings at Labour HQ.

 

Baby’s smooth routine

The following day, I join the audience as Senator John McCain addresses the students of the John F Kennedy School of Government. The former fighter pilot and presidential candidate gives a bravura performance, combining humility, passion and humour. He bats away their praise for his heroism with practised ease, explaining that as a pilot it doesn’t take a lot of skill to be shot down by an anti-aircraft missile. He goes on to confess that his greatest regret is listening to his political handlers and suggesting during a tough primary contest against George W Bush that the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State House was simply an exercise of states’ rights. He then charms the student audience with a well-practised line: “When I lost the presidency I slept like a baby – sleep for two hours. Wake up and cry. Sleep for two hours. Wake up and cry . . .”

 

Hard-travelling Hillary

The next day, I fly west to a gathering that brings together Hillary Clinton and a number of senators from both sides of the aisle. The formal focus of the discussions is the Middle East but, inevitably, there is also much discussion of Ukraine.

Concern about the strength of Europe’s diplomatic and economic response is obvious. Hillary discusses the crisis and reflects more broadly on her time as secretary of state, and speaks with the experience born of having visited no fewer than 112 countries during that period. Yet there is little doubt that her continuing celebrity status – even among her former colleagues in the Senate – reflects many people’s future hopes as much as her past achievements. The sense of expectation around a possible presidential run in 2016 is palpable.

For Hillary, however, her concerns are rather more immediate. Her publishers have just retuned their proposed manuscript edits to her long-awaited book Hard Choices – and her sign-off is now required against the publisher’s pressing deadlines. The book’s publication this summer, and the accompanying nationwide launch tour, will do little to dampen the growing expectation that now surrounds her. As I return to the UK, I sense that Bush v Clinton (but this time Jeb v Hillary) remains a real possibility for 2016.

Then again, if a week is a long time in British politics, two years is a lifetime in politics across the pond. 

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.