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. 

Harvard to high office: Senator Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Photo: Getty
Harvard to high office: Senator Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Photo: Getty

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