Warren is one to watch for the US elections next year. Photo: Getty
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Who is Senator Elizabeth Warren and is she a serious US election contender?

Looking to 2016.

Six years ago this month, in the bitter winter cold, 2m people crammed on to the mall of Washington DC to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. The gritty reality of what followed – a good if not transformational presidency – make it easy to forget the spirit and energy of that day, and Obama's ascent generally. A palpable cry for change in the wake of the financial crisis then gripping the country, and for an outsider to shake up an ineffective DC establishment, swept him beyond McCain and Hilary Clinton before that.

But it's worth bringing it to the debate over his successor as Democratic nominee for 2016. There's a reason that, as the FT reports, "very few people in Washington have the clout that Senator Elizabeth Warren has right now". More than anything else, it's because she is tapping in to that same energy, and giving it greater form.

Warren has spent the last four years rallying against those on Wall Street and Capitol Hill who she blames for poisoning the American dream. Across a range of issues – the bank bailouts, credit card and mortgage regulation, student loans – she's channelled a still widespread anger at the financial crisis, giving voice to a economic anxiety held by huge swathes of America.

This anxiety if of course borne of the same forces shaping people's lives this side of the pond, despite an improving economy: stagnant wages, rising bills, a hollowing out of middle class jobs and growing inequality. Warren has argued that these are not facts of life akin to the weather, but in large part the product of rules "rigged" by an orthodoxy seizing the US political system, one kept in place through the influence of organised money. It's an orthodoxy that has sometimes thwarted Obama, but one he has also felt the need to indulge.

In short, she is the first mainstream, progressive populist to fully emerge out of post-crash politics in America.

All of which has sparked a MoveOn.org petition to draft her in to the 2016 race against Hilary Clinton, who is threatening to run again. 

As a result, much of the Democratic establishment are already on manoeuvres against Warren, sniffily dismissing her a East Coast liberal bound for the same fate as Howard Dean. At first glance it's easy to sympathise with this. But there is more to Warren demanding of further attention.

For a start, she is (and speaks like) an Okie; a Southerner, hardly Democratic heartlands these days.

Despite reaching the gilded halls of Harvard (where she taught bankruptcy law), Warren came from very little. Her father was a janitor and a maintenance man, her mother a phone operator. So when she speaks about threats facing the American dream, she speaks with an authenticity the likes of Gore and Kerry never could.

More importantly, her politics are more complicated and progress beyond the traditional 'tax and spend' of the Democratic left. She is largely concerned with economic reform: breaking up and remaking the banking system, consumer protection, infrastructure. In her own words, "effective counterweights" against the interests of organised money. Before being elected in 2012, Warren set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which has put over $4bn back in the pockets of Americans swindled by financial institutions.

In the context of tight budgets, and after a generation of trying to ameliorate inequalities through the tax system, this is the most sensible territory for the centre-left to be on.

But in many respects, Warren's themes are far more in the conservative tradition than the Democratic one: aspiration, breaking up concentrations of power, making markets work better, opposing no-strings-attached bailouts. She also supports school vouchers in the public education system.

None of which is surprising given Warren's Republican background, but all of which makes for an interesting blend of left and right that is making her slightly untouchable on Capitol Hill at the moment ("It's like we're dealing with the most popular girl in school", one bank executive recently whinged). Most importantly, it gives her the potential to speak beyond the Democratic base if she gets it right.

She is also aided by the weaknesses of her potential opponents. The GOP have long since abandoned traditional conservative thought, in favour of an unhinged worship of the already wealthy (and a dependence on their largesse).

And then there's Clinton. It isn't obvious what agenda will particularly animate her bid for the White House, or her supporters – at the moment it's just a strange cult of personality. In any event, the rising tide of anger and insecurity potentially pose a significant problem for her. Many of the questions angering Americans, certainly Democrats, today are essentially ones of economic reform. On this theme, Clinton is a status quo politician. What she thinks about these questions i'm not sure, but one suspects she doesn't think about them very much at all. They involve upsetting vested interests that a generation of Third Way politicians cut their teeth making peace with. Moreover, as Warren herself found out, her more direct ties to Wall Street compromise her.

So if Warren does decide to run, she could easily wrongfoot the presumptive nominee. In many ways, Warren is already dictating the terms of the debate. Clinton recently felt the need to make a rather half-hearted and awkward pitch to define herself against Wall Street ("The least convincing populist on earth", as one newspaper put it). Meanwhile, there are rumours even Obama himself sees Warren as his true heir, and is urging her to get in the ring.

It may not happen, of course. For a start, it isn't clear Warren even wants it or feels herself up to it. After years of stalemate in Congress under Obama, Clinton's strongest card is as an arm-twister who knows how to get things done. Warren would have to work hard to build a broad coalition of support, and strengthen her hand on foreign policy. But the elements are certainly there to make things very interesting. If you're looking for a political earthquake, it is worth at least keeping an eye on the American left this year. 

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war