Elizabeth Warren's Rise Is a Plus for Issue Politics--And a Bad Sign for Billionaires
The press is choosing to view it in another light. That will only work for so long.
Back in 2009, I called for Elizabeth Warren to run for president. I may have been the first media figure to do so. This was early in the Obama presidency, when he was beginning to renege on some of his progressive campaign promises (closing Gitmo, drug re-importation, etc.), but more importantly already showing an unwillingness to take on Wall Street after the crash.
Warren, a rare high-finance literate among national politicians, seemed like the person needed to lead an economic reform effort after the crash:
"We need someone ... to re-seize the Party from the Wall Street interests that have come to dominate it ... [Someone] who will know the difference between real regulatory reform and a dog-and-pony show, and will not be likely to fill a cabinet with bankers from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley."
believed that then and now. I'd happily vote for Warren. When she was about to launch her campaign and a string of editorialists came out with pre-emptive broadsides warning she would "not enjoy an easy path" to the nomination because of a "darkening cloud" of controversy around her, I called it out as the cheap Beltway-press manipulation it was.
Now Warren is the beneficiary of positive headlines, all cheering a recent rise in the polls--on average, she's jumped about 6 points overall since hitting a low of just over 4 percent in February. The substance of these stories is preposterous, and I'll get to why in a moment. But first, it's worth talking about the real reasons Warren is doing well.
The strength of Warren's campaign is a series of detailed policy proposals aimed at correcting a series of corrupting inequities in American life. The first major proposal she released, on January 24th, was aimed at perhaps the biggest problem in American society: the wealth gap.
While working people almost all live off highly-taxed "income," high net worth individuals mostly live off other revenue streams: carried interest, capital gains, inheritance, etc. Warren's plan would create a net worth calculation that would hit households worth between $50 million and $1 billion with a 2% annual "ultra-millionaires tax."
She has a similar plan for corporate tax, one that would wipe away the maze of loopholes big companies currently use, and force any firm that makes over $100 million in profits to pay a new 7 percent tax. "Amazon would pay $698 million instead of zero," she says. "Occidental Petroleum would pay $280 million ... instead of zero."
Other proposals include a Too Big To Fail breakup program for Silicon Valley that would designate internet firms that "offer an online marketplace" and have annual revenues of $25 billion or more as "Platform Utilities." Under the plan, "Google's ad exchange and businesses on the exchange would be split apart," and "Google Search would have to be spun off as well."
Warren has also unveiled ambitious plans for cancelation of student debt and free college, universal child care and a new corporate accountability plan that would force high-ranking corporate executives to certify they'd conducted a "due diligence" inquiry, making it easier to prosecute them for misdeeds conducted under their watch.
She even created an "economic patriotism" plan that overtly targets many of the excuses for domestic job loss offered by her own party -- automation, a "skills gap" or just blunt economic reality when trying to compete with cheaper labor abroad. She calls bull on it all. "No," she writes, "America chose to pursue a trade policy that prioritized the interests of capital over the interests of American workers."
She then laid out a series of plans that create "aggressive intervention on behalf of American workers," create a "Department of Economic Development" and put an end to practices like corporations using public money for R&D, then eating the benefits in stock buybacks while exporting jobs. Her plan would give taxpayers an equity stake in publicly developed enterprises.
This idea has such broad appeal that it even had Tucker Carlson talking it up last week as he denounced companies that "wave the flag, but have no loyalty or allegiance to America." She even got Carlson to rip Republicans, saying, "Republicans in Congress can't promise to protect American industries. They wouldn't dare. It might violate some principle of Austrian economics..."
Warren's platform has a lot in common with some rivals -- especially Bernie Sanders, who would also offer free college tuition, force the very wealthy to pay substantial new taxes, and create domestic jobs through a "Green New Deal" (Warren's plan is called "Green Manufacturing").
The two politicians do have some important differences, many of which were elucidated in a speech Sanders just gave on Wednesday at George Washington University. In it, Sanders explained why he calls himself a "Democratic Socialist," a term Warren has not embraced. (She went out of her way in March to say, "I am a capitalist. Come on. I believe in markets.")
Those inside the Sanders campaign would say the speech he gave this week--which explained his policies as a continuation of FDR's "New Deal"--outlined the main difference between the two candidates.
An oversimplified view might describe Warren's campaign as an effort to correct and more aggressively regulate the flaws of American capitalism, while also preserving the market-based system in which she does seem to genuinely believe.
Sanders, meanwhile, believes in "guaranteed economic rights for all Americans," and is faster to place the solutions to problems he and Warren both identify in the hands of government. He believes health care, for instance, should be completely divorced from market considerations, and is less squeamish about disenfranchising private health insurance and other powerful lobbies. In fact, his campaign believes that any candidate who isn't creating enemies is probably not proposing real change--as Sanders says, a Biden-esque "middle ground" platform "antagonizes no one, stands up to nobody, and changes nothing."
But both the Sanders and Warren campaigns essentially have the same critique of the corruption of modern American capitalism. In fact, a lot of the Democrats are campaigning on promises to alleviate inequities and injustices built into our current laissez-faire, corporate-backed Stupidocracy, from Andrew Yang's Universal Basic Income scheme to Tulsi Gabbard's plan to end regime change wars.
They've all got good ideas, and this is exactly what primary season is for: debating which ones are best. That, however, is not what the campaign press is doing. When Warren burst into the news this week, the headlines almost all carried the same theme:
Newsweek: Elizabeth Warren Ahead of Bernie Sanders for First Time in Two New 2020 Election Polls
Politico: Warren Leapfrogs Sanders in Pair of 2020 Polls
New York magazine: Elizabeth Warren Edges Past Sanders in New 2020 Polls
Mediaite: Bern-Out: Elizabeth Warren Knocks Bernie Sanders Down a Peg in New National Poll
None of these stories features a lead like, "Surging on a blistering anti-corporate message, Warren..." Frankly the coverage of her rise is an insult to the work she's put in at crafting a plan to take on American systemic corruption that voters find plausible.
Instead, Warren's obvious appeal to the conga line of think-tankers and DC political consultants currently swooning over her campaign is her perceived utility in helping remove Sanders from the race. It's why Bernie's in almost every headline about her rise.
The Sanders campaign has come to expect the doomsaying headlines, even taking them as validation. Echoing the famous FDR quote, "We welcome their hatred," Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir suggested it's all par for the course.
"This isn't bean-bag politics," he said. "It's a war for what vision of the country you believe in."
As I wrote earlier this week, even if they're true, poll-watching horse race stories like this are almost unavoidably idiotic so early in the race. But these stories are dumber than usual. They're based on two data points: a Monmouth Nevada state poll of 370 likely caucus-goers that shows Biden at 36 points, Warren at 19 points and Sanders at 13. The second is a YouGov national poll that shows Biden at 26 percent, Warren at 16 percent and Sanders at 12 percent.
Again, I have no dog in this fight. I like both Sanders and Warren and have no idea how I'd vote right now because, among other things, I haven't seen all the candidates yet. (I'm anxious to check out Yang, for instance.)
But these latest stories praying for signs of a Sanders demise are as clearly absurd as all the ones that came before, and there have almost been too many to count -- from Salon's "The Sanders Revolution is Probably Doomed From the Start" in January, to RealClearPolitics' "Bernie Sanders, It's Over" in February, to the Chicago Tribune's "The Case Against Bernie Sanders" that same month, to Yahoo's "Why Medicare For All is Doomed'" and on and on.
Some of the stories are preposterous on their face. The Week, for instance, ran a piece called, "Bernie Sanders' socialism speech might have been more about Elizabeth Warren than about Trump." It quoted former White House communications director Jen Psaki, saying the address "is a pretty clear indication he is feeling the heat from Elizabeth Warren's recent momentum."
Does she mean the momentum from yesterday? The day before? The speech was scheduled six weeks ago, when Sanders was ahead of Warren by fifteen points. There's silly, and then there's really silly.
A different way to read the same polls is that both Warren and Sanders are rising right now, and the campaign that's actually declining is Joe Biden's. Even MSNBC cited just this week a new Quinnipiac Poll showing Biden at 30, Sanders 19, and Warren 15. Biden was down five points since May, while Sanders was up 3 and Warren was up 2.
The RealClearPolitics average of all the major polls, which is what I go by in the rare instances when I actually care enough to look, shows a clear picture: at the time Biden announced in late April, he was leading Sanders 29-23 percent, with everyone else below 10 percent. Biden then shot up to a high of 41 percent, with Sanders dropping to a low of 14.6 percent nationally.
Since then Biden has been steadily dropping (though he's still well ahead at 32.2 percent). Sanders has crept back up to 16.8 percent, while Warren (10.8 percent) and Buttigieg (7.2 percent) have gained.
You can read these numbers any way you like. Has Sanders gained 2.2 percent since May 14th (14.6 percent), or dropped 2 percent since May 20th (18.8 percent)? Is Biden up 2.9 percent since April 27th (29.3 percent) or down 9.2 percent since May 9th (41.4 percent)? It's moronic. Polls at this stage are just toys for pundits to serve up hot takes whose lives will be shorter than most ants or house flies. "There's a reason why we're not talking about President John Edwards, President Ben Carson, President Rick Perry," says Shakir. "It's a long campaign."
The observation about the Democratic race that's sure to be relevant when real bullets start flying in primaries is that Democratic voters are in schism: there is a corporate-funded, centrist wing and an oppositional/anti-corporate/anti-war wing.
Warren has smartly marketed herself as having a foot in both camps. She may very well prove a unifying figure -- if that is possible, given how fierce the resistance would inevitably be to any real attempt to reorganize the banking, pharmaceutical and tech industries. A lot will depend on how much credibility she'll muster with hardcore progressive voters, some of whom are already grumbling, for instance, about her unwillingness (to date) to confront the health sector via Medicare-for-All.
If she does win over those voters, she'll quickly end up with the opposite problem, i.e. Bernie's current problem. If Warren is beating Biden by next January, and Sanders has fallen off, bet on this: the candidate who wants to tightly regulate banks, break up Amazon and Google and tax the hell out of the party's biggest donors will once again find herself besieged by negative press, and questions about what the Times has already called her "difficult path to winning over moderates."
Horse race coverage exists so commercial news can cover presidential races without talking about issues. It's why outlets would rather report on Biden responding to being called "mentally weak," a "sleepy guy" and a "dummy" by Trump (this was on the front page of both the Times and the Post this week) than run stories asking which candidate has the best plan for getting Amazon, IBM and other companies to pay above zero in taxes.
If Elizabeth Warren is rising in the polls, it's not because people are tired of Sanders. It's because they're pissed at Amazon and Facebook, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, Dow-Dupont, Monsanto, Syngenta and countless other soulless, nationless, money-sucking companies -- along with their overpaid, under-prosecuted, deviant scum executives who've had outsized influence with both parties for too long.