Why aren’t there more Democrats like Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren, direct to camera. (elizabethwarren.com)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about the specialness of the Elizabeth Warren phenomenon.

Josh Benson: What's your latest read on the Matriarch of Mayhem? How's her candidacy holding up under the national scrutiny?

Steve Kornacki: Well, she's really embraced Occupy Wall Street, which is probably a good move, since the G.O.P. was going to try to link it to her anyway. At least this way she can try to do it on her terms. And it makes for a really interesting dynamic, because you have the G.O.P. trying to foment cultural resentment against O.W.S. (and, by extension, Warren). But if anyone in politics is capable of making the case behind the movement in a way that resonates with middle-class swing voters, I think it's her. I've really been impressed (and surprised) by what a compelling communicator she is. I'm starting to think of her as the Democrats' Chris Christie.

Josh: Well so, those communications skills. What is it, exactly, about her viral video that so captured liberals' (and conservatives') attention? And what is it that makes her Christieesque? The directness? The fact that she sounds like she's speaking plain English, rather than Penn-Schoen-tested politispeak?

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Steve: She has a knack for explaining the reasoning behind the empty focus-group terminology that Democrats typically use to talk about economic issues. Does it mean anything to the average voter to hear a politician talk about "fighting" for working families and the middle class? But watch that YouTube video of her talking about the social contract. She's explaining what "fighting for the middle class" actually means, and she's doing it with clarity and energy. I think that's the sort of thing that breaks through all of the generic political noise that people here—and that's what Christie does too.

Josh: What about her line about nobody having gotten rich in American on his own? This is obviously true, in the context she carefully laid out. (She's referring to any American businessperson who has ever benefited from having a functioning government and a working infrastructure, which is all of them.) Why is it that the reaction to this line in particular has been so bonkers, do you think?

Steve: I think it's because she basically told a story and explained a concept that most Democrats don't bother (or know how) to explain. The right has often been successful at reducing any attempt to raise taxes on the wealthy to "class warfare," and obviously they're trying to do it again now. My sense has always been that, to the ears of voters who don't spend too much time studying up on policy, Democrats tend to play into this notion—they talk about the top 1 percent having so much, but they never explain why it really matters. It can sound like they're just saying: Vote for us because we'll give you something, and I think that perception offends a lot of non-top-1-percent types, who see it as an affront to their individualist instincts. But Warren is doing something different: She's basically making the case for why taxing the rich is essential to having a middle class, and why having a middle class is essential to everyone's dream of getting rich.

Josh: Do you know of any other Democrats who have made the case this way? And can you explain why it might not have occurred to them, even as they've been getting their heads kicked in for years by the Republicans in the debate over tax policy, to make such a straightforward argument?

Steve: It may just be her mastery of the subject. She's devoted her career to exploring and understanding all of the issues that affect wealth and class in this country and how they relate and connect to each other. Now, all of that background would be worthless if she didn't have a flair for public performance. Not only does she understand this stuff, she knows how to convey it in a digestible way. That combination is pretty rare, I think. The average Democratic politician understands these issues as a Democratic politician—they're important to my coalition, my policy people have briefed me on them, and here's how the strategy memos tell me I should talk about them. The other thing is, everything about Warren screams nonpolitician—that's an advantage she has over a Democrat who is good at talking about this stuff but who has been in Congress for 20 years.

Josh: Given the uniqueness of that résumé, then, how instructive an example is she for other Democrats running for office 2012? Her rhetoric, as the Times editorial board approvingly pointed out, is certainly a significant variation from the Schumer-guided "Tea Party economy" rhetoric picked up by the other Democrats like, most recently, Kirsten Gillibrand. Will they follow her lead? Could they even pull it off?

Steve: That's just it: For Gillibrand and a lot of other Dems, it'd be like Tim Pawlenty trying to mimic Christie. It just wouldn't work, or seem natural. What makes the Warren stuff work is that it's authentic. Same for Christie. Sure, he knows he's putting on a show and there's a lot of calculation at work (and this may be the case with her too), but ultimately he's conveying something that he came up with. There's also an organic aspect to this. I think we'll see a lot more YouTube hits from Warren, like we have with Christie, where she really is just winging it and something really mesmerizing comes out. Who knows what the exact issue will be.

Josh: Is her fate really tied to the evolving public perception of Occupy Wall Street? It occurs to me that the proposition may be overstated, in part because both conservatives and liberals nationally would like to read the outcome of this race as a sort of referendum on the whole movement. Why do I get the feeling that the read on this in the national media doesn't quite comport with the way it looks on the ground in Mass.?

Steve: Yeah, I think your skepticism is probably well-placed. For one thing, it's possible Occupy Wall Street will be a distant memory by then. The G.O.P. guilt-by-association-with-hippies thing could just be a short-term political hit, not the way they'll define their race against her. But I do think that no matter what happens with the actual movement, she is going to define her campaign on O.W.S. issues: Wall Street accountability, the shrinking middle class, economic inequality, the American social contract and all of that. And it will be really interesting to watch her press Scott Brown on these issues.

When Democratic candidates are just using platitudes (Schumer's "Tea Party economics" stuff), Republicans can just counter with platitudes of their own. Maybe one side's platitudes resonate a little more than the others, but it's mostly a wash—and it's not too hard for the candidates. But I'm imagining a debate in which Warren comes at these issues like she does in the YouTube video. How does Brown respond to that? How does it look if he only fires back with platitudes?

Josh: Well, how will it look? Is she going to win this race?

Steve: I used to think this was a bad idea for her, but I'll admit I was wrong. It's interesting: Most Democrats in Massachusetts also thought Brown was unbeatable. That's why before Warren got in, the field was littered with B- and C-list talent. The ambitious congressmen were all taking a pass. I obviously underestimated her skills as a candidate. Not only do I think she's a terrific candidate, I also believe she's a far better nominee for the Dems than any of the "big names" (Mike Capuano, Marty Meehan, etc.) would have been.

But the other thing I underestimated, I think, is how tough running for federal office is for a Massachusetts Republican right now. Because Brown is actually still very popular, at a personal level; voters really do like the guy. When I saw those numbers earlier this year, I thought I was looking at the next Bill Weld, who Mass. voters also loved and who was reelected with 71 percent of the vote in 1994 (after barely winning in 1990). I didn't think Brown would get anywhere near 71 percent, but I did think his personal likeability would put him well over 50 percent.

But that was wrong. The taint of the national G.O.P. label is just that strong in Massachusetts. Brown was able to overcome it in the 2010 special election because Democrats controlled everything in Washington (making it easier for swing voters to see the G.O.P. as a protest vehicle) and because Martha Coakley had some self-destructive tendencies. But now divided government is back, and so is the hostility toward the national G.O.P. that has defined Massachusetts politics in the Bill Clinton-George W. Bush era. So it's all a long way of saying: I was wrong, and Brown is really in serious danger, and he's got a very strong opponent. Gun to my head, I'd say Warren wins at this point. But we've still got a year.