What Ever Happened to Elizabeth Warren?
By WILL PEACOCK
Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People
Rightly or wrongly, politics is seen by many as a game; a tug of war; a jousting tournament; or perhaps even a brutal and bloody boxing match. When Elizabeth Warren walked onto the scene for the 2012 United States Senate election in Massachusetts, there was a euphoria in American politics, not perhaps seen since Barack Obama gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. However, unlike with Obama, political junkies had something to be genuinely excited about. For this wasn’t just some liberal who talked a great talk about hope and change; this was one of those rare politicians who seemed to walk the walk. In a nation plagued by prolific political orators, it was about to get a passionate political fighter, someone not repulsed by the challenges of the powerful and wealthy, but someone who was energetic and eager to do battle; because deeds not words were needed in American politics.
A Harvard financial law professor for over 30 years, the architect behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel. This was a politician who was both exceptionally intelligent and bursting with ideas, yet Warren’s genuinely optimistic and populist progressive liberalism hadn’t been shaken or redacted. There was uncontrollable excitement from figures like Cornel West, Bill Maher, and the Union Leaders that there was finally a principled and passionate politician back in D.C. At a time when the GOP had the passionate conservatives of Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul in the Senate, there would be at least one passionate liberal from the Democrats.
Warren’s arrival in the United States Senate in January 2013 didn’t disappoint. Her first committee was in February, telling banking executives that “I'm really concerned that 'too big to fail' has become 'too big for trial”. Warren sat next to corporate America's favourite democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who looked utterly confused that a senator would dare scrutinise a member of the corporate class. At her subsequent committee questioning in March she compared the irony of getting put into prison for the selling of drugs, but not dodgy mortgages and loans. She went on to pass legislation; be one of the most important Democratic Party fundraisers; engage in key scrutiny on committees; and passionately oppose TPP, all whilst garnering the views of tens of millions of Americans on YouTube. The excitement and support around her continued to grow because voters saw her as a politician who was on their side and because, when in power, she didn’t bend to corporate interests or the Democratic Party establishment.
The great French writer Victor Hugo wrote, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Occupy Wall Street and The Tea Party were just a precursor in the early 2010s to the incoming power and prevalence of populism. The base of both were far more similar than they were different: both a coalition of concerned citizens banding together to take on the tyrannical power of the day, in the classic American tradition. The messages of these coalitions have the same root and stem: “we the people have had enough of this socioeconomic contract”. As the fat cats on Wall Street destroyed the economy with their dodgy subprime mortgages which played with the lives, hopes, and dreams of individuals, it was the ordinary Joe who was asked to pick up the bill, whilst those on Wall Street got to carry on living their lives in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
With that, no election and no circumstances could have emerged better for a candidate like Warren to run for President than that of 2016. Populism, the middle class, economics, and the reestablishment of the American Dream were at the core of the debates and dialogues. The specific seat in the Senate that Warren holds has been previously held by John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Charles Summer, John Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy. Thus in following in the footsteps of passionate Massachusetts liberals - who had been great presidents, senators, orators, and anti-slavery campaigners - surely Warren was going to achieve unimaginable heights? Before Bernie Sanders announced he was going to run, he offered to back her and campaign for her, seeing her as the best chance the liberal progressive wing had of winning the presidency. With the energy of millions of excited Democratic Party activists, young people, women, liberals, and her well regarded national profile with middle class voters, all she had to do was follow the yellow brick road.
Yet when the clock struck twelve and history called, Warren ran back to Massachusetts and was nowhere to be seen. If she had not run in 2020, her non-running would rightly have been seen merely as a disinterest in the presidency. Her 2016 decision was a sad and surprising moment in American politics. People had rightly invested in her for years. They were let down at best, and heartbroken at worst.
The fact that Bernie Sanders who, despite coming from nowhere with no solid national base, nearly managed to beat Hillary Clinton and the establishment machine in the primaries, indicates that Warren could have wiped the floor with Clinton across the electoral map. Despite Clinton being the embodiment of the neoliberal establishment and corporatist politics that Warren so vehemently opposed, she sat back for her own political safety. When her country called, she was absent from service. No wonder when she called for her country in 2020, it was absent from voting for her. But the final dagger of disappointment came when, at a crucial moment in the 2016 Democratic primary - when her endorsement would have made a significant difference - she decided to drink the Kool-Aid and jump on board Team Hillary. That is a decision she will have to live with for the rest of her life. The Irish tell the story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in. St. Peter says, “Of course, just show us your scars.” The man says, “I have no scars”. St. Peter says, “What a pity - was there nothing worth fighting for?”
The enthusiasm the Left, the progressives, and youth once had in the senior Senator for Massachusetts has faded away. Her legitimacy and authenticity in being for the working man against the status quo has been lost. Instead, she’s become a quasi-party elder with established status, but not the people’s support. Just 7 weeks before the 2016 election, whilst Trump was playing his usual fake anti-establishment card and Clinton was at another one of her campaign fundraisers, Elizabeth Warren was at a Senate Banking Committee hearing with the Wells Fargo CEO, John Stumpf, whom she called to resign and be investigated by the Department of Justice. I wonder how those swing state voters would have swung if they had a candidate to vote for who was taking on the man who had taken so much from them. Warren’s most viral and iconic moment came from those hearings, when she told Stumpf, “At best you were incompetent, at worst you were complicit”. That is a description that sadly summarises the senior Senator from Massachusetts so well; who could have had it all, if only she dared to take the first step.
Image: Flickr / Gage Skidmore