I have long thought that if you wanted to look back to find one of the key moments that showed how out of touch the Democratic establishment was on economic issues that it might very well blow the 2016 Presidential election, you’d likely want to revisit the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Indeed, in 2015, in the wake of the riots in Baltimore, I observed how President Obama could sound great on some social justice issues while badly missing on key economic ones:
So while Obama might be talking social justice this week, he is walking corporate rule. Indeed the President even went so far as to shamelessly compare the pleas for transparency by the populists in his own party like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to Sarah Palin hysterically railing about death panels.
So despite his rhetorical outrage in the face of the nightmarish spectacle of Baltimore, Obama is spending much of his remaining political capital doing the bidding of the very forces that have economically destroyed the city.
As we all should know by now, the Clinton campaign (with its unapologetic neoliberalism) failed in precisely the same way, allowing Trump to ultimately play the populist card against her and win in the 2016 election just a year after the TPP battle. Perhaps, if the national party had taken its lead from the Warren wing of the party, we might be in better shape today. As events in West Virginia and elsewhere are showing, old-school Democratic economic populism is likely their road back from the wilderness—unless they blow it.
That’s why recent news stories about the national Democratic Party’s efforts to “contain” Elizabeth Warren once again are concerning. As a recent Politico story notes, there have again been rumblings that Warren’s fierce condemnation of the rollback of the Dodd-Frank law was harshing the mellow of the neoliberal wing of the party:
Midway through Elizabeth Warren’s fire-breathing campaign to tank a bank deregulation bill backed by more than a dozen Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer invited her to his office.
Warren had just sent a fundraising email blasting fellow Democrats who supported the legislation, and Senate Democrats had just had an ugly caucus meeting at which the rift over the measure was laid bare. And now Schumer wanted to hear what was on the mind of one of his most prominent senators, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“This is what I said I was going to do,” Warren told the Senate minority leader in a lengthy conversation last Wednesday, the person said. “This is why I ran for the Senate.”
Schumer didn’t tell Warren to stop attacking the bill or to dig in. But he urged her to focus her opposition on the bill’s policies — not individual Democratic senators, as her fundraising plea had done, said a second person briefed on the conversation. Still, Warren largely stuck to her hard-edged tactics in the days afterward, regularly lashing what she calls the “Bank Lobbyist Act” and those who support it.
Of course, most pragmatic progressives understand that not all the Democratic politicians we need to win to take the majority away from the Republicans will be perfect, but, in this case, Warren is right to robustly lambast her fellow Democrats for confusing this basic betrayal of principle AND good politics for clever “bipartisan” triangulation. The fact is that this jaw-dropping sell-out reveals a dangerous failure to learn from history.
Ross Barkan puts it bluntly in a fine Guardian column on this issue:
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the Democratic establishment hasn’t learned the lessons of its failure. In an economy hollowed out by the Great Recession, legacy Democrats lurch, occasionally, in a populist direction before retreating to where they are most comfortable: doing favors for the rich in exchange for campaign donations.
This week, it became clear again that Democrats have not truly internalized 2016. Democrats in the Senate joined the Republican majority to vote in favor of gutting key banking regulations passed in the wake of the 2008 crash, leaving dissenters like Elizabeth Warren to howl into the wind.
Beyond the immorality of the votes, they represented poor politics – a concession to the banking lobby in exchange for further distance from the beating heart of the party.
Barkan is spot on, and the argument from “moderates” that this kind of brazen corporate favoritism has to be tolerated in order to win is not just unprincipled but politically incompetent as well. This will not, Barkan rightly observes, be missed by voters:
Corporate welfare for bad-behaving banks is immoral. It’s also politically stupid. Republicans will do Democrats no new favors. Voters will not flock to the Democratic brand.
It will be seen simply for what it is: a giveaway to those who least deserve it.
More of this kind of politics is what just might kill progressives’ hopes of a wave election. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results isn’t the definition of astute political gamesmanship, it’s the definition of insanity. Even in conservative-leaning Districts like the Western Pennsylvania one that Conor Lamb just stole, abandoning neoliberalism rather than doubling down on it is the key to success.