America needs an Elizabeth Warren movement, not an Elizabeth Warren presidency
Since the 2016 election season is starting to warm up (God help us all), I wanted to take a moment to discuss the first development in it that’s been interesting enough for me to watch: the emergence of the “Ready for Warren” movement to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
You’d have to look long and hard to find a bigger admirer of Senator Warren than me. For many years now, she’s been one of the few voices on the national stage speaking out for those whose voices our system usually drowns out: the working family struggling to keep their house, the young graduate buried under student loan debt, the community left adrift after all its jobs have disappeared. In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, when all our other leaders — Republican and Democrat — were lining up to give Wall Street’s executives “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, she was one of the few demanding both reform and accountability. And since her election to the Senate in 2012, she has quite brilliantly used the platform her office has given her to keep pressing those issues onto the national agenda.
She is one of the few people I’ve seen in nearly twenty years working in and around politics who gives me hope that we can have leaders who are something better than venal, corrupt sleazebags. So yeah, I’m a fan.
But despite all that, I have to tell you, there is this: I can’t get on the “Run, Liz, Run” train. I’m sorry, I just can’t.
The reason isn’t anything to do with Senator Warren’s fitness for the office, which as you could probably tell from the above I think is just fine. And it’s not because I think the presumptive frontrunner for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, is particularly awesome; I was all Hillaried out in 2008, and the last six years haven’t changed that. (Though I will say that it’s awesome to see a contest shaping up where both of the most-buzzed-about candidates for the Democratic nomination are women.)
No, my hesitation comes from something else: a feeling that the “Ready for Warren” campaigners, as much as I agree with them in so many ways, are simply putting the cart before the horse.
For many decades now, Democrats have had a bad habit of thinking that all the way to solve the country’s problems is to find one ideal person, one perfect candidate, and run them for President. Once elected, the thinking goes, the perfect candidate will be a perfect President, sweeping away all opposition to a broad agenda of progressive change with their perfect-ness.
But politics in America doesn’t work that way — and I’m kind of amazed anyone could have lived through the presidency of Barack Obama without coming to understand that. Obama was the Perfect Candidate in 2008, after all, and the six years since then have been an object lesson in just how little leverage perfection buys you in Washington.
Obama has struggled because a Perfect Candidate is not enough. To get things done, a president needs, above all else, power. And the hallmark of presidents with power is generally that they have a movement backing them up.
The genesis of the Perfect Candidate myth goes all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt. But it’s worth remembering that when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he didn’t arrive in Washington alone; he was backed up by gigantic majorities in both the House and the Senate. And those majorities, combined with his own enormous popularity, gave him the leverage he needed to push the First New Deal into law.
Barack Obama didn’t have that kind of support when he came to D.C. in 2008, and it showed. It showed immediately. He had to start horse-trading with conservatives from day one to get anything done. And that after his predecessor oversaw both a disastrous war and a near collapse of the entire economic system!
If ever there was a moment in our lifetimes that should have been amenable to the wonders of a Perfect Candidate, 2008 was it. But even then, even when we were all standing amidst the rubble shaking our heads, one perfect man was not enough.
None of which is to say that Obama couldn’t have accomplished more in those early years with the cards in his hand than he did. (I thought, and still think, he could have.) But it certainly would have helped if he’d had a bigger electoral margin and a wave of new, supportive members of Congress behind him.
We didn’t produce those things. In what should have been a great progressive moment, we failed — because all of our energies went into finding the Perfect Candidate.
Why would we believe things would be any different if the Perfect Candidate in question was Elizabeth Warren in 2016, rather than Barack Obama in 2008? Who would be there on Capitol Hill and in the state legislatures to help her move her agenda forward? Progressives like to say that they’re from “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.” But can you name any other elected officials who are saying that? Or even any promising candidates?
They are, sadly, few and far between. Which does not bode well for the success of a Warren Administration.
The lesson of all this is simple. The way to make change doesn’t start at the top. It starts at the bottom. It starts with Americans, grassroots progressives, building a movement around the principles that Senator Warren has so ably articulated. It means finding strong progressive candidates for local offices, and then getting them the money and boots on the ground they need to win those offices. It means developing enough strength in the states to challenge and overcome the networks of corporate interests that run riot in so many statehouses and Congressional districts. It means driving the money-changers, from humble local party committees all the way up to the DNC itself, out of the Democratic Party.
And then, when all that is done, it means finding, and running, a candidate for President. A Presidential candidate is the fruition of a movement, not the seeding of one.
This is not a work of the near term. It’s a work that would take decades to complete. I may not even live long enough to see it find whatever destiny fate has allotted it. But it’s the one way — the only way — to effect the change that so many of us want to see.
There is no Perfect Candidate who, all by themselves, can ensure a safe, prosperous future for America. That responsibility falls upon all of us.