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Editorial: Elizabeth Warren Primary Is about Issues, Not Casting an Understudy…

(created via wikipedia and AP images)

(created via wikipedia and AP images)

Some weeks ago progressives finally abandoned their quest after months of public pleading. They realized that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s persistent “No’s” were not merely code for “I’m running for president.” Massachusetts voters consistently wanted Warren to stay put, a sentiment that was likely always in her heart of hearts as well.

As this blog noted last year, the Warren-mania had neglected very real impediments to a run against Hillary Clinton. Those who wanted Warren because she was the anti-Clinton, think they found an alternative in Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. That may be a false trade, however, which forgets a key Warren strength and risks a prime opportunity for progress on key issues.

Warren has delivered on her Election Night promise to champion both Massachusetts and the little guy nationally. Like her senatorial forebear, Edward Kennedy, she has leveraged her reputation—overseeing TARP and creating the CFPB as opposed to family name—to maximum effect. Hyper-partisanship limits the Senate’s functionality, let alone opportunities for bipartisanship, but Warren has found Republican allies, even on her signature issue: financial reform.

Senator Elizabeth Warren. (WMassP&I)

Senator Elizabeth Warren. (WMassP&I)

But her apostles’ sprint to Sanders, which constitutes much the Vermonter’s recent “surge,” betrays a misunderstanding about Warren, American political history and for that matter Hillary Clinton.

Readers may sense where this post is going and they suspect rightly. However, this critique is not meant to show disrespect toward Sanders. In truth there is very little to dislike about him. On countless issues, his values certainly sync up with this blog’s…but so do those of others like Warren and Clinton.

There’s no denying that differences exist between Warren and Clinton from Glass-Steagall to a bankruptcy law passed in 2005 when Clinton was a senator (Clinton missed the 2005 vote, but had supported it in 2001). This week in Phoenix, Warren called on presidential contenders (read: Clinton) to back limits on the revolving door between financial regulators and banks. More may be going on here, though. Warren could be testing Clinton’s seriousness about appointing tough regulators rather than just drawing a red line for candidates.

In any event it is a mistake to assume this means Warren’s choice, if any, is Sanders. She cares about issues and not just applause lines.

Senator Bernie Sanders I-VT (via wikipedia)

“I talk to Senator Sanders virtually everyday. We work in the same building,” Elizabeth Warren said artfully this May following a bemused dismissal of news a Drafter Warren supporter found work with Sanders. She and Sanders may be on the same page in many ways, but their political roots differ. Warren was once a Republican. Her reason? She thought then they were better for markets.

As a scholar and witness to financial history, she learned otherwise. While today Warren is a progressive herald—and fairly so—her views about regulation, consumer protection and access to opportunity took root when there still existed conservative opposition to market manipulation and uneven playing fields.

What made Warren so desirable for a presidential run is her ability to describe the system in a way that the laymen could understand. She does so fiercely, but without touching a classic American nerve: the promise of success.

Sanders’s rhetorical flourishes, even as he earnestly respects success, sometimes devolve toward what some call “eat the rich.” Republicans may see no difference among Clinton, Sanders and Warren, but voters do. Fiery denunciations of the rich’s ill-gotten gains, whether accurate or not, can turn Americans off. This is partly what has derailed pushes for universal health care or paid family leave, to name a few.

A well-defined part of the American consciousness, perhaps more myth than truth, is that anybody can be rich with work and determination. Consequently, to some, unvarnished shots at the wealthy may sound like an attack on success. That is false, but since when can facts alone combat such misperceptions, especially ones woven so tightly into the national ethos?

Sanders told Nate Cohn at The Times’s Upshot that his coalition for victory would consist of working-class folks disgusted by the economy. But as Cohn observed, voters (and their disgust) may not line up like that. Rather, consolidation among upper-class white liberals explains Sanders’s growth.

Secretary Hillary Clinton (via wikipedia)

Clinton, by contrast, has tried to strike that balance. Against her ambivalence about Glass-Steagall (progressives want to restore the law, which once separated investment and consumer banking services), there is her call to zealously prosecute financial crimes. Manacled bankers would find little sympathy among Americans on Main Street.

Clinton is hampered by media that often describes her as negatively as possible. Thus, where nuance exists—such as on trade—it comes across as mealy-mouthed. Sanders’s general opposition to trade agreement runs aground history (see Smoot-Hawley), while Clinton has developed a jaundiced eye on trade. For her part, Warren does not appear to oppose trade either, only policies that provide one set of protections for corporations and virtually none for everyone else.

Based on past comments, Sanders arguably occupies ground closer to Clinton and certainly Warren. Yet in the rhetorical universe, Clinton and Sanders couldn’t be further apart. This does the debate no justice and leaves Americans with unrealistic expectations about how to correct unbalanced trade policy.

Sanders has problems reaching out to key Democratic constituencies. Joan Walsh of Salon highlighted Sanders’s tendency to paint the issue of rising inequality in colorblind terms. The Vermonter was heckled at Netroots Nation this week by Black Lives Matter protesters, and did little to make it right later that night. Walsh lumped Warren in this category too, although as a senator Warren sought to connect with issues affecting minority communities, including in Springfield.

In recent years, a healthy self-awareness has distinguished the left from the right. Now is not the time to lose that. Blunting the progressive agenda, however, alos carries great risk as the 2014 election showed.

Rather, that agenda should be paired with a check on absolutism in favor of subtler language. This is bigger than Clinton, Sanders or Warren. After all, to implement and not merely discuss these policies, that agenda needs a mandate from the American public.

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