Elizabeth Warren is, or at least should be, the most important person in the Democratic Party right now. She is in a position to forge a new identity for the party. She can do this partly by example; her forceful, plain speaking about banking regulation and her Twitter skirmishes with Donald Trump are models of how to effectively address the topsy-turvy political environment.
But more important, there will be some major struggles for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party this summer in the lead-up to its convention. Warren needs to be at the center of that definitional effort. Some of the struggles will be friendly, some of them not. But in any case, they will define how the Democrats present themselves to the country in contests up and down the ballot this fall.
What the past year of wildly inaccurate political predictions tells us is only that no amount of insider wisdom, poll aggregation or savvy retelling of tales from past elections will deliver us from uncertainty. There are no safe bets. The most realistic, fact-based position is the one that says we have to move toward the general election in a context of uncertainty where no clever sound bites, triangulation or judicious targeting of narrow constituencies will save us. Democrats have no choice but to unite behind a bold political vision that gives voters a clear choice.
One thing we do know is that the most left-wing member of the Senate in U.S. history has posed a very serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, someone most Democrats thought would be an easy shoo-in against any candidate, much less against someone as improbable as Bernie Sanders. And Sanders is not just a blip; he has accumulated more delegates and money than a very long list of “serious” Democratic primary candidates from the past, and he does consistently well with independents — those voters who centrist Democrats have long assumed wanted more conservative policies, not less. On economic issues, mainstream Dems have been operating far to the right of most Democratic voters (and given the rise of Trump, on issues like free trade, taxation and financial industry regulation, perhaps to the right of most voters overall). We’ll never know, but it’s hard not to think that if Warren had run, the primary would be over by now and she’d be well on her way to being our next president.
Why can’t Clinton and Sanders just sit down and work out a Democratic Party platform adjusted for these new realities? We can hope, but Sanders has spent decades winning election after election by ignoring condescending derision from the press and the Democratic Beltway establishment, and in the process has developed a skin as thick as a rhino’s; he’s not going to be quick to warm to Democratic Party operatives telling him he needs to change his tone. And Clinton, for her part, is surrounded by advisers who have based their careers on forms of strategic thinking — pivoting toward an imagined center, meager incrementalism, cautious social liberalism combined with economic conservatism — that are politically enervating, if not broken.
To take on Trump and to gain seats down ballot, a newly energized Democratic Party needs to embrace a series of political commitments that draw a sharp line distinguishing the current party from its past. To connect with voters, the policies need to be bold. They should also be practical, but based on a greatly enlarged sense of what constitutes the practical: If Denmark can do it, why can’t we?
One of the lessons of Sanders’ campaign (not to mention the campaigns of some Republican stalwarts like Ronald Reagan) is that you get respect and votes for taking clear principled stands, whether or not they are popular.
Joe Biden embraced the new reality when he said, “I don’t think any Democrat’s ever won saying, ‘We can’t think that big — we ought to really downsize here because it’s not realistic.’ ”
Warren is ideally positioned as a bridge builder. She has already been out ahead of Sanders in fundraising for other progressive candidates, her populist economic policies track closely with his, and yet she has always been committed to the Democratic Party. She has endorsed neither candidate, which puts her in a position to address both sides as an honest broker. She is fantastically skilled at addressing policy complexities with incisively plain language. Tactically and politically, Warren represents the new epicenter of the Democratic electorate, and her clear-eyed economic populism reaches across party lines.
Listen to her. Let her lead.
Thomas Streeter is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont.
© Thomas Streeter