Elizabeth Warren is currently running for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat. If the first week of her campaign is any indication, this could wind up being the most interesting Senate race in the country next year, and certainly the most positive for the Democratic Party to watch. It was always going to be a tough race, because incumbent Scott Brown is generally well-liked by Massachusetts voters (even though he's a Republican), and Warren has never run for public office before in her life. So far, though, she appears to be up to the challenge. Of course, it is still very early in the race, so forming sweeping predictions or conclusions is impossible at this point. But still, it's been a very good first week for Elizabeth Warren.
Only one statewide poll is out since her announcement, and it shows her popularity spiking dramatically. Previous to her announcement, three polls put her 9-to-19 points behind Brown. The PPP poll just released shows her beating Brown 46-44 percent. That's a big bump in such a short period, but it is just one poll -- so we'll have to wait for further data before drawing solid conclusions. Her rise in support could also just be an initial spike after her announcement that she's entering the race, and could quickly fade away. Even with these caveats, the numbers certainly look better for Warren now than many were predicting even a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Warren is a polarizing figure. Liberals love her with a fierce passion. Republicans hate her with a fiery passion. What this means is that lots and lots of money from outside the state will be pumped into this race. The reason why Democrats are going to be watching this race closer than any other Senate race next year is easy to see: this may be the only state Democrats have a good chance to pick up a seat from the Republicans. The math isn't good for Democrats this time around in the Senate, and they are in danger of losing control of the chamber next year. Warren may be the sole bright spot in this environment for Democrats.
One video clip of Warren campaigning is already making the rounds among Lefties. From Washington Monthly comes both the video and the transcript of her recent answer to critics of Obama's plans to slightly raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans:
I hear all this, you know: "Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever." No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
This is sheer political brilliance. Democrats are notorious for not being able to do what Warren just proved she's fully capable of: Explaining an issue in plain language that resonates with the average citizen. Telling a story. Crafting a narrative. I especially like the bit about "marauding bands," since it just proves how silly the entire concept of "class warfare" truly is, in this day and age. Using the term "warfare" for a non-violent political discussion on tax policy is just so completely overblown (and disrespectful to American troops who currently are in the midst of real live warfare) -- at least until gangs armed with pitchforks and torches start appearing across the land. Which is why Warren slipping the concept of "marauding bands" into her rebuttal is so brilliant.
Elizabeth Warren's campaign was certainly helped out by President Obama's timing of his announcements on the American Jobs Act and his deficit-cutting plan. Warren has always been a voice for this true populism, and Obama pushing the issue to the forefront certainly highlights Warren's previous championing of the "little guy." Obama has apparently decided to center his entire re-election campaign on the issue of taxing millionaires, which will continue to bolster Warren's stance in her own race.
Elizabeth Warren was never the caricature Republicans labored so mightily to paint. Conservatives saw her as some sort of anti-business demon which had to be stopped before she forced Wall Street banks to (gasp!) explain their financial products without sixteen pages of fine-print type. When you put it that way, it really shows the disconnect between what Warren actually stands for and the way her Republican opponents try to pigeonhole her. Warren has fought for consumers all this time -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was her idea in the first place. Whether Republicans realize it or not, most voters are actually also these same consumers. This, as I said (at length, earlier in the week), is the true face of populism.
Of course, Warren could run into trouble on the campaign trail. It's only been a week, after all. She has never campaigned for anything, but she is certainly no stranger to speaking in front of people. Republicans are already trying to define her as "Professor Warren," in the hopes that Massachusetts blue-collar voters will be turned off by a Harvard professor. But Warren not only appears comfortable talking to people, she shows the ability to present her ideas and her position in a manner that voters can easily grasp. This sounds like an easy thing to do, but some politicians (especially Democrats) never quite seem to get the hang of effectively doing so. Warren has spent the last few years talking to Wall Street tycoons, and answering pointed questions in front of Congress. Picturing her comfortably taking questions from voters or debating Scott Brown is a piece of cake, after watching her being grilled by congressional Republicans who were determined to destroy her. If she continues to show such talent framing the issues correctly, the Warren/Brown race may prove to be the one which garners the most attention outside the presidential race next year.
Populism could be a winning campaign issue for Democrats, but for the past few decades that's only been a (mostly) theoretical statement -- because so few Democrats have actually ever tried to run on it (especially at the national level). This is about to be put to the test, both in Massachusetts and in the run for the White House. In fact, Warren is doing so well so quickly that Barack Obama should clear a day on his calendar in the next week or so, and get up to a campaign event for Warren in Massachusetts. The two of them would do each other enormous good by appearing together, and showing other Democrats how to run on the populist issues Obama has laid out. Populism can be a winning issue for Democrats, if they handle it correctly. Elizabeth Warren is certainly doing her best to lead by example, in this respect.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant