Nov 17 8:45 AM

With Warren, do Democrats want buy-in or a buy out?

Populism sells, but who's buying? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (5th L) speaks as (L-R) Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) listen after a Democratic Senate leadership election November 13, 2014 in Washington, DC.
2014 Getty Images

Here’s one way to look at it ...

With Thursday’s appointments of Amy Klobuchar, Minn., and Elizabeth Warren, Mass., to leadership positions in what will be the Senate minority in the next session of Congress, Democrats have given women more power within the caucus and within a legislative body where the agenda is increasingly driven by party leaders.

Klobuchar will head the Senate Democratic Steering Committee, which should give the popular centrist a more prominent role in legislative negotiations with the incoming Republican Majority. Warren’s yet-unnamed post, which, it is reported, was created especially for her, will be “strategic policy advisor to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.”

What does that mean? The Huffington Post report on this announcement says that station will give Warren a “key role” in crafting Democrats’ “policy positions and priorities.” Politico cast the role of the “progressive firebrand” as a “liaison to liberal groups” to “ensure their voice is part of the leadership’s private deliberations.”

Both reports say Warren will be part of the messaging team ... and in there might be the other way to look at it.

For Klobuchar, the position is a real one, and her move up the leadership ladder accrues from her seniority and marked political skills, but for Warren, well, this isn’t the first time she has had a job created expressly for her.

Warren, as a Harvard professor and then a special assistant to the president and the Treasury Department, was an advocate for and architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was officially created under the Dodd-Frank financial regulations act in 2010. She was expected to become head of the CFPB, and even endured two contentious Senate Oversight Committee hearings before Republicans made obstreperous sounds and President Obama nominated Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray for the post instead.

Most in the democratic wing of the Democratic Party would say the CFPB’s loss was the Senate’s gain, as Warren bounced back from her administration snub to bounce financial-industry-favorite Scott Brown from the Senate in 2012.

Since her election, Senator Warren has been reliably strong on the messaging — critiquing the cataclysmic rise in economic disparity and the policies that have enabled it — and pretty tough in Capitol Hill hearings, too. She spent the 2014 midterm cycle stumping for Democrats across the country, all the while politely brushing away questions about a presidential run in 2016.

For Warren, an actual run for president in two years is unlikely, especially if presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton assumes her presumptive position, but the mere possibility of a left-ish alternative is said to give some in the party establishment a bit of agita. The theory being that a Warren run would force Clinton to move to the left in the primaries, making the nominee’s pivot back to the “middle” more difficult in the general campaign.

But not having Warren in the race doesn’t make her potential voters automatically Clinton supporters — nor does it make the issues that they care about magically go away.

One of the lessons some have taken from the Democrats’ midterm shellacking (2014 edition) is that while many of the candidates failed to win the hearts and minds of voters, “Democratic issues” resonated. Poll watchers point to passage of gun background checks (and the defeat of a competing anti-gun-regulation initiative) in Washington state, legalization of recreational Marijuana in Oregon and Washington, D.C., hikes in the minimum wage in four fairly conservative states, and defeat of a draconian “personhood” amendment in Colorado as a sign that it is not the Democratic message so much as the messengers that missed the mark.

So, enter Elizabeth Warren, strategic policy advisor. Could she narrow the gap between her popular populist message and the space occupied by the power center of the Democratic Party? Well, by just being part of the backroom conversation — if she really is part of that conversation — she pretty much does by definition. But does that change the way Democrats actually behave in their new minority role? Does it change any votes or the positions taken by the leadership? Does it change the kind of candidates Democrats run next cycle?

And, perhaps more to several points, personal and political, what does it do to the “firebrand” face of Warren, herself? Or, better question still, what does it do for the people who hope to bring the Democratic Party over to the positions where the Democratic votes can be found?

The folks over at Wonkette have one idea. “Senate Dems Throw Elizabeth Warren-Shaped Bone To Annoying Liberal Base,” read the headline on their story about Warren’s promotion. The post quotes a Bloomberg News article sweating the tension this appointment will, in the eyes of B-berg, cause between the Dem base that “want[s] to rein in Wall Street’s influence” and their candidates, who “need Wall Street’s money to compete.”

The point being that in establishment eyes, as interpreted by Wonkette, party Brahmin hope the appointment of Warren to a theoretically high-profile post buys Democrats enough of the base to continue to tilt toward the financial sector the way most of them have in recent years.

“That ship has sailed,” notes Wonkette. Some 70 percent of Wall Street money went to Republicans this cycle, a rapid return to the norm after a brief period four years ago when those donations were almost evenly divided.

But that won’t likely stop the old guard in the Democratic leadership from continuing to frantically paddle their dinghy, trying to catch up with the boatloads of campaign cash the financial sector has at its disposal. If “early money is like yeast” (as the political action committee EMILY’s List eponymously likes to claim), then the kind of dosh sloshing around Wall Street works as self-rising proof — or so it usually looks to the architects of the Democrats’ fortunes.

But if Dem fundraisers are so married to the Wall Street mob, are they really going to let Warren shape “policy positions and priorities” that might indicate Democrats are going to tilt toward Main Street? Or is it that giving the Massachusetts senator a “voice” in “private deliberations” is nothing more than lip service to liberal groups the party expects to again stiff arm when it comes time to do more than talk?

In short, does the creation of a leadership post for Warren signal that Democrats have, after a Midterm drubbing, finally bought in to Warren’s message, or is this merely an attempt to buy off her liberal-left constituency? Will the warm bear hug of leadership squeeze some of the oxygen out of Warren’s full-throated defense of traditional liberal ideology?

"I can't imagine that happening," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to the Huffington Post. Harkin expressed doubt that Warren would “give up her progressive views and her strong commitment to consumers, even if she is part of the leadership.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., praised Warren’s elevation as “terrific,” telling a different HuffPo reporter, “She is not a lonely voice when it comes to trying to make sure Americans in this country get a fair shot.”

“I think Elizabeth Warren speaks for a lot of us when she talks about those issues, not just the more liberal organizations out there,” McCaskill said.

But the liberal Harkin is retiring and won’t be in the Senate next session. McCaskill, never considered to be part of the party’s left flank and, herself, said to be thinking of a presidential run someday, publicly announced before Thursday’s vote that she would not support Reid for Minority Leader. The people that engineered Warren’s newly created post — Reid and his deputies in the party leadership, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. — did not put Warren up for a vote in the caucus meeting, they simply asked for voice acclamation on her appointment.

This caught other Dems by surprise. And their comments, seeming to range from perplexed to perturbed, render the question of Warren’s influence an open one. Even Harkin said he had no idea what the post was intended to do: “A liaison to liberals? I've never heard of such a thing.”

So, then, what is Warren’s constituency beyond the “liberal groups” whose “voice” she is supposed to echo like the “people’s mic” of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations from a few years back? On the inside, the intentions of Reid, Schumer and Durbin not withstanding nor fully known, is a Democratic Party establishment infamous for hating its base now on board with playing to and playing for those “annoying liberals?” Or are the folks already at the captain’s table also, like the money they chase, too far out to sea?

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