Elizabeth Warren: Return of the Happy Warrior

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Senator Warren, the people's champion
The people’s champion.

It should come as no surprise that Elizabeth Warren can barnstorm the campaign trail with equal parts rage and joy. After all, progressives who imagined an Obama presidency as a potent antidote to both the reactionary fervor of the Bush/Cheney years and the wobbly centrism of the Clinton presidency, have gone from a state of resigned acceptance to glum ennui. As it has done since the Carter years, the modern Democratic party has combated radical right-wing ideas with less a progressive bang than a technocratic whimper. As it happens, Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign chief, is helping reelect the Tories on this side of the Atlantic. Cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assert that many Democratic leaders would be simpatico with the Conservative Party here in Britain. In the 2012 election cycle, right-leaning expat Andrew Sullivan even argued for Obama’s reelection as the fulfillment of his own Tory dreams.

Yet when the impassioned and erudite senator (and erstwhile Harvard Law School professor) from Massachusetts is around, the Democratic Party feels like, well, the Democratic Party again. What’s more, Warren has taken to the hustings to deliver her incandescent brand of populism on behalf of the many embattled Democratic incumbents who sadly seem poised to lose their seats. “The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” she declared at a recent campaign rally for Sen. Al Franken. Franken, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972, is among the surer bets for reelection, in a state that birthed progressive icons like Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale and is the seat of The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL.

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The term “Happy Warrior” should be affixed to Warren every bit as it was to the late, great Humphrey. The onetime mayor of Minneapolis, he became a senator and then Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President at a time when America was roiled by the fight for civil rights and tragically mired in Vietnam. Long before either political party would hear of it, Humphrey unabashedly exhorted for racial equality from the stage of the 1948 Democratic Convention that nominated Harry S. Truman for the presidency. To the consternation of the Democratic Party’s segregationist, Southern wing, Humphrey intoned,

To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

Humphrey’s commanding advocacy for fairness and justice wasn’t just hollow speechifying, it was a robust defense of progressive ideas and ideals. Without question, the all-encompassing, resolute themes which informed his enlightened outlook and confidently packed a visceral wallop reflected an authentic and deeply ingrained egalitarianism. Like her “Happy Warrior” predecessor, Warren has her own agenda and it’s not a mere reprise of tired, neo-liberal jargon. She nods lovingly and nostalgically for the reformist thinking that Humphrey and the liberals of his era fomented. Elected to the Senate as an irrepressible firebrand in 2012, she has her own resonant message and tirelessly preaches it. “Happy Warrior” is as “Happy Warrior” does:

We can go through the list over and over, but at the end of every line is this: Republicans believe this country should work for those who are rich, those who are powerful, those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. I will tell you we can whimper about it, we can whine about it or we can fight back.

During the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama was still vying to be a left-leaning alternative to Hillary Clinton, he revealed his bona fides as a pol, if not a fellow traveler, when he commented that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory in American politics, in way, that, you know, Richard Nixon did not or Bill Clinton did not.” While he was unfairly scorned at the time, Obama offered up a perceptive assessment of America’s economically rigged narrative and wanted to be seen as the Democrat who could change the conversation. Recall that Clinton, to the chagrin of many on the left, famously contended in his 1996 State of the Union address that “The era of big government is over.” Despite the ferocious implacability of his Republican antagonists, Obama’s continuation of many Bush-era national security policies and his extension of the Bush tax cuts back in 2010, revealed a curious ideological emptiness. If anything, Obama ultimately seems not the transformational figure his campaign augured, perhaps because, futilely, he aimed to be a “post-partisan” president and we wound up instead in a hyper-partisan time. While Obama has been a much-needed firewall against what would otherwise be a right-wing conflagration, that’s not the same thing as having a raging progressive fire in your belly — which is what animates, Warren insists, her scorched-earth attitude toward politics.

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In Des Moines, on another campaign swing, Warren waxed reverently about the America she grew up in. As recounted in her gripping memoir, A Fighting Chance, she came of age during what might be characterized as the years of “American consensus.” Her own hardscrabble upbringing aside, Warren wistfully recalls a compact with the middle class in which government actively built highways, invested in childcare and education, and prohibited banks from gambling with their depositors’ money. From Eisenhower to Reagan, Democratic and Republican presidents alike were reconciled to and often expanded the social safety net, protected Social Security and allowed increased regulation of the environment. Warren insists that all changed in the 1980s with Reagan’s regressive and toxic anti-government approach — an approach that the right-wing hopes to make enduring. Warren’s reaction is unmistakable:

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They called it deregulation, but what it really meant was: Have at ’em, boys. They were saying in effect, to the biggest financial institutions, any way you can trick or trap or fool anybody into signing anything, man, you can just rake in the profits.

…Republicans, man, they ought to be wearing a t-shirt… The t-shirt should say, ‘I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.’

Warren also has some unsparing words for Obama, asserting that he

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…protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over.

Ouch.

Warren makes villains of the political class whose collusion since the post-Watergate years has enriched lobbyists, corporate chieftains and the bankers who pander to them. Real median wages had stagnated for so long that, even as early as 1974, no long before Reagan’s gilded claque first came along, economic anxiety was primed to be turned into aristocratic opportunity. Gone were the progressive convictions of leaders like Humphrey, who never ceased fighting for the displaced and for those left behind.

In 1976, Humphrey, who resumed his career in the Senate after losing the 1968 Presidential race to Nixon, teamed with California Congressman Augustus Hawkins on the ambitious, if flawed, Humphrey-Hawkins bill that required the government to keep unemployment below 3 percent or else be required to offer emergency jobs to the unemployed. A diluted version of the bill was eventually signed by Carter, aimed more at the double-digit inflation of the era more than unemployment. The moneyed classes wouldn’t have it as originally designated, though, and in our era even the mention of such a policy is all but verboten.

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The term “Happy Warrior,” though mostly attributed to American politicians, actually takes its name from a poem by the English romanticist William Wordsworth entitled “The Character of the Happy Warrior.” It is a tribute to an English general, Lord Nelson, who bravely died in the Battle of Trafalgar, struck by a French sniper. Regardless of Nelson’s defeat, Wordsworth admired Nelson’s tenacity, his courage and humbleness. He sensitively and approvingly depicts a leader who, despite the struggles in front of them, remains undeterred and even joyful in their quest to do what’s right. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once remarked that in American politics “you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” That may be so. But here’s to “Happy Warriors” like Humphrey and Warren, who never shy from the poetry of their beliefs.

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