With the Senate vote and Senator Warren’s great speech Saturday night (available via the SDUSA Facebook page), several astute observers, including our own Chairman, have remarked on the dead silence coming from Senator Hillary Clinton. While it certainly is bad political tactics to think that every event deserves comment, we might think that such a “line in sand” confrontation in the Democratic Party would call for some observations from the Party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination.
Senator Clinton’s silence is especially remarkable because Elizabeth Warren’s speech was directed not only against the current administration’s close, not to say incestuous, relationship with Citigroup but also against the similar relationship that the previous Democratic administration had with the same institution. That administration, of course, was led by Senator Clinton’s husband, and it was one in which she played a major, if unofficial, role. Given the usual ferocious Clinton response to criticism, a reaction could have been expected.
Some have speculated that Hillary Clinton has made no comment because she thinks the spending bill was a good deal on the whole and that she expects to make similar deals with
the Republicans if she is elected to the presidency. If those commentators are right, it makes urgent the need to strengthen and carry forward the incipient progressive revolt.
President Obama’s nomination of Lazard executive Antonio Weiss to be Under Secretary of the Treasury may be the occasion for the next fight between corporate and progressive Democrats. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already declared her opposition to Weiss’ confirmation, citing his nomination as another example of the revolving door between government and Wall Street. Her statement was answered by howls of anguish from lower Manhattan and the threat that, if Weiss were not confirmed, Wall Streeters just might stop being willing to run our economy. This threat did not cause extreme anxiety in progressive circles.
Senator Warren recently accused the last two Democratic administrations of having excessive numbers of Citigroup-connected people in high economic positions (Weiss, a Lazard man, is a refreshing change). It is probably of some significance that the previous Democratic president was named Clinton. Warren also made the more serious charge that having Citigroup lobbyists interacting with former Citigroup government officials has impeded proper regulation of the big banks. Further, Warren said, the big banks wield not only economic power but also political power, and citing the trust-busting example of Teddy Roosevelt, she said the big banks should be broken in pieces. Obviously Senator Warren
doesn’t intend to let the minor job that Senator Reid gave her slow her down.
On Saturday night the Senate passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill and sent it to the President for signature. In addition to funding most of the Federal government through next September, the bill contained riders that caused senators such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to wage a strong fight against it. According to news reports, President Obama, Vice President Biden and even Secretary of State Kerry were obliged to work the telephones to rally support for the bill.
The most discussed rider, said to have been written by Citigroup lobbyists, would weaken the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory act by allowing banks to trade certain risky instruments while having access to Federal support if their speculations go wrong. Senator Warren called this “… a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street.” Senator Sanders announced that, in view of Congress’ unwillingness to supervise big banks, he would introduce legislation to break up “too big to fail” banks.
Senator Sanders also called attention to a provision in the bill that would allow multi-employer pension plans to reduce benefits. The Vermont senator said that this would allow cutting benefits to workers who had toiled all their lives to gain security in old age.
The Congressional confrontation with White House and with corporate Democrats followed a week of political ferment among Democratic progressives. MoveOn.Org announced that it would raise $1 million to help their effort to persuade Senator Warren to run in the Democratic presidential primaries. On Friday 300 former Obama campaign staffers called on Warren to run, saying: “Rising inequality is the challenge of our times, and we want someone who will stand up for working families and take on Wall Street banks and special interests that took down our economy.”
A Bernie Sanders support group announced that he would go to Iowa on December 16th for a series of speeches and meetings with labor and progressive activists. The announcement said that he would discuss “…the 40-year decline of the middle class, growing income and wealth inequality in the United States and his 12-point Economic Agenda for America…”
A strong challenge may be building in the Democratic Party to the corporate interests that have dominated the Party during the Clinton and Obama administrations. MoveOn.org has polled its membership regarding a Presidential run by Senator Elizabeth Warren, and, not too surprisingly, a large majority was enthusiastic about such run. On a more practical level, Senator Warren is sharpening her opposition to the White House nomination of a Lazard Freres partner to a high position in the Treasury Department, pointing out that it is a conspicuous example of the revolving door between Wall Street and government. In the meantime, Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders is casting loving eyes on Iowa’s Democrats and has issued a sharp-edged statement that could serve as a national platform.
All such movements toward a left revolt in the Party are positive and should be welcomed by Social Democrats. At our recent convention, we determined to work toward a social democratic platform for the Democratic Party in 2016. As important as such work is, the nature of our national political process is that a flesh and blood candidate is the best communicator of programs. In Senators Warren and Sanders we have articulate, principled
prospective candidates who understand the real problems of the American people.
At the least, a left candidacy would force Senator Hillary Clinton to forsake the mush-mouthed rhetoric that she would otherwise favor and that brought defeat to so many Democratic candidates in the last election.
Amid the gloom of the recent elections, there was at least a small light: Massachusetts voters, by a 59 percent majority, approved a ballot question to allow almost 900,000 workers to earn up to 5 days of paid sick leave each year. This question appeared on the ballot and was victorious because of a strong effort by a coalition of labor and progressive groups, including Massachusetts Social Democrats.
Earlier in the year, the same coalition gained an enormous victory when the state legislature, faced with a companion minimum wage ballot question, voted to increase in stages the minimum wage to $11 per hour. The coalition had been obliged to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to bring the two measures to the voters, but cooperation between labor and progressive organizations paid off, largely for better lives for low-wage families.
At least two lessons can be drawn from the Massachusetts victories. First, local action is a way around Washington gridlock. Second, proposals that clearly benefit the people have electoral appeal. The Democrats who tried to blur the issues in the election and who went down to defeat should take careful note.