Great liberal failures is a theme that runs through American politics. William Jennings Bryan started the trend at the turn of the 20th Century. His 'Cross of Gold' speech energised millions but he was trampled underfoot in three Presidential elections. He was the first of many who could whip his followers into a frenzy, but couldn't translate this into winning elections.
Adlai Stevenson was trounced twice, George McGovern beaten out of sight and Hubert Humphrey, the inspiration of many with his pro civil rights rhetoric, failed to beat Nixon. Famously, Stevenson was once told by an onlooker, "Senator, you have the votes of every thinking person." He responded, "that's not enough, madam, I need a majority."
Commentators now seem ready to condemn Massachussets Senator, Elizabeth Warren, to the list of heroic liberal failures. We're being told that she's the standard bearer for the Democratic left, nothing but an old-fashioned East Coast liberal, who could energise the base but get eaten alive by the Republican candidate in a general election.
That's why the Democrats seem ready for a Clinton coronation. Yesterday's Clinton announcement was based on the premise that only Clinton, despite the fact that she has no clear policy on vested interests (other than a famous closeness to them) or clear 'middle class' offer, was suited to the nomination. She may lack Bill's popular touch, but much of the narrative around Clinton seems based on the odd concept that it is somehow 'her turn'.
But that misses the point. Warren, rather than Clinton, could be a potent 'crossover' candidate as a small 'c' conservative, not a big 'L' liberal, turning the anger that drove movements like the 'Tea Party' into a positive message. That's probably why Clinton's launch message was bathed in Warrenite language and it's the Massachussets Senator who emerges most positively from focus groups.
This 'Massachussets' liberal has roots in Oklahoma and in the Republican Party. She's almost literally an 'Okie from Muskogee', coming from a working class Oklahoma family, who "had to get by" after her father had a heart attack when she was 12. This gives her more connection to the white working class lost by the Democrats than any Democrat candidate since Bill Clinton emerged from a place called Hope.
And this symbol of the Democratic left was actually a Republican only a few years ago. Her reasons for moving from the GOP are pretty illuminating:
I was with the GOP for a while because I really thought that it was a party that was principled in its conservative approach to economics and to markets. And I feel like the GOP party just left that. They moved to a party that said, "No, it's not about a level playing field. It's now about a field that's gotten tilted." And they really stood up for the big financial institutions when the big financial institutions are just hammering middle class American families. I just feel like that's a party that moved way, way away.
That sums up why she's compelling. It also sums up how American conservatism has all but abandoned an old style conservatism that tackled abuses of power, worked for effective markets and strong communities.
Her preoccupations are building a strong middle class and ensuring that power is not concentrated in too few hands - both aims that conservatives should feel very comfortable with. She makes no apology for talking about a "strong middle class":
Middle-class families, people who get up early, stay up late, people who run small businesses and struggle to meet payroll, people who worry about having enough money to make it to the end of the month. These folks don't resent that someone else makes money. We're Americans. We celebrate success. We just don't want the game to be rigged.
And Warren argues that this "middle class has been squeezed, chipped away and hammered so hard that the foundations of our economic security are beginning to crumble." She's concerned about how to rebuild a strong middle class for the future, so that they don't have to deal with diminished ambitions. This is hardly Leninism.
When Warren talks about preventing concentration of power, she's speaking the language of Teddy Roosevelt rather than Teddy Kennedy. Roosevelt took action against the trusts who were ruining small businesses and pushing up prices for consumers. Warren complains about the big banks who rig the system against small businesses and consumers. For both politicians, excessive concentration of power leads to abuse and diminishes the influence and importance of the ordinary citizen.
Little wonder that she summoned up the memory of that great conservative President , when she said that, "Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too too much political power.... Because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations of our democracy." Warren argues that the excessive power of the banks over US politics, producing bail outs that do nothing for middle class Americans, small businesses or homeowners represents the same concentration of power without responsibility that Roosevelt crusaded against. In doing so, she could also have been summoning up the spirit of Jefferson or Jackson.
Her dislike of concentrated power doesn't stop with the too big to fail banks, it also extends to the education system, in a way that might shock her some of her new followers. Warren is a passionate supporter of education choice and education vouchers. In her 'Two Income Trap', Warren advocated a total voucher system to boost parental choice and drive up standards in state schools, delivering what she describes as a "shock" to a failing state school system.
Arguing, correctly, that parental choice will drive up standards is something that many of her new followers would recoil at. And, therein lies her major problem. Warren risks being trapped into the corner of being seen as a liberal version of the 'tea party'. This is as much because of her followers and the hopes they have pinned on her than anything she has said or done. Warren risks being seen as a voice of anger and negativity, anti-CEO and anti-banks when she needs to ignore her supporters on the left and turn this into a positive message that resonates across the spectrum.
This positive vision could be directed towards those Americans, on the right and on the left, who feel that the 'American Dream' has been taken away from them by a tilted playing field. Her message could be simply around restoring the link between hard work, success and being allowed to have ambitions for your children. An old style liberal message would sink without trace in a US election, but one that talks about re-empowering the middle class would be compelling.
American politics is stuck in a polarised rut. Great swathes of the white working class have deserted the Democrats and Republicans have been abandoned by non-whites and the college educated. Little of what's been said seems to speak to those middle class Americans who feel insecure and that the opportunities for their children aren't as great as the opportunities that they or their parents had. Conservatives should be hoping that there's a candidate in the race who's campaigning for stronger families and small businesses, a stronger middle class and reduced concentration of power. A Warren candidacy would be so much more interesting than the dynastic machine politics of Bush Mk III v Clinton Mk II.