Why Democrats Are Linking Themselves to Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator has become a litmus test for candidates seeking to claim the progressive mantle in 2014.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a briefing on a Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rule October 30, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
Dec. 5, 2013, midnight

Sup­port for Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren and her lib­er­al pop­u­list views has be­come a lit­mus test for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates seek­ing to claim the pro­gress­ive mantle in their primar­ies in 2014.

Jon Cow­an and Jim Kessler of Third Way, a cent­rist Demo­crat­ic think tank, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journ­al on Monday bash­ing War­ren, D-Mass.,  and New York City May­or-elect Bill de Bla­sio for what they call their “dis­astrous” em­brace of eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism. In the op-ed, the pair spe­cific­ally refers to the ex­ist­ence of “the War­ren wing of the Demo­crat­ic Party.”

That hasn’t sat well with pro­gress­ive act­iv­ists. And Wed­nes­day, lib­er­al groups in­clud­ing Mo­ve­On.org, the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, and Pro­gress­ives United star­ted dir­ect­ing their ire at not just Third Way but Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., an hon­or­ary co­chair of the group who is also the nom­in­al front-run­ner in the Pennsylvania gubernat­ori­al primary. In ef­fect, they told the con­gress­wo­man she had to choose War­ren over Third Way if she wanted their sup­port.

“If Allyson Schwartz op­poses cut­ting the be­ne­fits that seni­ors and work­ing fam­il­ies rely on and earn with every single paycheck, now is the time for her to say so pub­licly and resign from her po­s­i­tion at Third Way,” said Jim Dean, DFA’s chair­man.

And on Tues­day, Schwartz’s rivals star­ted pil­ing on. John Hanger, one of Schwartz’s sev­en primary op­pon­ents, is also join­ing the call for Schwartz to resign her post with the group.

The lib­er­al Left’s ac­tion has already earned res­ults: Schwartz, while not resign­ing from Third Way, did call its op-ed “out­rageous.” 

Pro­gress­ives see an at­tack on War­ren, no mat­ter how many de­grees re­moved, as un­ac­cept­able for any can­did­ate who wants the back­ing of the act­iv­ist Left in his or her primary. And it’s a phe­nomen­on not con­fined to Pennsylvania. That car­ries big im­plic­a­tions for all Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, es­pe­cially those in primary fights, in 2014.

In an at­ten­tion-grabbing cov­er story in Novem­ber, Noam Scheiber at New Re­pub­lic ar­gued that come 2016, Demo­crats un­sat­is­fied with a Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton can­did­acy may turn their sights to War­ren as the party’s pop­u­list, pro­gress­ive stand­ard­bear­er. But if the Third Way fiasco is any in­dic­a­tion, many already have.

Already in 2013, Demo­crats in com­pet­it­ive races in Mary­land, Rhode Is­land, New Jer­sey, Mas­sachu­setts — and now Pennsylvania — have in­voked War­ren’s name or ideas in an at­tempt to emu­late the fresh­man sen­at­or who has proven to be so pop­u­lar with their base.

When asked by MS­N­BC’s Perry Ba­con back in Septem­ber what he thought about Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Janet Yel­len to lead the Fed­er­al Re­serve, now-Sen. Cory Book­er, D-N.J., noted that “sen­at­ors I like a lot, like Eliza­beth War­ren,” were angling for Yel­len. Ba­con at­trib­uted this name-check to Book­er simply do­ing “what is ne­ces­sary to il­lus­trate his lib­er­al bon­afides” in case he him­self ever de­cides to run for pres­id­ent.

In Mary­land, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al and 2014 gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Doug Gansler pitched a rep­lica of the “People’s Pledge” in his own Demo­crat­ic primary con­test, which was used by War­ren and then-Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., to lim­it out­side spend­ing in their 2012 U.S. Sen­ate race. In an email sent to sup­port­ers Nov. 21, Gansler’s spokes­man wrote: “Our po­s­i­tion is clear and we’re happy to stand with Eliza­beth War­ren on this is­sue.”

Provid­ence May­or An­gel Taver­as also pro­posed such an agree­ment in the Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary in Rhode Is­land, as did state Treas­urer Steve Gross­man in the Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary in neigh­bor­ing Mas­sachu­setts. When Taver­as un­veiled his pro­pos­al in Septem­ber, he said: “I think Eliza­beth War­ren set a ter­rif­ic ex­ample for Demo­crats by call­ing for an end to out­side spend­ing in cam­paigns.”

Gross­man, a former DNC chair­man, has nearly as much cash in his cam­paign ac­count as all of his Demo­crat­ic primary op­pon­ents com­bined and ap­pears to have pur­sued the pledge in a genu­ine at­tempt to emu­late War­ren and stake out pro­gress­ive ground in the deep blue state.

The emer­gence of War­ren and what she rep­res­ents as a pro­gress­ive lit­mus test bears a strik­ing re­semb­lance to the way con­ser­vat­ive groups have held the views of Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates up against the hard-right stances of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. And pres­id­en­tial bid or no, War­ren’s bold lib­er­al­ism is prov­ing it­self to be a call­ing card for a branch of the party — a branch po­ten­tially de­cis­ive in 2014 primar­ies — tired of prag­mat­ic pro­gressiv­ism and yearn­ing for a new way for­ward.

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