Sunday, September 2, 2012

Convention Wars Episode I: An Un-Warren-ted Hope


                                           "Help us, Obi-Warren, you're our only hope!"

This past week, the Republican Party held its National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Although Hurricane Isaac had threatened to derail the event, the storm ended up drifting westward and missing the convention entirely; this did, however, force Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal--a young and highly accomplished politician of Indian descent, one of the Republican Party's rising stars--to cancel his slated convention address. Other complications also shortened the convention by a day--to the length of the Democratic National Convention (about which, more in just a bit). I did not catch much coverage of the RNC, though it was certainly not without its share of good speeches. The following links will direct one to the speeches of Mia Love, a Haitian-American mayor running for a Utah Congressional seat; Susan Martinez, the Hispanic governor of New Mexico; Paul Ryan, the now-official Republican vice presidential nominee; Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American junior Senator from Florida; surprise guest Clint Eastwood, who needs no description; and Mitt Romney, finally the "official" Republican nominee. 

We may have covered the RNC a bit more extensively if partisan boosterism were the purpose of this blog. Yet while the speakers and opinions present at the RNC might coincide more neatly with our own, intellectual combat is our main interest. Thus, in the days preceding the DNC, we shall be "pre-gaming" it, with posts on three of its most prominent speakers: Elizabeth Warren, Bill Clinton, and Sandra Fluke. These three figures might not say everything there is to say about today's Democratic Party, but they come pretty darn close. I shall begin with Elizabeth Warren.

Many of our readers could be forgiven for never having heard of Ms Warren. Indeed, before her career as a Harvard academic intersected with politics upon her involvement with TARP and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (an agency which requires neither congressional funding nor oversight, and is hence of highly dubious constitutionality), I had never heard of her. But somehow, a few months ago, she established herself as the Democratic nominee to challenge Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown for the seat he won in a special election back in early 2010. Ever since then, her profile has been rising--but almost exclusively among the progressive left. A July article from The Atlantic magazine details the extent of her status among the furthest-left elements of the Democratic Party today. Some key quotes:
"[The article's author] went to a conference of liberal activists this week hoping to find out who the party's activist base sees as its up-and-coming stars. But the exercise turned out to be revealing largely for how unprepared people were to answer the question. Nearly every answer I got began with a blank stare or incredulous laugh, followed by some fumbling around, followed by "Elizabeth Warren"...
"Whew, man, that's a tough one," said Jeanette Baust, a 55-year-old educator and activist from Denver who was attending the progressive conference along with her partner, Evelyn Hanssen. "I guess I'd have to say Elizabeth Warren if she can get elected"...
I pressed [Minnesota Democratic congressman Keith] Ellison for names for 2016, and he thought for a moment. "If we can get Elizabeth Warren through in Massachusetts, she could end up being a presidential candidate," he finally said. "She's super."...
Sentiments like these echo across the progressive left, and have now for some time. And for as long as I have heard these echoes, I have asked myself just one question: why? What on earth convinces these activists that their future lies with Elizabeth Warren? Perhaps this bizarre infatuation stems from the Democratic Party's relative dearth of rising stars and potential 2016 presidential candidates, which the article above also mentions. With this in mind, these un-warrent-ed hopes make a bit more sense, but not that much more. Here are just three reasons why:

1) Philosophically, her campaign is a mess. In the interest of genuine debate, I like to believe that the left does have some views and beliefs viable enough to be worthy of serious political contention and response (a far more charitable view than most on the left, I should add). But in her campaign thus far, Elizabeth Warren has held virtually no such beliefs, or espouses such nonsensical versions of them as to muddle almost completely the philosophical grounding of her candidacy. Most famously, Ms Warren originated President Obama's infamous "you didn't build that" remark. Compare her version:
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
with President Obama's:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The right has responded to these ideas impressively; here is a thorough critique of Warren's remarks, and here, of Obama's. The essence of a proper rebuttal is this: both Warren and Obama are simultaneously setting up Republicans as anarchist straw men who don't believe in any government at all--President Bush says hello--and subsuming the individual beneath the weight of the collective. Conservatives acknowledge that government has a role in society (you have to go pretty far rightward to find someone who denies this), but also that this reality is not an excuse for unlimited government, government without a limiting principle, a sort of intellectual cop-out that this view enables. Believing that government ought to do more is one thing; to say that government defines society rather than the other way around is...a novel view in American politics, to put it lightly.

Just one intellectual stinker like that would ordinarily be enough, but Warren is something of a special case. Just last year, when the "Occupy Wall Street" movement became a media frenzy--what happened to that movement, by the way?--Ms Warren claimed the movement's intellectual paternity: "I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do. I support what they do." I wonder if her "support" covers things like this. Finally, for good measure, let's throw in Warren's quasi-messianic belief that she could "save capitalism," , and her Thomas Friedman-esque insistence that we need to spend as much on infrastructure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product as China does, a claim full of misconceptions.

2) She is a liar. I may have lost some liberals with the above assessment, as I can understand that some of them may hold more intellectually defensible versions of the ideas Warren has espoused, which is fine with me. But what follows ought to offend honest partisans across the political spectrum. Not long into Ms Warren's campaign, it was revealed that she had been claiming a significant Cherokee ancestry for the better part of her adult life, dropping and adding it from her resume as she saw fit. When she worked at Harvard, it did the same, counting her as a "minority" faculty member. All this would be well and good if she actually were of Cherokee descent, but...well, have a look for yourself:

Do you think she's Cherokee?


Media backfire whittled her claim all the way down to "1/32nd" Cherokee, which is probably as much Cherokee blood as the average person from Kansas has, and her "high cheekbones."  Interestingly, more substantiated genealogical evidence raises the possibility that Warren descends from ancestors who rounded up Cherokees on the infamous "Trail of Tears." Regardless of the truth of Warren's claims, she has dealt with them by disobeying the first rule of holes ("stop digging"), to the extent that now a group of actual Cherokee Indians is dogging her on the campaign trail, making it clear that she does not represent them. You can find their blog here. Must I even ask the typical "what if she were a Republican" question?

 3) She's not winning. I know this is something of a long post, but bear with me--it's almost over. Now think back--or look back, if you must--to the earlier quotes from progressive activists about Warren's future. Notice something all of them assumed? No? Well, it was this: that she would be elected. For a while, I thought that she would have a chance: she's running in Massachusetts, for goodness sake, and money from deep-pocketed leftists across the country--who do exist, by the way--has been pouring into her campaign (that she accepts it might raise an entirely different issue). Despite these advantages, however, the race is simply not moving in her direction. A poll from July had the race tied--an impressive feat for a challenger against an incumbent, to be sure--but a more recent poll from the same source has Scott Brown ahead by five points. There are certainly many weeks until November, but this is hardly the performance one would expect from a progressive wunderkind...in--it's worth repeating--Massachusetts. Don't "champions"--even progressive ones--have to...win?

Those are just a few of the reasons why Elizabeth Warren is more likely to end up as a pariah than a messiah, and why the news that the DNC would prominently feature her delighted conservatives; she is to big government liberalism what Todd Akin is to social conservatism: an ideologue who poorly understands and represents that guiding ideology. When her "nobody got rich on their own" remarks first burst her onto the national political scene and conservatives felt compelled to rebut her arguments, liberals formulated a sort of Catch-22 to ensure her fame: if conservatives ignored her, then it was because they feared her; if conservatives responded to her, it was because they feared her. Presto! Elizabeth Warren is invincible!

But this is not at all the case. Warren's candidacy has been a middling effort so far, at best, full of intellectual and political errors (such as attacking reporters). But if she is the progressive movement's only hope, what does that say about progressivism? For all the talk we've heard about Republicans and conservatives being (choose your adjective) radical, unhinged, crazy, racist, bigoted, plutocratic, out of the mainstream, etc, could the left be just as bad in its own way, if not worse? And for all the talk we hear that Republicans are the doomed party, threatened by changing demographics, why then does it have dozens of inspiring, articulate potential presidential candidates for 2016 and beyond, while the Democrats see a lying Harvard academic in her early 60s as their champion?

Elizabeth Warren's candidacy raises these and other questions, and that is why conservatives pay attention to her; why we do not fear her, but love her. Let her views be disseminated as widely as the platforms on which she stands and will allow, and let her represent the staleness of a modern liberalism that senses no limiting principle on government action, that hears racism in every utterance, and that thinks being a woman today means abrogating the first amendment rights of religious institutions, about which we shall speak later. I am confident that the rest of the country will not be nearly so receptive, that she won't help Democrats nearly as much as Obi-Wan Kenobi helped the Rebel Alliance (though there, the analogy ends; taking it any further puts the Democratic Party, which currently controls the White House, in the position of rebels, which makes no sense). And if she does...well, if she does, then this country is in a much different place than I thought.

                                                              **************

Next up in our DNC-pregaming: the Elder Son tackles Bill Clinton, long his bete-noire, and attempts to chart the leftward movement of the Democratic Party since Clinton was president.

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