How will the decision to impeach Donald Trump ultimately play out for the Democrats? Who would be their strongest candidate for president? Those questions might be easier to consider together than separately. The wisdom of impeachment is likely to depend on the identity of the candidate.
The Republicans have stayed on script and stood by their man. We can count on the Senate majority to acquit him in the next several days. And what then? With the hearings and trial concluded, will the public, the media, and the Democratic Party lose interest in the Trump administration’s misdeeds, along with the particulars of the House’s indictment? If that’s how things go, impeachment could look like a bad political bet in hindsight.
But suppose these proceedings come to be seen as just one chapter in a continuing exploration of the crookedness of the Trump regime? Suppose the disclosures keep coming and the Democrats seize on them to turn their 2020 campaign into a crusade against corruption in the broad sense—against the corporate capture and bribery-adjacent behavior that, Trump or no Trump, block our country’s way forward on just about all the big issues facing us?
That is perhaps another way of asking: What if Elizabeth Warren winds up as the Democratic nominee for president?
Warren has made corruption her signature issue. In the summer of 2018, four months before launching her campaign, she introduced a sweeping clean-government bill. It would prohibit lobbyists from raising or donating campaign money, while greatly expanding the number of people defined as lobbyists; impose a lifetime ban on lobbying for former elected and high-level appointed officials; compel the release of the tax returns of all federal candidates and officeholders; and bar corporations from bestowing “golden parachute” retirement packages on executives heading into government, among other things.
In October 2019, Warren announced her decision to swear off big-money fundraising events. This was another significant move substantively as well as symbolically, despite the validity of Pete Buttigieg’s complaint about the cash Warren had already collected.
But the heart of her appeal as an anti-corruption candidate lies in the connections she draws between money corruption and one area of national policy after another. Climate change, racial justice, economic justice, worker rights and dignity—progress on all these fronts, Warren argues, demands a fairer political process, a more representative government, and measures to curb the runaway political power of big corporations, Wall Street, and the ultra-wealthy. “Giant corporations have bought off our government,” Warren said at a huge rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park last September. “Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy, and corruption is breaking our democracy.”
The debate over “electability” has been loud, long, and simplistic, focused on the backgrounds, ideologies, regions, and genders of the candidates, with almost no effort made to envision the campaigns they would run or how those campaigns might affect the thoughts and spirits of the electorate. That lack of imagination, it seems to me, has led to a serious underestimation of Elizabeth Warren.
The corruption frame gives Warren the vocabulary to describe the opponent she hopes to go up against. Donald Trump, in her telling, is “corruption in the flesh”; congressional Republicans are “fawning, spineless defenders of his crimes.” But Warren is far from fixated on the Trump gang; she treats their brazenness as no more than an intensification of the respectable and routine brand of modern corruption that involves the twisting of laws and institutions of government to benefit a favored few.
Republicans may be right in their ugly calculation that Americans don’t f-ing care about Ukraine, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ranted to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR last week. But systemic corruption is quite another matter. It was a potent issue for, of all people, Donald Trump in 2016, when a slice of the electorate took his drain-the-swamp talk semi-seriously; and it was crucial to the Democrats’ recapture of the House in 2018, after the hollowness of Trump’s vows had become widely apparent. In a pre–2018 election Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 77 percent of those surveyed rated “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” as a top issue, and the voters who felt that way came down heavily in favor of Democrats.
Since then, House Democrats have made a break with the past by rallying around legislation—the first symbolic act of their term in the majority—that calls for nonpartisan redistricting, disclosure of dark-money donors, and a matching-fund system for candidates who submit to limits on campaign contributions. With a forceful and credible anti-corruption candidate at the top of the ticket, some of the centrists and corporatists could be swept into the reform camp and perhaps even stirred to acknowledge and regret their past complicity in the problem. That could have a huge impact.
Warren was tagged early as the “I have a plan for that” candidate. In interviews and debates, she has been quizzed about the political and practical wisdom of her proposals for a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, and universal pre-K, among other ambitious things. On balance, her plans and words have served Warren well, despite her overcommitment to Medicare for All. They set her apart (along with Bernie Sanders) from the technocratic and corporate-friendly lineage of recent Democratic presidents and candidates, and they convey an urgency appropriate to someone who aims to enter the White House in a moment of climate-change awakening.
But Warren rarely spends much time in the weeds of policy when she’s out campaigning. “I have a story for that” would be a more apt catchphrase for Warren on the stump.
Many of her stories are about America’s past and about corruption and the struggle to overcome it. In Washington Square, her subject was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. From her temporary podium, Warren could point toward the 11-story building (now part of New York University) that once housed the factory on its eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. It was, as she said, “one of the worst industrial disasters in American history,” but the structure survived even as 146 people died, “mostly women, mostly immigrants, Jewish and Italian,” some jumping to their deaths to escape the heat and smoke, others falling with a section of badly engineered fire escape. The death toll was so high because the factory owners had locked an exit (to prevent employee theft) and refused to install sprinklers (to save money).
Labor activists and reformers had been sounding the alarm about garment industry working conditions and safety hazards for years. “But the fat profits were making New York factory owners rich, and they had no plans to give that up,” Warren said. So instead of fixing their problems, “the owners worked their political connections, they made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed.”
From the Triangle fire, she moved on to an account of the organizing and advocacy that ultimately led New York state to rewrite its labor laws “from top to bottom.” Warren anchored this part of her story in the career of Frances Perkins, who had been a witness to the fire (coming out onto the street from a visit with friends nearby) and wound up holding high positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s gubernatorial and presidential administrations. As secretary of labor—the first woman to serve in any president’s Cabinet—Perkins had a hand in laws that abolished child labor, standardized the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, established a federal minimum wage, and gave us unemployment insurance and Social Security. “The Triangle fire was the day the New Deal was born,” Warren said. It’s “a story about what’s possible when we fight together as one.”
Warren uses history to illuminate both the possibility and the difficulty of change. The policy breakthroughs she cited in her Triangle talk, she pointed out, were the product of a quarter-century of inside and outside agitation. Several were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which did not come until FDR’s second term, after the political ground had been plowed by first-term measures that empowered unions and delivered emergency relief to millions. “After we win in 2020, nobody gets to go home,” Warren said at a December rally in Des Moines, Iowa. “We all come back to push.”
She is running against cynicism as well as corruption. “Those with power—and those who do their bidding—dump an endless avalanche of excuses, misdirections, and distractions on the American people,” she said during a New Year’s Eve speech. “It’s all designed to get us to give up and resign ourselves to the way things are—with them in power and everyone else left behind.”
Drawing on her family history as well as our national history, she speaks as a baby boomer who benefited from the New Deal social compact. Two personal stories come up again and again. One involves the time her father lost his job and her mother decided to enter the workforce at age 50, putting on her best dress to interview for a lowly position at Sears Roebuck. That tale, as Warren presents it, is about someone rising to an occasion—“you do what has to be done to take care of the people you love”—but also about government’s crucial role as an instrument of justice, “because when I was a girl in America, a full-time minimum-wage job would support a family of three,” while now it “will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.”
The other story is about Warren as a young mother getting a teaching certificate and a law degree from well-funded public universities that charged her just a few hundred dollars a year in tuition. “My daddy ended up as a janitor,” she likes to say, “but his baby daughter got the opportunity to become a public-school teacher, a law professor, a U.S. senator, and run for president!”
Warren has set out to convince us that our democracy can be reclaimed from big money and our government put to good use. That’s not easy for Americans to believe these days, but it’s a story we badly need to hear, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who could tell it better.
(Originally published in The American Prospect)