Liz Warren for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Moveon.org members are convinced: Massachusetts’s senator Elizabeth Warren is their overwhelming pick for president in 2016. They want to convince her to run although so far Senator Warren is proving tone deaf. When prompted by NPR recently she didn’t say she would never run, but kept reiterating she is not running for president. Her groupies may take this as an encouraging sign. I won’t be reading too much into it.

Senator Warren is one of a number of boutique candidates or candidate possibilities of interest to various groups. Often the most interested ones are the potential candidates themselves. They are already out there preening and posturing, and that includes soon to be ex-governor Rick Perry of Texas who is hoping his new ugly black framed glasses will look presidential this time around. It also includes “Mr. Sweater-vest” and former anemic Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but also quite clearly Jeb Bush and so many other Republicans in waiting that it’s hard to list them all.

On the Democratic side until recently there has been no one willing to challenge Hillary Clinton, should she announce her candidacy for president. Despite her public hedging, there is little suspense about if she will run, just when she will announce it. My former senator Jim Webb apparently wants to run, or is at least working on an exploratory committee, which is the first step. There is also the soon to be former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley that is thinking maybe he should run, particularly if Hillary looks vulnerable or if by running he might be on her ticket. And then there are the boutique candidates who really have no chance but want to promote their issues. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is actually a socialist and caucuses with the Democrats, is considering running to call attention to the problems of the middle class. Warren’s supporters, and there are many of them, want her to do the same thing.

Watching Warren speak is interesting. She is a compelling speaker. Unlike most politicians, she speaks from her heart. She is genuine and weirdly enough she actually cares passionately about her issues, which is mostly the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and the oversized influence of Wall Street on our lives. Most recently she made the news criticizing the recent “cromnibus” bill that funds most of the federal government through fiscal year 2015, in particular the provisions slipped in to ease the ability of banks to invest in derivatives. Her mixture of authenticity, scholarship and passion is definitely unique at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that she is a woman as well.

But Liz Warren for president? She seems to be smart enough to realize her own limitations, which speaks well of her. She is working hard to restore America’s middle class, but she is going up against institutional forces that are likely to defeat her. Still she keeps at it, and it is heartening to see her not lose hope in what seems like a lost cause. She makes most progressive Democrats feel downright tingly. She connects with us in a way that we haven’t felt since Barack Obama entered the national stage.

Liz Warren has many wonderful attributes, but she is no Barack Obama, at least not yet. Liz is focused like a laser on addressing the problems of the middle class. The problem with focus though is you tune out all the other stuff about governing. It’s not fair to say she is disinterested about things like defense spending, terrorism or race relations. She probably knows quite a bit about these things. She just chooses not to open her mouth much on them. That was not the case with Barack Obama. While he may not have had much experience in these areas, he certainly understood them and gave thoughtful, analytical and nuanced positions on all these issues. He looked and sounded like presidential material because someone who is going to be president should see the big picture. Rarely has our national chessboard been so complex. We need someone who has the political skills to handle the multifaceted, 24/7/365 aspects of being president.

Liz Warren simply hasn’t demonstrated this. Progressive Democrats’ hearts may skip a beat when she opens her mouth but that’s not a particularly good reason to nominate anyone for president. She is passionate and persistent, but was she to be president she would face most of the same issues President Obama has struggled with. She would likely be dealing with a Congress controlled by Republicans. To govern she would have to make deals, assuming anyone on the other side wanted to make a deal. Lately Republicans have been all about obstinacy. It’s all well and good to stand up for your values, but being president requires compromise. It means selectively sticking up for certain things and giving up on others. She makes noise in the Senate but so far she hasn’t done much to effectively cross the aisle, not that it’s an easy thing to do when your opposition basically won’t concede anything.

Liz is guilty of being popular, but being popular does not mean that someone is presidential material. I like Liz a lot. I expect in 2015 when my wife and I move to Massachusetts that she will be my senator, and I will be glad to call her my senator. But she is not yet presidential material. It seems that she understands this too, which speaks highly of her. So I don’t expect her to be a candidate, no matter what the members of MoveOn.org want, because she has too much common sense.

I’d rather see her move the needle where she can and continue to be a top fundraiser for Democratic candidates. I want her to be our chief cheerleader, because we will need plenty of enthusiasm from the rank and file to win in 2016 and maybe take back the Senate. Absent evidence I don’t yet see in her, I hope she won’t run for president. If you are one of her supporters, I hope you will see that she can be far more effective for our side right where she is.

Democrats are running on empty ideas

The Thinker by Rodin

Writing on politics often feels like déjà vu. After the drubbing (or perhaps it’s more appropriately the shellacking, or maybe even the tar-and-feathering) Democrats took on Election Day, lots of lessons on how to do things differently were busy being debated. It’s 2004 all over again. Democrats beat themselves senseless in 2004 when President Bush won a second term. One thing that was done differently then was for Democratic leaders (primarily to placate the angry progressives) to appoint Howard Dean to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Dean famously instituted a 50-state strategy, which meant deploying Democrats in all states, in all races, and putting people in the field to recruit candidates and knock on doors to put them on voter roles.

It’s hard to say if this was primarily responsible for Democrats doing so well in the 2006 midterms. In that election, we had the same dynamics Republicans had in this latest election and we won big. Namely, whatever party the president represents suffers in their 6th year. In Bush’s case though a lot of the animus was due to Bush’s failed strategy in the War in Iraq. Republicans were as demoralized then as Democrats were this time around. They knew their war strategy wasn’t working and it depressed their turnout. Democrats won control of the House and Senate in 2006, and leveraged their advantage to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Just as reactions about what Republicans should do now that they are in power are predictable, so I am sad to say were Democrats proposed “solutions”. Progressive Democrats like me largely spent the week after the election self-flagellating ourselves. Our solutions to rectify our situation were mostly a lot of finger pointing. Do any of these arguments sound familiar?

  • Democrats should have run on Obama’s record, not run away from it
  • Democrats should not have acted like wimps
  • Democrats needed a 50-state strategy
  • Democrats should have said what they would do differently
  • Democrats should have spent more time and money on anti-Koch ads

I didn’t give much in the way of money to campaigns this election cycle. It was in part because being retired I had less to give. But it was also due to a lot of milquetoast candidates, a lot of subprime Democrats simply trying to hold onto power, and a fundamental disagreement on how most candidates were running their campaigns. I was not inspired. In an earlier post, I mentioned my disgruntlement at fundraising strategies I was subjected to. The blistering emails were relentless and they all pretty much conveyed this message: their candidate would fail if I didn’t pony up more money right now. Not one of these emails from candidates and their fundraising managers tried to sell me on how they were going to effectively use the money I gave them.

Blanketing the airwaves with ads, if you have the money, is a time-honored means of getting your candidate’s message out. In truth though voters of both political stripes are inured to these campaign ads. We all think they contain doublespeak and don’t believe any of them are authentic. Mainly though these ads are a piss poor way to spend money. You might as well take that money and throw it down the drain. They speak of desperation.

Here’s what I really want to know about a candidate:

  • How do you stand on the issues I care about?
  • What is your plan for winning the election?
  • How are you going to engage Democrats and independent voters and bring them to your side?
  • What sort of campaign do you have to knock on doors of likely voters and get them to the polls?
  • In a short sentence, what best distinguishes not just from your competition, but also as a Democrat?
  • How will you be spending any money I give you?

Nationally, the Democratic Party has simply resumed bad habits. It quickly abandoned a 50-state strategy the moment Dean left the DNC and most of them were happy to show him the door. Dean changed the dynamics and ruffled feathers. He was not a comfy DNC chair. He tried to actually orchestrate the process of recruiting, promoting and electing Democrats. He worked to find and promote candidates that promised to do things that Democrats cared about and gave them a reason for voting. Once back in power Democrats resumed bad habits: mostly fighting with themselves. This resulted, among other things, in a watered down health care reform bill that principally rewarded the insurance industry. Individual senators became demanding and petulant instead of working cooperatively. It turned off voters and put the Republicans back in charge of the House in 2010, and now the Senate in 2014.

If you want more of the same, keep doing what you are doing. Democrats in Congress are busy doing just that. Harry Reid will keep his leadership post, but as minority leader. So will Nancy Pelosi. A corporation, which had so many years of “bad return on investment”, would toss these “leaders” out on their ears. House and Senate Democrats though simply cannot summon the nerve to do what’s in the best interest of their party. The predictable result will be the usual position papers and talk of new strategies with little in the way of follow through.

Defeat shows that the leadership cannot lead, so new blood is needed. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, should be the new minority leader in the Senate because she can articulate a compelling message and has the focus and determination to change the dynamics. Her promotion is to help with the Democratic message. I guess that’s good but hardly sufficient.

Democrats are largely riding on electoral dynamics. The good news is that so are Republicans. With Republicans though you can see where the new energy comes from: its Tea Party wing. They are the ones that really care. For Democrats, the energy is in its progressive wing. Smart Democrats should be fostering progressive candidates. For 2016 though the savvy Democrats and Republicans understand the dynamics will favor Democrats, and Congressional Democrats will be glad to ride that wave. It probably won’t bring them back the House, as the seats are too gerrymandered, but there is a better than even chance that Democrats will reclaim the Senate. That is, unless they nominate more of the same uninspiring candidates they did this time.

I am not as convinced as some that should Hillary Clinton run for president that she will be a shoe in. I was not enthusiastic for her in 2008 and I doubt I will be any more enthusiastic in 2016. It would be nice to have a female president, but I see little likelihood that she could change the dynamics in congress anymore than Obama did.

Savvy Democrats should be looking at 2020 and investing time and money to switch governorships and state houses from Republican to Democrat. In 2020 a census will be held, and it will trigger reapportionment. It will be state legislatures that will redraw congressional districts. Without a power shift there, the 2020s will likely be a lot more of what we’ve seen so far in the 2010s: a general absence of government. If you consider yourself a true patriot, this is where you should invest your time and money.

Wall Street’s puppet masters

The Thinker by Rodin

Last month I wrote how the oligarchy stays in charge. At the time, the Occupy Wall Street movement was nascent, so nascent that not even I was blogging about it. Since then it, everything has changed. It used to be that the headlines were full of stories about how we need to cut the deficit and lower taxes. Thanks to OWS, the story is now about the chronic lack of jobs, sinking standards of living that seem unstoppable, and a generation of mostly twenty somethings with no real job prospects on even their most distant horizons. They are joined by other large groups of unemployed people who happen to be over fifty, and thus become something like untouchables. Unemployment is a problem at all levels of the workforce. The OWS movement is finally giving it the focus it deserves, and rightly raises the question: why did we bail out Wall Street when none of it trickled down to the unemployed who needed it most?

The OWS movement has at least made me do more pondering about how the wealthy stay wealthy and how the rest of us take it on the chin. There are the obvious strategies that I mentioned in the previous post: the moneyed and Wall Street buy the influence they want. Then there are less obvious strategies: such as using inheritances to pass unearned income to the next generation, wealth that is arguably put to unproductive uses. Then there are the strategies that most people don’t think about.

For example, there is snuffing out potential competition. The oil companies, in spite of their profits, are running scared of the clean energy industry. Oh sure, they are spending lots of money with newspaper advertisements touting how they are going green by doing solar energy projects and the like. This is ninety percent setting expectations and one percent doing something tangible. It’s a try to set up a meme with the public that, “Well, they really aren’t entirely evil just because they want to rip up Alberta’s tar sands.” Those with the money, at least if they are savvy, will continue to spend significant capital to make sure competitive markets don’t emerge.

It’s not coincidence that the oil industry contributes disproportionately to Republican candidates, for instance. This behavior is not seen as anticompetitive; it is seen as pro-business. It’s easy to win the competition when you can use money to set an uneven playing field from the start. Thus money buys not just political power, but the ability to have your message drown out the competition’s. In many cases, you can buy out these threats with your ready capital, often ostensibly to build market share in an emerging industry, but more typically to quietly kill them so business as usual can continue.

This happens all the time here in American but we rarely notice it. Why are there only three major ratings firms on Wall Street? It is in part because the big three have the capital to squash any competition. The government rarely breaks up companies anymore, even after the Great Recession. In fact, despite the lessons of the Great Recession, the trend is just the opposite. Thus, as one example, Bank of America swallows up Countrywide Mortgage and everyone yawns. Money gives you this sort of power. Unless you have an administration and congress full of trustbusters, abuse simply leads to more abuse.

Perhaps the most insidious way to stay in charge is through financial obfuscation. A good example is derivative stocks. The more complex you make a financial instrument, the harder it is to figure out what is really going on. Only experts can really understand how these instruments work, and then only dimly. In all likelihood the only ones who really understand them are those who create and manage them.

That leaves us poor individual investors pretty much baffled. We know we need to invest money for the future but unless the financial entity is incredibly simple, like simple shares of a blue chip stock or an index fund, we are baffled by how it works or how to fairly value them. Instead we turn to so-called experts to give us advice on what represents good investments, for which usually they have a vested interest that disproportionately lines their pockets. To really understand our financial world, you need a PhD in finance plus you have to keep up on the minutia of markets. If you can do this, you can be bought off. Wall Street will hire you for seven or eight figure incomes to manage a fund. Unless you have missionary zeal, you won’t be an Elizabeth Warren trying to simplify things for the average consumer. And if you are Elizabeth Warren, you will find out that politicians have been bought off specifically to keep you out of a position of power.

Yes, obfuscation is profitable, at least for those already in charge, and it effectively drains wealth from the rest of us. We think that to make money we must do it through specially trained intercessors on Wall Street. What we really need are simplified rules and financial instruments that the average person can understand, which implies that many “innovative” financial instruments should probably be outlawed. As we have seen, many were engineered without real failsafes and have cascading effects when they fail that drain wealth principally from those who never directly invested in these instruments.

No wonder Republicans are dead set against a consumer protection agency. They realize that if such an agency were effective, it might level the playing field. And what that really means is that wealth generated through third parties and financial obfuscation might return to where it rightly belongs: to individual investors.