A Teachout Moment For Hillary Clinton:
A First Look At 2016 Through The Lens Of 2014
by Sean McKeown
scientist and engineer Sean McKeown has been involved in several national and New York-based campaigns, and is writing a book on finance and economics.”
There is an emerging progressive populist movement that many in the media have called “The Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party” thanks to the skyrocketing popularity of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Groups such as the PCCC embrace this label for the purposes of memes and soundbites, but while describing this emerging movement as a “wing” might be useful as a fundraising strategy, downplaying these shifting values within the Democratic Party trivializes what appears to be a meaningful political realignment. These “Warren Wing” Democrats do not consider themselves a “wing” at all, seeing themselves instead as the neglected backbone of the Democratic Party, embodying values and beliefs that appeal to many voters in the center and across the political spectrum. It is crucial to disaggregate the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘populist’ in order to understand this in a transpartisan perspective, for the meteoric rise in popularity of Senator Warren’s brand of economic populism is not a purely-Left phenomenon. Since she can potentially access groups of voters which no other Democratic candidate can reach, her political fate is not limited by Democratic Party insiders’ current strategies for advancing pragmatic, viable candidates.
Populism’s resurgence in the modern era can be viewed as a response to the 2008 financial crisis, particularly as a negative response to bank bailouts known and the TARP program in the last year of the Bush administration. Components of an economic-populist agenda were present in early Tea Party rhetoric, fueled by activists who wanted to prevent future bailouts and tax-dollar giveaways to big business by cutting Washington’s ties to moneyed interests. This insurgency helped advance them to a significant position within the Republican Party in 2010 and 2012. As it grew larger and obtained big-donor support, however, it shifted focus and tactics. Rather than presenting its own legislative agenda, today’s Tea Party has instead stood in the way of the same critical repairs their initial voting constituency had pressed for, such as firmer controls on “Too Big To Fail” banks.
Self-identified “moderates” who banish Senator Warren to the fringes of the Party (except as a useful election-season surrogate ) handicap the Democratic Party by continuing to forfeit sizable constituencies whose economic opinions mirror Warren’s. Consultants and strategists inside Washington seem to ignore a crucial historical fact: the anti-government views of this constituency are rooted in the belief that government disproportionately favors the anti-competitive monopolistic behavior of big business, corporations, and Wall Street – a sentiment Senator Warren herself espouses.
With recent calls for Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016, it is critical to analyze this “struggle for the soul of the Democratic party” and its potential fissures to see what a Clinton vs. Warren primary might look like to voters across the political spectrum. To do so, let us look at a recent New York race, where Zephyr Teachout challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
A Gubernatorial Race And A Teachout Moment
Perhaps one of the most surprising primary contests in the 2014 races was in New York, where a previously-unknown candidate, Zephyr Teachout, challenged the incumbent Governor, Andrew Cuomo. Teachout sought nomination first within the Working Families Party and then, after a deal was struck between Cuomo and the WFP to nominate him to their ballot, sought to challenge Cuomo in the Democratic Party primary as well. With Cuomo estimated to have spent about three million dollars on the primary compared to the Teachout campaign’s estimated $700,000, he outspent his challenger four-to-one – and received 62.2% of the vote, with Teachout claiming 34.3%. Nate Silver placed Cuomo’s re-election numbers within the bottom tenth percentile among gubernatorial incumbents going back to 2002, but thanks to the deal brokered with the Working Families Party and its union supporters, Cuomo carried the most liberal counties in the state while Teachout’s strongest support came from some of the state’s most conservative counties.
According to the New Yorker’s John Cassidy,
“The strong showing by Teachout and Wu was a victory for progressive voters who warmed to their message about tackling rising inequality, political corruption, and corporate abuses. It was also a rejection of Cuomo’s economic philosophy, which led him to introduce a series of tax cuts for the rich, at the same time that he cut the state budgets for education and social services. I’d be willing to wager that most Democrats who voted against Cuomo objected more to his policies than to his personality.”
While Teachout and Warren are similar in certain ways, Teachout was a political newcomer with little prior political experience and little access to funding whereas Warren is an increasingly recognizable face of her party and one of its top fundraiser in 2014. Drawing a comparison between Cuomo and Hillary Clinton here is less of a stretch.
Discussions of a possible Clinton-Warren matchup have all focused on Warren’s presumed advantage on Clinton “from the left,” continuing to ascribe to Clinton that same centrist space Cuomo occupied in his re-election campaign. Despite Clinton’s recent adoption of populist rhetoric and Clinton advocates’ claims that Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren share very similar positions, an analysis of Clinton’s voting record draws a stark contrast between the two, placing Clinton in a moderate corporate-Democrat position while Warren firmly occupies the progressive ground on the left and populism’s hard-to-quantify center ground as well.
Cassidy ascribes the following meaning to the Teachout/Cuomo race that makes reference to Clinton explicitly and Warren implicitly:
“By thoroughly embarrassing Cuomo, New York Democrats didn’t merely deliver a blow to whatever national aspirations he may have. They signaled to other Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, that the political center of gravity has shifted, and that a significant segment of Democratic voters won’t suffer gladly a return to the timid, pro-corporate policies of the Clinton years, which Cuomo represents.”
A Teachout Moment For Hillary Clinton
Charles Lenchner, Digital Director for Teachout’s gubernatorial campaign, analyzed the role played by the Working Families Party in the primary and narrowed it down to either of two conclusions, both meaningful:
“[Teachout] got a third of the vote with all major unions in NYC either supporting Cuomo or staying out of the race; I suspect that union turnout operations gave Cuomo the edge he needed to win. Out of his 62.2%, it would have been enough for 25% of those voters to switch sides – had labor groups and the progressive establishment [i.e. the Working Families Party] turned against Cuomo, we would have had that margin. On that basis, either establishment progressives are responsible for the outcome by making this allegiance – or, potentially, the 34.3% of the vote Teachout received included significant portions of the Working Families Party voter base that chose to ignore WFP’s formal commitment to support Cuomo. Either the centrist coalition-building model is something the progressive base will ignore when voting for a candidate, or progressive support of a centrist candidate was required for Cuomo to win re-election.”
That an unknown progressive Democrat could capture such a large segment of the vote despite being considerably outspent and without any institutional support bodes poorly for Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical Clinton-Warren primary matchup. While Zephyr Teachout was a relative unknown and could not garner much political support or raise significant funds, Senator Warren is already a rising star in the party and would be able to fund a serious challenge should she wish to offer one.
Understanding The Center’s Future: How To Win
Pew Research’s analysis of current voter demographics breaks down the types of voters both parties will need to engage in upcoming elections. Pew’s latest typology report focuses on the center of the political spectrum whose growth has the greatest and most unpredictable impact, so we will focus on this segment. Pew notes that this swath of the voting populace defies easy classification:
When “[t]aken together, this ‘center’ looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.”
Understanding which elements of this political center might vote Republican or vote for Clinton is critical, but so too is correctly identifying what appeals to this center – and considering how a Warren candidacy might engage these voters even while she is thought to occupy terrain to Clinton’s political left.
Swing voters can be greatly instructive on this matter, and two of the most unpredictable are what Pew calls ‘Young Outsiders’ and ‘Hard-Pressed Skeptics.’ Pew defines Young Outsiders as one of the two youngest typology groups of swing voters, with 30% of them between the ages of 18-29. They trend conservative when it comes to government and liberal on social issues. Given their strong opinions that Wall Street does more harm than good, that the economy favors powerful interests, and that the Democratic Party cares more about the middle class, an appeal to these self-identified independents on these grounds might strongly favor a populist Democrat. As the political center is growing wearier of Wall Street and tends to think there’s more support for middle-class politics in the Democratic Party than in the GOP, any future campaign neglecting this demographics’ perceptions risks a Democratic loss in 2016.
An analysis of the other ‘centrists’ with the highest volatility suggests they may prove reachable by Warren but not by Clinton despite her efforts to claim more centrist ground. Pew calls these voters Hard-Pressed Skeptics, and similar to Young Outsiders, 70% of these Hard-Pressed Skeptics take an even approach to liberal and conservative issues. A large majority of these Hard-Pressed Skeptics say that government benefits do not go far enough to help the poor (71%) and agree with the statement that “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people” (65%). Republicans have a 61% unfavorability rating among these swing voters, 54% of them feel that Wall Street hurts the economy more than it helps, and 74% agree that the economy unfairly favors powerful interests. Recent trends in the polarization of the US electorate, the marked decline of trust in the government and the decline of trust in either political party reflect a changing political tide that favors economic populists. A more pragmatic assessment of these voters’ growing dissatisfaction with both parties would be that neither party is leading on their core values of economic fairness; they do not want a more conservative or right-of-center party – be they Republican or Democrat – and both parties have trended rightward in search of votes.
Millennial voters have found themselves subject to more economic hardships than earlier generations. There is an inverse rise of partisanship among the shrinking poles of the electorate and a rise of self-identified independent voters among the younger generation. Crucially, however, given that it is largely their economic views that makes them unreliable voters and that their economic views revolve around a deep suspicion of Wall Street and unequal playing fields, these trends suggest that progressive economic populists such as Senator Warren are more keenly “in-touch” with these voters. Looking at Senator Warren’s rise in popularity on the campaign trail even in red and purple states and trends suggesting that an entire generation of voters feel alienated by both parties to the point of having only stilted engagement in electoral politics, it is clear the electorate is redefining what determines a candidate’s viability, electability, and political survivability. A candidate seeking to win the Presidency in 2016 for either party will have to understand that this shift is underway.
Forgetting What Truly Unites Us
Economic populists exist in both parties and occupy an anti-establishment middle ground that Warren can clearly reach and which Clinton has not so far. Perhaps more importantly for a Democrat, this also has the potential of attracting self-identified right-of-center, newly-emerging ‘libertarian populists’ with her public opposition to bank bailouts, “Too Big To Fail” banks, and crony capitalism tilting the balance of government to favor bloated financial institutions and corporations. Believing Secretary Clinton to be “more electable” because her politics are nearer to groups in the center will fail to note that Clinton is distant from a more nuanced political center that is incredibly complex – a center in which a true populist message resonates even across party divides.
In analyzing Warren’s “Eleven Commandments of the Progressive Movement” through the lens of Democrats’ potential “battle for the soul of the party,” Vega noted:
“…the basic character of these debates will be significantly transformed. If progressive-populists commit themselves to building wide support for a progressive agenda like Warren’s within the Democratic coalition, the options available to non-progressive Democratic candidates then become significantly more constrained th[a]n they are now. Non-progressive candidates will find they have to either endorse the basic thrust of the agenda or justify their decision not to do so. To the extent that the agenda expresses positions that are widely popular, this will pull the position that non-progressive candidates ultimately adopt quite distinctly to the left.”
The reason Elizabeth Warren’s star has risen so quickly within the Democratic Party is because she speaks to a truth that people feel in their lives regardless of what economic indicators may say: that for them, there has been no significant recovery from the 2008 recession. If Vega’s prediction means that Hillary Clinton will need to adopt positions significantly more like those of Elizabeth Warren to win both the Democratic primary and the 2016 general election, the Cuomo-Teachout primary suggests voters may be ready offer significant support to a candidate holding those positions. When we look at the success of Teachout’s race alongside Senator Warren’s enormous appeal and clout, one thing is clear: if Elizabeth Warren runs in 2016, she would be the candidate best-positioned to claim that support.
2. Bob Moser, “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority,” Holt Paperbacks.
3. Andrew Levison, “The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support,” Democratic Strategist Press. http://www.thewhiteworkingclasstoday.com
9. Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters Basic Books (July 3, 2001)
16. http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2014/09/10/liberal-teachout-won-over-democrats-in-new-yorks-conservative-heartland/ http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/cuomos-embarrassment
20. Article forthcoming. Quotation comes from private discussion by Lenchner et al. that may be distributed as an analysis from inside the Teachout campaign.
21. http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/the-political-typology-beyond-red-vs-blue/ http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/
23. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/chapter-3-finances-social-trends-and-technology/ and http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2014/02/SDT-higher-ed-FINAL-02-11-2014.pdf
28. http://www.npr.org/2014/05/25/315276441/its-geithner-vs-warren-in-battle-of-the-bailout and http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/07/libertarian-populism-and-libertarian-cosmopolitanism/
29. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/11/elizabeth-warren-dodd-frank-too-big-fail-speech-regulators and http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/main-street-libertarians/