Sen. Elizabeth Warren makes a lot of money and lives in a very nice house. The Massachusetts Democrat is also the best known Wall Street antagonist in the country.
This is not unusual for the Democratic Party, in which the wealthy and their interests have long coexisted with priorities such as shrinking the income gap. But Warren's first book as a senator, coming this month as liberals are still in thrall to French economist Thomas Piketty's groundbreaking new book on income inequality, has been enough to propel some conservatives to their keyboard barricades.
Where Democrats see the usual contradictions embodied in the past by moneyed liberal leaders like FDR and the Kennedys, conservatives see hypocrisy — especially with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch under attack for their massive spending in 2014 campaigns. Why isn't anyone calling out the Democrats for their own moneyed, power-hungry elite? Matthew Continetti asks in the Washington Free Beacon. Why don't more people see Warren as the liberal elitist she is? asks Adriana Cohen in the Boston Herald.
Let's stipulate that wealthy people in both parties spend torrents of money on politics and have special access to politicians. Still, the rich aren't all alike.
When Democratic donors spend and schmooze to promote their own narrow interests, they are at the same time bolstering a party committed to many policies that lack obvious curb appeal to business owners, CEOs, Wall Street, and other card-carrying members of the 1 percent.
The Democratic drive to raise the minimum wage is one example. The party's long-standing determination to raise taxes on the wealthy is another. Then there's Democratic support for organized labor. And who could forget the Democrats' soft spot for new regulations, from emissions to — drum roll (or maybe dirge?) — the health insurance market.
These are not policies and positions that favor the wealthy. Still, there are plenty of millionaires and billionaires in the Democratic fold. Continetti contends they are drawn by the "fortunes to be made" from expanding "the welfare state" and redistributing tax dollars. Yet as a pitch to the rich, none of that holds a candle to conservative tax-cutting policies that put more money directly into the pockets of those who already have a lot of money.
Fairness drives the rhetoric of Democrats, including the wealthiest ones. President Obama and Bill Clinton often use lines like "raise my taxes, please, I should pay more." So do industrialists, Silicon Valley types and, most famously, Warren Buffett. This is not an approach available to Republicans, who generally insist (against considerable evidence, including the research underpinning Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century) that the rich are "job creators" whose money trickles down to help and employ others, and therefore they should keep as much of it as is politically possible.
These ideas have been under heavy siege since the March release of Piketty's book, which is built on findings that for two centuries, returns on capital have outperformed economic growth, tremendously exacerbating income inequality. Warren shot right to the center of the debate when her own book, A Fighting Chance, came out last week.
"One-percenter Liz Warren milks system then slams it in phony soundbites," says the headline on Cohen's column. Cohen goes on to claim that Warren wants to turn America into a socialist country after getting rich herself under capitalism. "Now once Warren and Hollywood hypocrites are living lavishly in their ivory towers, they preach about 'income inequality' and the 'little guys,'" Cohen writes.
There are many problems with that hypothesis, but here's a chronological one: Warren has been researching bankruptcy, slamming the system, and trying to help struggling families for decades, since long before she got anywhere near the Ivy League, the Senate, or her $5 million home in Cambridge. She lived through hard times growing up in Oklahoma. As she put it during one of her first Senate campaign stops in 2011, "I wasn't born at Harvard."
It is indisputable that Warren is now rich and part of the liberal ruling class. It's also true that Democratic powerbrokers aren't being vilified and scrutinized the way the Kochs are. That may be because Democratic benefactors haven't spent tens of millions yet on combative ad campaigns. It may be that Republicans simply have better targets to go after at this point, such as Obama and ObamaCare.
There's also the possibility that rich Democrats will be tougher to attack because of the team they've chosen — a team that's trying to help the 99 percent, even if it sometimes hurts the economic interests of the wealthy.