Opinion

Elizabeth Warren is surfing the blue wave

The progressive senator from Massachusetts sure picked a good week to debut her anti-corruption message

No Democrat with presidential ambitions has benefitted more from this crazy week of news than Elizabeth Warren.

Just before President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted Tuesday of financial crimes and his former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations, the progressive senator from Massachusetts introduced two bold pieces of legislation tackling corruption. The takeaway was clear: In an era of rampant abuse of power, Warren is positioning herself as the anti-corruption candidate in 2020. If she decides to run, this would make her a very formidable candidate indeed.

But there are also important knock-on effects from her policies for the rest of the party. With her two pieces of legislation, Warren has provided the Democratic Party with a model for the kind of platform necessary to take on President Trump and the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms and beyond. By focusing on corporate power, economic inequality, and political corruption, Warren is putting together a progressive agenda that could help Democrats ride their own populist wave into power.

So what's in the bills? Her Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, introduced Tuesday, proposes a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress, presidents, and agency heads, along with a measure that bans the world's largest companies from hiring or paying former senior government officials for four years after leaving government. Meanwhile, her Accountable Capitalism Act would help transform corporate governance in America, requiring 40 percent of the board of directors of any corporation with over $1 billion to be elected by workers (emulating the "codetermination" systems found in many European countries). This is meant to encourage a form of stakeholder capitalism, where companies consider the interests not just of their shareholders, but of employees, customers, and the community at large. The bill would also require corporate political activity to be authorized by 75 percent of shareholders and 75 percent of board members, with the intent of curbing corporate spending on politics.

The two bills make a compelling combination — and one the Democratic Party sorely needs.

Since losing the 2016 presidential election, top Democrats have been eager to rebrand the party as populist, but they've struggled to come up with a convincing message or platform. After multiple false starts, the leadership settled on its message for the upcoming midterms about a month ago, pointing to the party in power's "culture of corruption." House Democrats unveiled their final campaign slogan, "For the People," and in a recent letter to her Democratic colleagues, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged them to draw a "sharp contrast" between Republicans' "cesspool of self-enrichment, secret money, and special interests," and Democrats' plans to, as it were, drain the Republican swamp.

It's a resonant message. Even Republican voters seem to be getting fed up with the bottomless pit of corruption in their party. According to a survey of 1,200 registered voters conducted for the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund last month, 54 percent of voters across 48 Republican-held congressional districts said Republicans are "more corrupt" than Democrats, compared to 46 percent who said Democrats are "more corrupt."

But up till now, the party hasn't really had a viable platform to legitimize the message and tie it to other Democratic priorities. If Democrats want to retake power, they will have to do more than simply point out corruption and make their own case for draining the swamp. By taking linking corporate power, inequality, and corruption, Warren's proposals offer concrete ways to do it.

In a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday, shortly before the verdict against Manafort and the guilty plea by Cohen, Warren declared that the Trump era "has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes." They are not, however, "the cause of the rot," she continued, but just the "biggest, stinkiest example of it." For Warren, the problem is bigger than Trump; it is systemic. "People don't trust their government to do right because they think government works for the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected, and not for the American people. And here's the kicker: They're right."

In order to convince the American people that they are true populists, Democrats will have to go beyond anti-Trumpism and offer a broader critique of the political system, as Warren does. Whether the Massachusetts senator's policies go far enough will be debated on the left, but there is no doubt that the structural reforms she offers are a step in the right direction.

Warren has denied that she is considering a presidential run, and perhaps she won't end up running in 2020 after all. But if the Democrats know what's good for them, they will adopt Warren's reformist approach.

Back in 2015, Nancy Pelosi remarked that Warren did not speak for the Democratic Party. Now perhaps it's time to appoint her the party's voice.

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