Elizabeth Warren, Rand Paul (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)

Why Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul offer glimmers of hope -- but not for 2016

Warren and Paul may point toward a better political future. But a doomed anti-Hillary crusade won't save democracy


Andrew O'Hehir
November 22, 2014 10:00PM (UTC)

It looks like Sen. Rand Paul just had his first audition for the role of screwball, off-kilter, Philip K. Dick alternate-universe refuge for disgruntled leftists in the 2016 presidential campaign – and based on his recent Salon interview, he totally whiffed. This does not come as a total surprise. While Paul has staked out some intriguing counter-Republican positions, and has been an important voice in Washington against NSA spy programs, the Bush-Obama regime of endless war and other forms of national-security overreach, his reputation as an intellectual lightweight trapped by his party identity seems entirely justified. Other than a few remarks about the militarization of domestic policing and the defensive reassurance that he’s not a racist (which felt like an oblique acknowledgment that racism is the secret diesel fuel powering the entire Republican Party), Paul offered no specific reasons for dissident liberals or leftists to consider voting for him. He’s in favor of them doing so! He just can’t quite say why.

There may yet be reason to hope that Paul can serve as a disruptive force within the Republican Party and within what looks to be the dreadful, stultifying totality of the 2016 electoral cycle. His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, briefly seemed to pose such a threat in 2008 and 2012, and if there’s one thing that establishment Democrats and establishment Republicans agree on, it’s that the Pauline insurgency must be crushed. That’s because establishment Democrats and Republicans actually agree on lots of other things that don’t get debated in public: neoliberal economic policies, the rule of the financial oligarchy, a foreign policy based on permanent war, the entrenched power of the national-security “deep state.” Those are precisely the issues that the Pauls, after their loopy, libertarian fashion, try to drag out into the sunlight.

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Clinton’s apparatchiks and acolytes were no doubt delighted to see Paul fizzle in his debut performance as Interparty Swing-Dance Partner. He has long been the potential GOP candidate the Clinton machine most fears, and the one it has spent the most time attacking. Yes, according to the boring conventional wisdom Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or even Mitt Romney could also be dangerous general-election opponents for Clinton. As a recent New York Times analysis suggested, there is a narrow but plausible avenue to victory open to such a “moderate Republican,” ha ha. But none of those guys gets to claim the moral high ground against Hillary Clinton in any meaningful way, and such a campaign will be nothing more than a ritual recitation of familiar themes. By the time we’re done with that, Benghazi will seem more momentous than 9/11, Hiroshima and the Civil War all rolled up together. Here’s how crazy America is: We could have a Clinton-Romney matchup in 2016, and people will take it seriously. Instead of closing up the whole shop in boredom and despair and mailing the keys to the People’s Bank of China, we’ll all pretend it’s for real and people will trudge to the polls by the millions to vote for one or the other of them, driven by God only knows what combination of hope and fear and self-hypnosis and search for political antivenom.

There’s only one real reason, of course, why Paul might lure in a few granola voters: He may be a loon, but at least he’s not Hillary Clinton. That’s not nothing. Also, he’s reasonably likely to run for president, which is more than you can say for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the subject of a sustained boomlet on the unhappy leftward margins of the Democratic Party. Various Democratic funders and activists are not-so-quietly urging Warren to get into the race, either as a ritual sacrifice meant to force Clinton’s campaign rhetoric slightly toward Warren-style economic populism, or because they believe Warren could sneak up on Clinton’s left and steal the brass ring, much as another first-term senator did in 2008. Which worked out so well for everyone.

If the Warren chatter is essentially about medium-term strategy, in the former vein – if it’s about asserting renewed progressive power within the party, and compelling the likely nominee to reckon with it – then I don’t have much of an opinion about it. That could turn out to be important incremental work over the long haul, or it could just be another coat of plaster over the internal contradictions of the Democratic Party. (And either way it's kind of boring.) But if the goal is to defeat Hillary Clinton – and there can be no doubt that a significant contingent of liberals and leftists would love to do that -- then I repeat what I said in passing last week: The spectral Warren 2016 campaign is a pointless distraction from a larger and far more important task. Indeed, it’s more than a distraction. It’s a trap.

The way to defeat Hillary is not to spend two years pouring hope and money and organizational energy into some other candidate who won’t win and who, if she does win, will be compelled by larger forces to turn into Hillary before our eyes, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” style. Look what became of Mr. Change We Can Believe In; I believe he changed into George W. Bush’s brother from another planet. The way to defeat Hillary is not to invest in another cult of personality, another Great (Wo)Man of History, another outsider maverick savior magician who’s going to ride into Washington on the Hoover of destiny and blast away all the cobwebs of cynicism and corruption. Have we not learned anything from the last eight years? (Wait, don’t answer that.) The way to defeat Hillary is to look way past Hillary. The way to defeat Hillary is to ignore her.

I am painfully aware that what I wrote last week and what I write this week about the uselessness of an anti-Clinton campaign will sound vastly cynical to some, and may make me look like a crypto-Hillaryite, a Hillary fellow traveler, a Hillary enabler. So be it. Let me assure you that the Schadenfreude of seeing Clinton lose again would be profoundly satisfying, although she appears better prepared to crush all opponents this time around. Furthermore, I reserve the right to get caught up in the excitement of a Warren insurgency, or a Bernie Sanders insurgency, or a Whoever the Hell insurgency, in the unlikely event that it catches on. (Remember that I’m a cultural critic practicing political punditry without a license, and anyway consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.)

But none of that prevents me from perceiving that Hillary Clinton is not the problem, and Elizabeth Warren is not the solution. To be more precise about it, Clinton is certainly an aspect of the problem and a viable representative of the problem. And Warren might turn out, in the fullness of time, to be part of the solution. But you can’t fix what’s wrong with American politics from above, on a quadrennial basis, with a charismatic candidate and brilliant messaging and everybody tweeting the same inspiring photograph. And right now that mass-produced wave, that shared social-media moment, is the only model of politics we possess that attracts widespread interest. It’s politics as Super Bowl, politics as hashtag. More to the point, it’s politics as spectacle, in the Situationist sense of that word, a spectacle that justifies its power by appearing to be crowd-sourced, by providing us with a transitory and illusory sense of co-authorship and co-ownership.

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Defeating Hillary Clinton as a political candidate does little or nothing to defeat the deeply corrupt and only half-visible spectacle of power and politics that produced her and infuses her, and in which she is embedded. Defeating “Hillary Clinton,” on the other hand, is about exposing and dismantling that spectacle and its system, brick by brick and from the ground up, such that it does not produce future Hillary Clintons as our only plausible political leaders. A lot easier said than done, I realize. But if America is ever to escape the paralytic political duopoly of the 21st century, it’s a mandatory task.

It’s also a task that could transcend the toxic political labeling of the moment, and therefore one that terrifies the duopoly’s power brokers. That’s where Warren and the Pauls, for example, are not so terribly far apart: Honest discussion of fundamental economic policy, or America’s geopolitical role, or the uses and limitations of state power, serves the interests of progressives, radicals, libertarians and even old-school conservatives (to the extent that species still exists). It does not serve the interests of Wall Street bankers or tax-dodging, outsourcing billionaires or the private-sector parasites who feed on the military-industrial complex or the spymasters and bureaucrats of the permanent deep state. You don’t have to like Rand Paul, or vote for him, to see that his emergence suggests that some flicker of resistance to that caste of tyrants remains alive on the right.

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Similarly, Warren’s 2012 Senate victory over a well-massaged, pseudo-moderate Republican incumbent, and her rapid rise to national symbol-hood, suggest a reawakened interest in economic democracy within the Democratic electorate. Those were precisely the issues the party abandoned during the Clinton years, in exchange for massive infusions of Wall Street cash, but only time will tell whether Warren marks the beginning of a significant realignment or something more like a Paul Wellstone nostalgia act.

Just as Rand Paul has been compelled to embrace or finesse Republican orthodoxy on issues like abortion and immigration, Warren has modulated her message during two years on Capitol Hill. She has fully come around to the hawkish pro-Israel foreign policy required of all elected Democrats, and has made only measured criticisms of the Obama administration on NSA spying, the Edward Snowden case and related national-security questions. Warren’s ascension to a leadership position in the incoming Congress could be read as an attempt to complete the process of assimilation. Within the context of an embattled Democratic Senate minority, she will certainly be expected to function less as a lone wolf and more as a team player.

But we don’t have to accuse Warren of ideological treason or impure thoughts to conclude that a Joan of Arc crusade in 2016 is wasted effort. Believing that the main problem with American politics is that we nominate the wrong candidates is a symptom of Bipartisan Disorder, found among both D's and R's. Any Republican true believer will tell you that his party would not have lost five of the last six national elections if they'd nominated real conservatives instead of girly-men. Moving beyond the realpolitik analysis that a non-candidate with no money and no organization is not prepared to storm Fortress Hillary, what would become of Warren’s flaming sword if by some miracle she won the nomination and then the election? We have a pretty good idea, or at least we should: What happened to the last neophyte senator with an idealistic reform agenda who swept into the White House?

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Sure, you can argue that the comparison is unfair and that there are big differences between Barack Obama and Warren: Obama presented himself as a post-ideological consensus builder and not especially as a liberal or progressive. (Those values were projected onto him by others.) Obama cashed in, big time, on popular outrage in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, but his promises were vague enough that his subsequent smoochy-face relationship with Wall Street did not quite rise to the level of outright mendacity. But all that is effectively a side issue: Attribute the most honorable possible motives to Obama, and he still found himself pinioned between a political system driven by corporate donors and lobbyists, a national-security apparatus that operates beyond the control of any office or any individual, and a functionally insane opposition party driven by fear and hatred.

You don’t have to change just one of those factors in order to make President Warren’s first term, beginning in January 2017, a new American dawn. You have to change all of them. If you can promise me that our Instagram populist uprising delivers not just Warren in the White House, but veto-proof Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress – consisting almost entirely of different Democrats than the longtime trough-feeders who are there now – then I’m on board. Since that’s not likely, the extended Wagnerian death scene of an anti-Hillary campaign is nothing more than empty catharsis, designed to make the left feel that once again it fought the good fight before going down in flames.

Given the current conditions of our ungovernable republic, would Warren even be a better president than Clinton? I’m honestly not sure. If Warren 2016 is a dangerous mirage, that’s not because it might inconvenience or discomfit Hillary Clinton the candidate. That prospect is admittedly almost irresistible. It’s a mirage because it feeds into the reification of the political edifice embodied by Hillary Clinton, and nurtures its aura of inevitability, inescapability and invulnerability. It only forestalls that system’s coming day of reckoning, which cannot come soon enough if we want this country to have a future.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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