What Elizabeth Warren can teach Barack Obama

FILE - In this April 11, 2011, file photo, Elizabeth Warren, then-assistant to the President, speaks during a summit on consumer protection by the National Association of Attorneys General in Charlotte, N.C. The consumer advocate Warren is jumping into the Massachusetts race against Republican Sen. Scott Brown. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) Chuck Burton

Elizabeth Warren is poised to thrash Scott Brown in their marquee U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, and the reason is simple: Women voters love her. In the most recent poll, in December, Warren and Brown were virtually tied amongst men, but Warren led by 13 percentage points, 51 percent to 38 percent, amongst women.

Warren’s commanding lead is not about her gender (Masssachusetts has never before elected a woman to the Senate or governor’s office: Brown defeated Martha Coakley just two years ago) or even her party (the state has a history of voting for GOP moderates like Brown: Think ex-Governor Mitt Romney and, further back, Senator Ed Brooke.) Rather, she owes her ascendency to the fact that her communitarian message resonates so strongly with females.

President Obama ought to pay heed: Warren’s campaign can offer important lessons to his own. He too will need to secure women voters if he wants to earn re-election. And he, too, could do so by adopting Warren’s proud communitarian appeal.

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The purest distillation of the Warren message can be seen in the video, shot back in August during her appearance at the Massachusetts home of a supporter, which went viral on the Internet and alternately met with applause amongst liberals and apoplexy amongst conservatives.

It’s easy to see why. With evident passion, Warren weighs in against George Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich” and, hands knifing the air, rejects the notion that she is stirring up “class warfare.” Not at all, she says. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…” It was a riveting performance that proved her skill as a retail politician, someone able to relate to regular folks—there was not a trace here of the Harvard Law professor with a specialty in bankruptcy statutes or the policy wonk whose 5,000 word treatise in Democracy led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Based on such emotive fare, the conventional wisdom is that Warren’s candidacy “will test the limits of true populism,” as Greg Sargent, of “The Plum Line” in The Washington Post, wrote. But that’s off the mark: Warren’s message is as effective as it is precisely because it goes beyond mere populism. “True populism,” in historical terms, is the crude and divisive politics of economic grievance and resentment, as embodied by the struggles of the dirt farmers against the railroad barons in the late 19th century. It’s more of a sentiment than a comprehensive plan for action.

Warren’s message, by contrast, starts with righteous anger, with its pointed reference to “the rest of us,” but it doesn’t halt there. She goes on to offer an affirming brief for society. Individual opportunity, she asserts, cannot be realized without a collective marshaling of public resources. This is a wide-angled perspective that goes beyond the pedantic debates about whether and to what extent the rich pay their fair share in taxes. Her solutions-oriented emphasis is on the civic and economic infrastructure, in the broadest sense—the educational system, the transportation system, the regulatory system—that must be collectively paid for and carefully maintained to make liberal capitalism possible. This isn’t crude populism—it’s an elegant riposte to Margaret Thatcher’s famous utterance, in a 1987 television interview, that “there is no such thing as society.” Judging from the polling in Massachusetts, it also happens to be a message that’s especially attractive to women.

In that way, there are strong demographic reasons for more candidates across the United States to embrace this type of communitarianism. Women not only outnumber men among registered voters—66.6 million to 63.5 million in 2010—but also are increasingly more likely to turn out to vote. In fact, the ‘turnout gap’ between women and men has grown in every election since 1980—so that in 2008, 60.4 percent of eligible women voters went to the polls, against 55.7 percent of eligible male voters, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. As a result, there were nearly 10 million more female than male voters in 2008, with women comprising 53 percent of the electorate. The women’s vote that year split 56 percent for Obama to 43 percent for McCain, thereby sealing Obama’s election.

But there’s no guarantee that women will support Obama this year in strong numbers. Though Obama’s lyrical campaign poetry was a powerful sway for women voters, his halting governing prose has cost him support. Polls have shown his job approval rating among women dipping below 50 percent. Women are currently more supportive of him than men, but if the President can’t reignite genuine enthusiasm among them, he stands to lose the election.

The adoption of Warren’s unabashed communitarian message could perhaps help Obama rally women to his side. It would be a smooth segue from his campaign persona of four years ago: Her variation on the theme of economic togetherness could add a bass note to his own 2008 signature call for a civic inclusiveness—for a melting away of Red America and a Blue America into a united America. That was Obama at his most inspiring, and there are plenty of Americans (women especially) who would be eager to hear him offer a refurbished and more nurturing version of that idealistic appeal, one tailored to our weary economic times.

He made a good start at channeling Warren (and their Progressive heir, Theodore Roosevelt) with his speech in December at Osawatomie, Kansas that explicitly repudiated “rugged individualism” (even while acknowledging that this sentiment is “in America’s DNA”) in favor of a society in which business titans (nearly all of whom are male) are tethered to a “broader obligation.”

But it was only a start. Communitarianism is not only about ideals, but about practical action. Obama needs to talk more about his particular policy proposals and how they link up with America’s “underlying social contract,” in Warren’s phrase. That’s perhaps the most promising way to reconnect his campaign, so far lacking in any sense of grand aspiration, with its natural demographic base.

Bio: Paul Starobin, author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, lives in Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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