Elizabeth Warren delivered a “Cross of Gold” speech for the twenty-first century as the Senate wrangled over the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” spending bill that keeps the government open in return for putting taxpayers on the hook for the next bailout of the nation’s biggest and most irresponsible banks.
While the Senate ultimately said “yes,” it is Warren’s loud “no” that can and should serve as an echo of the past in the future;
“The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts,” thundered the senator from Massachusetts, who spoke with bluntness rarely heard on the Senate floor—or in modern American politics.
Ripping Citigroup by name for its practicesand for its influence on Democratic administrations and the Democratic Party—and by extension addressing all of the banking behemoths that have whined about even the mild regulations contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation enacted after the Wall Street meltdown of 2008—Warren announced: “I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!”
Warren’s words were not enough to prevent passage of the combined Continuing Resolution and omnibus spending bill that Washington dubbed “Cromnibus.” After the House narrowly approved it Thursday night, the Senate on Saturday gave a 56-40 authorization to the measure that guts bank regulations in a way Warren says will “let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.”
But the measure of a Cross of Gold speech is never made in the moment.
The original Cross of Gold speech by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National Convention of 1896 secured the party’s nomination for the Nebraska populist who upset the political calculus of his day by arguing that the party must stand against economic elites and declare, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan’s words did not win him the presidency in that year’s campaign or in the succeeding campaigns of 1900 and 1908.
Bryan’s accomplishment was the transformation of a Democratic Party that had been in the service of the elites into a populist force that gave the United States a new politics. That new politics turned even Republicans—like Bryan’s 1900 foe Teddy Roosevelt—into trust-busting regulators. And out of that new politics would eventually come an economically- and societally transforming New Deal.
This is the big ticket.
This is what really matters.
One speech is never enough. One candidate is never enough. Before real change comes, politics must matter—clearly and unequivocally for all Americans. And before politics can matter, parties must define themselves as more than mere treasuries for corporate campaign donations.
Warren’s speech has already renewed speculation about the prospect that she might reconsider her decision to refuse a run for the presidency in 2016. If she were to run, it is not unreasonable to suggest that she could scramble every expectation. In these times, when change comes dramatically faster than in the past—for worse and for better—perhaps she could win the nomination. Perhaps she could win the presidency; against most of the potential Republican nominees in 2016, she would be widely recognized as the voice of reason.
But what matters most for the future is that prospect of the broader transformation of a party and a politics. That is what we remember William Jennings Bryan for today—when we forget so many other Democratic and Republican nominees of the ancient electoral past. Only by remaking parties and politics does it become possible for a president, any president, to remake government policies.
Principles, passion, populist fury when it is called for: this is what sets the stage for real change. And this is what Warren was offering Democrats and American when stormed the Senate to declare,
Enough is enough.
Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough.
Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.
But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just six years ago?
We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!