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Sanders vs. Warren: The Revolutionary vs. The Regulator (Washington Examiner) October 25, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Many see Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as two peas in the liberal Democratic pod. Battling to consolidate their overlapping constituencies, they might be called left (Warren) and lefter (Sanders). But a deeper look at an earlier time in history, specifically the Progressive Era and the New Deal, reveals real and important differences in the left back then that are at play in the Sanders vs. Warren battle today.

In short, the early Progressives, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, were focused on government regulation of the economy and business which, at the time, was a bold new idea. Teddy Roosevelt was known as a “trust-buster” through his antitrust prosecutions and regulatory reforms. His “Square Deal” sought to regulate industries in such a way as to increase fairness to the public while also respecting business. At heart, he was a reformer.

By contrast, Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, was more interested in an economic revolution. His “New Deal” sought to turn economic policy upside down, focusing on the “forgotten man” who was losing out to the “financial titans” and “economic royalists.” In his 1936 speech accepting the nomination for a second term, he said he was not interested in regulating the power of big business but ending it. In his 1944 State of the Union message, he set out a “second bill of rights” to provide economic security for people. The New Deal was America’s French Revolution, changing everything.

Today, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders support many of the same policies, but there is an important difference: One is a reformer while the other preaches revolution. Likewise, one is a descendant of an essentially American political movement, progressivism, while the other professes loyalty to a brand of European politics, socialism. It is a bigger difference than first appears.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was a prophet crying in the wilderness with a new and even extreme message. By the 2020 campaign, however, most of his positions have been embraced by others on the Democratic debate stage. “Medicare for All,” free college, and an increased minimum wage are all standard Democratic fare by now, so the prophet has become mainstream. He can try to take credit for being first (“I wrote the damn bill”) but that energizes only his enthusiasts.

What continues to distinguish Sanders from other Democrats is his constant preaching of the need for “a political revolution.” This system, he argues, is “rigged” and needs to be overturned. He recently gained the support of another revolutionary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, strengthening his movement.

Although new front-runner Elizabeth Warren shares many of Sanders’ policy positions, she comes at them from the more cautious and nuanced stance of a regulator and a reformer, not a revolutionary. She made her mark in the Obama years by championing the establishment of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was appointed assistant to the president to get it up and running. A centerpiece of her campaign is heavier regulation of Wall Street and banks that she argues will level the playing field for everyone. Her own area of expertise as a Harvard law professor has been the complex system of bankruptcy laws.

A key difference between the revolutionary Sanders and the reformer Warren came to light in the most recent presidential debate. Sanders openly said that he would pay for Medicare for All with a special tax on “extreme wealth.” Apparently, Elizabeth Warren did not know there would be math on this exam because, when asked how she would pay for it, she could only admit later that she would have to develop a plan for that.

Bernie goes for the jugular — taxes on the wealthy — and we can predict that Warren will find a more nuanced approach.

Revolutionaries rarely win political campaigns but, in a sense, Bernie Sanders has already won. His policies are now in the more cautious hands of a regulator and reformer, Elizabeth Warren.

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