WASHINGTON — The New Republic magazine was, appropriately, the stimulant that last week gave the Democratic base a frisson of anticipation about a possible Elizabeth Warren presidential candidacy in 2016. Now in her 11th month as a Massachusetts senator, she is suited to carry the progressive torch that was fueled 99 years ago this month by The New Republic’s founding.
Its first editor was Herbert Croly, whose 1909 book “The Promise of American Life” — Theodore Roosevelt read it, rapturously, during his post-presidential travels — is progressivism’s primer: “The average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat,” so national life should be a “school.” “The exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?” And “a people are saved many costly perversions” if “the official schoolmasters are wise, and the pupils neither truant nor insubordinate.”
Today the magazine, whose birth was partly financed by a progressive heiress, Dorothy Payne Whitney, is owned by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Warren, a scourge of (other) economic royalists, and especially of large financial institutions, is a William Jennings Bryan for our time: She has risen from among Harvard’s downtrodden to proclaim: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of derivatives.”
Before she sank to a senator’s salary, she was among the 1 percenters, whose annual incomes now begin at $394,000. Hillary Clinton recently made more than that from two speeches, five days apart, for Goldman Sachs, a prowling Wall Street carnivore that Warren presumably wants to domesticate. Between Warren, hot in pursuit of malefactors of great wealth, and Clinton, hot in pursuit of great wealth, which candidate would be more fun for the kind of people who compose the Democrats’ nominating electorate?
Such people are in politics for, among other satisfactions, the fun of it. Americans profess detestation of politics and its practitioners, but their behavior belies their rhetoric. Last month, a poll reported that 60 percent of Americans favor voting out of office all congressional incumbents, including their own representatives. But just 11 months before this poll revealed the electorate’s (supposedly) extraordinary dyspepsia, voters re-elected 90 percent of representatives and 91 percent of senators. Most Americans most of the time have better things to do than feel strongly (aggrieved or otherwise) about politics. They are not as angry about goings-on in Washington as they say they are, or imagine themselves to be, or think they ought to be when a pollster takes their emotional temperature.
Since Andrew Jackson, with his collaborator (and presidential successor) Martin Van Buren, displaced the politics of deference to elites with the politics of mass mobilization by parties, the electoral scramble has been popular entertainment. Analyses of Chris Christie’s appeal are neglecting something: He has fun seeking and wielding power, and his fun is infectious.
Can Democratic activists, for whom politics is catnip, cheerfully contemplate the uncontested nomination of someone who will be 69 on Election Day 2016, who will have been conspicuous in the nation’s life for a quarter of a century, and who cultivates nostalgia for the last decade of the previous century? Can forward-leaning, clench-fisted MSNBC viewers really work themselves into a lather of excitement about the supposed feminist triumph of smashing the ultimate “glass ceiling” for a woman whose marriage took her to the upper reaches of politics? Do Democrats, ankle-deep in the rubble of Obamacare’s paternalism, really want to nominate the author of Hillarycare? Before a Democratic-controlled Congress spurned it, she explained her health care plan this way (a delicious quotation excavated by The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins):
“We just think people will be too focused on saving money and they won’t get the care for their children and themselves that they need. … The money has to go to the federal government because the federal government will spend that money better.” Come 2016, Clinton may be the one thing no successful candidate can be, and something Warren (or some other avatar of what Howard Dean in 2003 called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”) would not be: boring. The social scientist Robert Nisbet called boredom “one of the most insistent and universal” forces that has shaped human behavior. It still is. So, all those who today regard Clinton’s nomination as it was regarded in 2008 — as a foregone conclusion — should ask themselves: When was the last time presidential politics was as predictable as they think it has become?
George Will’s syndicated column appears Thursdays and Sundays in the Tribune-Herald. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.