“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. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory—and hire someone to protect against this—because of the work the rest of us did.”
“Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”
She may not have realized it at the time, but Warren's cogent and crystal-clear explanation of the social contract that has underwritten the hopes and dreams of generations of Americans may have been a turning point in the messaging war that will verbally assault the airwaves for the next thirteen months of campaign season.
It may seem like common sense to mainstream Democrats and progressives, as well as even some conservatives and Republicans, that those who have benefited most handsomely from the stability and safety that American society has provided would understand the importance of ensuring that the next generation would have the same opportunity. Instead, our political discourse since the arrival of the tea party Congress has told us the exact opposite. The messaging coming from every conservative mouthpiece has centered on the idea that to make the economy succeed, we need to ensure that the wealthiest among us have the legislative and economic playing field tilted even more heavily in their favor. After all, the logic goes, if the wealthy got just a little bit richer, they just might hire a few more people from the struggling working class. If they were feeling generous, that is, given the low demand for the labor.
It is testament to the failure of the left regarding economic messaging that the simple truths uttered by Warren that day—that roads, education, firefighters and police and public goods that don't exist by fiat and need to be paid for—could be thought of as a potential gamechanger. But the evidence is adding up. As of this writing, the video clip of Warren's speech had garnered over 615,000 hits on YouTube and has inspired an image that has become at this early stage a symbol for everything Warren's campaign represents.
President Obama might just be taking note.
Kos mentioned earlier this week that David Axelrod may have finally learned that bending over backward to make nice with an insatiable GOP was not a winning strategy—a concept supported most strongly by the weak polling numbers the administration is facing regarding independents, the one group for which the focus on bipartisanship was supposed to have the most appeal. Whether or not one agrees with Axelrod's characterization of "getting something done" and "partisan war" as diametric opposites, one thing was clear: the conciliatory approach was not connecting with the people. Fortunately, the success of Warren's message may have convinced the President that swinging with the left hook can be a winning strategy.
Mr. Obama took some time off from leading the free world to make some fundraising stops on the West coast, and I attended the reception on Monday evening at the House of Blues in West Hollywood (yes, the same one where a heckler called him the antichrist). Most of the president's address to the crowd focused on the need to pass the jobs bill, put Americans back to work, and restore the American dream as captured by the notion that trying hard and playing by the rules could essentially guarantee success; but it was hard to escape the notion that Elizabeth Warren's language had begun to permeate his consciousness:
Part of what makes America great is, you have this extraordinary idea, you have this extraordinary talent, you start a business, you provide a service, and it works out and you do well—that is good, that's what America's all about. We want to promote that all across the country. But remember: your success didn't come on your own. There was a teacher out there somewhere who helped to provide you the knowledge you needed to learn. We're in this together, and the question is, how do we make sure that we're going to be creating the same kind of America that allows the next generation to succeed?
The similarities between the president's remarks in West Hollywood and Elizabeth Warren's explanation of the social contract at a house party in Massachusetts can hardly be coincidental; it would defy belief that the president's political team could somehow not have noticed the surge in popularity that Warren has been experiencing recently. More likely, Warren's stirring defense of America's social contract took off like wildfire and sent the right wing into a fit in the process, providing a perfect example of how to re-energize a skittish base take a more confrontational approach against a political opposition that seeks to permanently privatize and hoard the nation's public wealth.
Warren's courage has been contagious so far. Her clarion call to justice for the next generation of Americans can provide Democrats and progressives with an opportunity to reclaim the narrative about how to make America work again for everyone.