Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Warren Touches Base in Dorchester

Elizabeth Warren came to Dorchester's Florian Hall Tuesday night for what was billed as a conversation. But the most prominent Democratic candidate for US senator from Massachusetts did most of the talking. And, if the idea was to engage the audience--well-stocked with local progressives and Democratic Party activists--it was by turning listeners into more active campaigners.

Introducing Warren to the local audience was Dorchester State Representative Marty Walsh--a staunch union ally and a leader of the Boston Building Trades Council. Walsh warmed up the audience by attacking the state's Republican US Senator Scott Brown for votes against measures to increase aid to college students and to extend unemployment benefits. 

Warren followed suit be labeling herself  "a maintenance man's daughter who ended up as a fancy pants professor at Harvard." She made it clear she would have voted for the spending measures opposed by Brown, including one to fund infrastructure work--providing more construction jobs--and another to preserve the jobs of teachers, police, and firefighters. 

The difference with Brown was about how the spending would be offset. The measures would have required an additional tax on people earning more than $1 million a year, and Brown has contended that tax increases would diminish economic growth.

As a consumer advocate with a national profile, Warren was raising alarms about household debt and questionable lending practices well before the collapse of the housing bubble. And, on Tuesday night, she put the blame squarely on banks, telling the audience, "The financial service sector broke this economy one lousy mortgage at a time."

There's plenty of agreement that the housing collapse was a leading factor in the recession and in slowing the recovery. But there's sharp disagreement about how the blame should be shared between the private sector and government. So far, the ensuing bail-out of lenders starting before President Obama took office has generated considerable backlash. Some of that sentiment is anti-Wall Street (as in the Occupy Movement), but aid to banks or even homeowners with mortgage troubles has also fed Tea Party outrage over government intervention.

While some regulators have called for new ways to help homeowners with mortgage troubles take advantage of refinancing--to keep the housing market from being too much of a drag on the rest of the economy--others have been quick to say homeowners who avoided trouble shouldn't have to share the burden. In her remarks at Florian Hall, Warren concentrated on the need for regulation to curb risk in lending, but there was no mention of relief for homeowners locked out of refinancing by upside-down mortgages. 

Rather than giving more details on policy, Warren concentrated on what she viewed as a larger trend--the erosion of living standards for many working-class and middle-class families over the last three decades. 

"We've hammered on America's middle class basically for a generation now," she said. "We've squeezed them harder than ever. We've pushed them with rising costs, with flat incomes. We turned loose a credit industry on America's middle class--to paint bull's eyes on their backsides."

In addition to supporting short-term jobs measures unsuccessfully proposed by President Obama, Warren called for long-term investment in infrastructure, education, and research. As for where to make budget cuts, she mentioned military spending, but there was no mention of a single entitlement program. On the revenue side, she favored higher taxes on the wealthy, and an end to "loopholes" that enabled some corporations to avoid paying federal taxes. 

If Warren goes on to face Brown in the final election, it's likely both candidates will be asked about their stands on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. On health care alone, there is considerable potential for more divisions among voters--not just between consumers and special interests or average people and wealthy people, but between consumers more worried about access to treatment and consumers more worried about the cost of mandatory health insurance. And employers' concerns about the cost of coverage are readily understood as concerns about jobs.

Instead of differences between the rich and less-than-rich, voters might also be primed to focus on differences over immigration policy or the racial code words embedded in campaign talk around the country about entitlements. And, thanks to new latitude on campaign contributions, there could be more messages on these topics, not only from candidates themselves, but from independent political action committees.

It's also likely any debate about government regulation will go beyond banks, and Republicans have been hammering the message that regulation of financial services and environmental quality stifles economic growth.

The location of Warren's event, at Florian Hall, is the home base of the Boston Firefighters Union, but it's also the polling place for territory that was carried two years ago by Brown--Ward 16, Precinct 12. The precinct results showed Brown with 55% of the vote over Democratic rival Martha Coakley, and the turnout was significantly above the citywide average. Though Coakley managed to carry the whole city, the Boston turnout was generally higher in the pockets of support for Brown. 

The turnout in the coming presidential election will be different, but Warren tried to cast herself as someone who can build alliances and marshall their support against strong adversaries. That was how she characterized her experience in the battle for Congressional approval of a new consumer financial protection bureau. The bureau was approved, but Warren withdrew as a candidate to be the agency's director, in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress.

In Warren's account, the experience showed her ability to help get legislation approved, partly through mobilization of broad support against strong opposition. She also cast herself as the underdog who refused to settle for less.

In the closest thing to a challenging question from the audience, Warren was asked if she was serious enough about her campaign to "leave hair and teeth on the floor." To which she replied, "I didn't scratch my way to Harvard Law School to be anybody's sissy."