WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Warren was doing Tuesday what Elizabeth Warren usually does: sticking up for the little guy.
The populist Democratic senator from Massachusetts was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, hosting an event to push Wal-Mart to raise wages and improve working conditions. “No one in this country should work full time and still live in poverty,” she said, wearing a green wristband to show solidarity with Wal-Mart workers. “Today a person can work full time, and a momma and a baby on a full-time minimum job cannot keep themselves out of poverty – and that’s wrong.”
A few hours earlier, Warren, joined by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., fired off letters to 16 financial institutions demanding more information about how they’re protecting consumers from fraud and identity theft. Later in the day, she cast her vote against the oil-and-gas interests backing the Keystone XL pipeline.
This would seem to be Warren’s moment. Exit polls in the midterm elections showed that 63 percent of voters thought the economy favors the wealthy, while only 32 percent said the economy is fair to most Americans. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, has made a leadership position for Warren. Presidential rumors persist, though she shows no signs of running.
Warren’s populism is appealing – not fiery or vengeful but compassionate and grounded in fairness. She also has the virtue of being correct: People don’t feel improvement in the economy because the gains haven’t been shared evenly, income inequality has widened and wages haven’t increased along with stock prices and corporate profits.
Yet there’s a limit to how far Warren, and the Democrats, can go with their little-guy theme, for one simple reason: They can’t afford it.
More than ever in America, elections are purchased, not won. And that money comes from corporate and wealthy interests. Run against corporations and you lose that money – and the election.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $3.73 billion was spent in the 2014 midterms. The vast majority of that money comes from a small group; only 0.28 percent of the population contributed more than $200. Donations from business-related interests account for about 70 percent of the total – and Democrats are nearly as dependent on that cash, taking in 41?percent to the Republicans’ 58 percent.
President Barack Obama showed that it’s possible to build a candidacy on small-dollar contributions, getting about one-third of his haul from contributions under $200 in 2012. But Warren, or any other Democrat, probably won’t be able to duplicate that because the Supreme Court has changed the rules of the game, making small contributors less relevant. The 2014 McCutcheon ruling struck down limits on the aggregate amount a wealthy donor could give to candidates, parties and political action committees. In addition, the wealthy are finding more ways to exploit the 2010 Citizens United ruling and other campaign-finance decisions that give super PACs and unregulated “dark money” even more influence, further diluting the power of low-dollar contributions.
This has left Democrats dependent on rich people’s cash; in 2014 they fully embraced super PACs and brazenly emphasized big-dollar contributions. Though campaign-finance law makes this dependency necessary, it undermines any populist theme. As The Washington Post’s Matea Gold noted last week, Democrats failed in their attempt to make the conservative Koch brothers an issue in 2014, discovering “how hard it is to move voters who view both parties as captives of wealthy patrons.”
That leaves Democrats in a weak position to make a credible appeal to the little guy, which is unfortunate because Warren does it so well.
“I’m particularly glad to be here with Cantare and Evelin,” she told the Wal-Mart gathering, referring to two of the chain’s employees in the room, “because it is good to hear workers’ voices in the halls of Congress.” Her pitch was for a minimum-wage hike to $10.10 an hour, a measure to help women earn equal pay and legislation giving workers more control over work schedules.
“For me, this is deeply personal,” Warren said. She spoke about how, at age 12, her family “was right on the edge of losing our home when my mother, who was 50 years old … put on her lipstick, put on her high heels and walked to the Sears to get a minimum-wage job.” Said the senator: “It was that minimum-wage job that saved our family.”
This leaves Warren well-qualified to ask what she calls a “fundamental question”: “Who does the government work for?”
The answer is easy: The people who bought it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.