Much has been made of the viral video circulating of Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D) making a forceful argument for more taxation of rich people.
But the fiery rhetoric in the video suggests Warren could prove too liberal for even Massachusetts.
Warren made her political name as a consumer hero as the former head of the consumer oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. President Obama hired her in 2010 to create the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau established by the financial reform legislation that grew out of the subprime mortgage mess. Senate Republicans opposed her nomination to lead the new office, and even some administration officials were reportedly against her.
In the video, Warren delivers a fiery indictment of the argument against taxing the wealthy and everyone paying their fair share.
“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” Warren says in the clip, which comes from her pre-Senate campaign listening tour. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”
“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it,” Warren continues. “But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Warren is hoping to challenge Sen. Scott Brown (R), who beat Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in a surprising 2010 special election. Certainly the clip helps her in the Democratic primary, where she’s already zoomed to the top in polls.
But how will such a broad-based critique of the wealthy play with independents, a key voting bloc in the Bay State?
Despite Massachusetts’ liberal reputation, only about a third of voters in the state are registered Democrats. Most voters — about 51 percent — are registered independents. Liberals do outnumber conservatives here, according to 2008 exit polls, at 31 percent to 19 percent. But moderates trump both at 49 percent.
According to CNBC, about 6 percent of Massachusetts residents are millionaires. It’s one of the wealthier states in the country.
Ted Kennedy, who held this Senate seat from the 1960s until his death, was known as the Senate’s “liberal lion.” While Warren’s focus has been on the middle class, Kennedy frequently invoked the needs of the truly poor.
But in winning elections, Kennedy had his family’s wealth, political machine and deep roots in the state behind him. Meanwhile, Sen. Brown has become one of the best-funded Senate incumbents in the country.
“It sounds like she wants to lead a proletarian revolution,” said a political consultant working for Brown. “Her radical views on wealth redistribution may sound good in the classroom, but they fall flat in the real world.”
Democrats argue that when Republicans try to label Warren a communist, it only helps her campaign because most voters agree with her. Polls consistently show that most voters favor raising taxes on the rich; in fact, the surveys show that a supermajority, not just a majority endorse such a policy.
“I don’t think it hurts [Warren], not this year,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in the Bay State. “At this point people feel the game is so rigged against them. They’re mad at Washington, they’re mad at Wall Street. The argument she’s making is that everybody needs to be a part of this, it can’t just be the middle-class anymore, and I think that’s a powerful message.”
Warren’s video surfaced the week that President Obama proposed a minimum tax on millionaires to help close the deficit. Despite polling showing people in favor of such a move, Republicans argue that that they can turn public opinion against arguments like Warren’s by saying those taxes will hurt small businesses.
Over the past two years, congressional Democrats have been unable to end tax cuts for the rich, fearing spin about raising taxes. While President Obama has satisfied the Democratic base by beginning to speak forcefully about taxing the rich, that rhetoric has not moved his poll numbers.
Warren consultants also believe that the video demonstrates their candidate exudes a passion on the campaign stump that lacked in Coakley’s campaign, which she lost to Brown.
“Elizabeth is speaking from the heart about the fight she’s waged her whole life to even the playing field so working families and small businesses get the opportunity to get ahead” said Warren consultant Kyle Sullivan. “It’s why she’s running for the U.S. Senate.”
Voters rarely change their minds on important questions; the issue is which voters will turn out in the Massachusetts Senate race. Exit polls from the 2010 general election show an electorate that would have narrowly elected Coakley. Brown was elected in a January 2009 special election to replace the late-Sen. Kennedy.
President Obama’s approval rating is still above 50 percent in Massachusetts, according to Gallup, but it’s safe to assume that turnout in favor of Democrats will be lower in 2012 than it was in 2008.
Given Warren’s background in economic policy, this race will likely hinge on economic ideology more than any other contest in the country. Whether her rhetoric ends up bolsters the arguments of liberals or conservatives remains to be seen.
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