Making The Right Moves On Elizabeth Warren

Oops. Just realized how that sounds. Heh.

On his blog at Reuters, Felix Salmon is frustrated as he catches the susurrus of capitulationist (er, I mean “cautionary”) voices already growing louder on the next issue (the potential nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). This time, it’s William Cohan at Bloomberg who’s sounding the retreat before battle’s even been engaged, urging the White House to compromise, to “face reality,” to not make enemies because they’ll need allies later, and so forth. Cohan scolds Warren (and, by inference, Obama):

The inconvenient truth facing Elizabeth Warren, the controversial Harvard Law School professor President Obama would like to run the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is that she has made herself so bloody disagreeable on Capitol Hill that she has obliterated her chance of winning the Senate votes she needs to be confirmed…

In the Senate — the body that actually confirms appointees — Warren is faring little better. In early May, 44 Republican senators sent the president a letter saying they would oppose any nominee of either party to head the bureau until “the lack of accountability in the structure” of it is “reformed.”…

This reeks of a political ploy by the Republican senators to gut an agency despised by their financial backers on Wall Street.

In his critique, Salmon doesn’t explicitly spell this out, but those three paragraphs of Cohan’s (and indeed the entire basic thrust of his entire argument in his Bloomberg column) pretty well encapsulate the single largest tactical disagreement since the 2009 inauguration between those Obama supporters who want the President to deliver on as much change as he can – certainly as much as he waxed eloquent about on the campaign trail – and those who’ve been urging caution and pragmatism. It’s a disagreement which has even spilled over at times into one between the White House itself and that portion of the liberal base which helped elect Obama, but which the White House now refers to as “the professional left” (and their ideas as “fucking retarded“).

Salmon notes that the Republicans have, in Bill Maher’s phrasing, “moved into a mental institution” in their increasingly-insane right-wing demands, since at least 2006. Salmon’s critique starts by noting the ridiculous Kabuki theater of Tuesday’s “clean” debt-ceiling vote (in which a sizable but less-than-half chunk of Democrats joined every single Republican in voting NOT to raise the national credit limit). Salmon even acknowledges the difficulties this President has in working with not only such an obstructionist opposition bloc, but also with the foot-dragging and wavering numbers of congressional Dems who would be so foolish as to vote with the GOP on such issues as this. But Salmon gets right to the nut of the matter when he says:

Faced with a Congress of such monumental doltishness, what is the White House to do? It can stick to its guns and try to put in place the very best policies for America that it can. Or it can randomly detonate various such policies, even if doing so would achieve precisely nothing, on some kind of inchoate principle that the occasional public sacrifice might somehow mollify an unknown number of lamebrained legislators.

That’s it, in a nutshell. That’s what’s been driving progressives – me included – so absolutely bonkers since mid-2009: the idea that the Republicans are going to get any less insane if we just give in to some of their demands; that they’ll be any more amenable to letting other key portions of Obama’s or liberals’ agenda proceed unimpeded if the White House gives in to the GOP’s demands on other issues today. They won’t. If anything, the last four years or so should serve to show in no uncertain terms that the current half-mad incarnation of the GOP operates more like a shark: if it smells blood, its frenzy and furor for more only increases.

There’s more to the “pragmatics” argument, though. The rest of the thinking goes along the lines that they’re not so much expecting that the Republicans will get any less insane through appeasement (though that has definitely, explicitly been part of the White House’s thinking on the subject, at least in the early months of the administration), but rather that if (or when) you can’t win, you shouldn’t fight; that it’s a waste of resources to tilt at windmills if the votes for this or that piece of legislation (or, as in this case, nominee) just aren’t there.

“Pragmatics” make the argument that it is stubborn to the point of stupidity to prefer “fighting the good fight” for a losing cause to taking half a loaf or taking “gettable” victories when they’re available, even if they aren’t the whole goals one set out for. And indeed, it’s difficult if not impossible to argue with such logic in those cases when the choice is so starkly and unambiguously between fighting for the highest goal if defeat is certain and fighting strategically for lesser goals while letting some things go in order to make incremental progress and establish a beachhead for further progress (this is sometimes known as the argument against purity in “pragmatic” circles). Unfortunately, the overall effects of political decisions and maneuvering, especially on the national level where each issue and event can affect so many others as well as affecting the mood of the nation and each political party, are frequently not so neatly divided thusly, and nor are the battle lines themselves often so clearly drawn.

As Salmon tartly observes, such is the case here:

Cohan’s argument doesn’t even make internal sense…By Cohan’s own account…any nominee would face exactly the same fate as Warren — even a Republican. It’s the bureau that these senators don’t like, and they’re not going to confirm anybody to run it unless and until they also get the authority to hobble it. (emphasis added)


To explain the bolded sentence a bit, Salmon is saying that what Cohan clearly understands – because Republicans have been quite plain in spelling it out – is that the GOP’s real issue is not with Warren, but with the CFPB itself
as it’s presently structured under the Dodd-Frank law. Republicans, carrying water for the big banks, say there’s “too much” consumer protection in the CFPB and too little “accountability,” but what really frosts them is that if the CFPB goes into effect as is, with a strong consumer advocate at its helm, Republicans in Congress won’t be able to do their big bankster/contributors’ bidding because they won’t have any authority to do so. That’s because, under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB is housed within the Federal Reserve. Congressional Republicans, even if they enjoy a majority, won’t simply be able to cut its budget or mess with its internal appointments and hiring…and that makes the GOP’s job of trying to weaken or eliminate the CFPB and its consumer protections – if that is their goal – much more difficult, if not impossible.

Against that backdrop, the issue of Elizabeth Warren’s nomination is a smokescreen. What’s causing Salmon to bang his head on his desk is that although Cohan clearly KNOWS all of the above (that the GOP’s real objection is not to Warren but to the bureau itself) he still attempts to convince his readers that the disagreeable old harpy, Elizabeth Warren, just made too dang many enemies up on Capitol Hill, so therefore, the only realistic and sensible thing is for her to (in Cohan’s own words) “stop the charade now and resign her temporary post at the new agency so that a more politic leader can be found.” Cohan stops short of explicitly urging the White House itself to forgo Warren’s nomination, thank her for her service and send her packing back to Harvard. But it’s clear from the way Cohan states his opinion of Warren’s “disagreeability” and her prospects for confirmation so baldly that he thinks if Warren remains unwilling to see the writing on the wall, then “cooler” and “more realistic” heads ought to prevail, and make the choice for Warren. Nothing would be a worse move for the White House. As Salmon concludes:

…it’s the first principle of any game that you don’t give something up without getting something in return — especially when your opponent is crazy. Unless and until the Republicans show Obama a way that he can get a nominee approved in line with Dodd-Frank’s vision for the agency, it’s a no-brainer that Warren must stay. Otherwise Obama would just be sacrificing a great public servant for no purpose at all.

Spot on. In fact, I’ll go one further: allowing the obvious Republican distaste for a truly strong CFPB that is empowered to punish the abuses of big banks, which the GOP cannot dilute and spoil by pissing in through “congressional oversight,” to scupper the nomination of its inventor, founder and champion would not just sacrifice a great public servant for no purpose. It would prove to the GOP that in this matter, as in numerous others since 2009, Obama and the Democrats are neither unified nor resolute about wanting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to actually protect financial consumers. In fact, it would likely convince Republicans that even greater concessions, perhaps even outright victory, could almost certainly be won if they just keep pushing and being even more unyielding.

At the risk of stating the obvious in service of dispensing with what is sure to be another plank of the “pragmatist” argument (as articulated by Cohan), of course there are other potential candidates to lead the CFPB who would be every bit as smart and as strongly consumer-oriented as Elizabeth Warren. In a country of 320 million or so, that goes without saying. However, Salmon is right when he says there is no reason – none – to throw Warren under the bus in this struggle in favor of some player-to-be-named-later. For the GOP, short of actually passing legislation watering down the CFPB itself (which would be their ultimate goal here) the best way they can hobble its practical effectiveness would be by forcing Democrats and Obama to nominate a weaker, more pro-bankster candidate than Warren, someone who would be more of a rubber stamp for banking industry wishes as head of the CFPB. And that is why the GOP truly oppose Warren: not because she’s been vaguely “disagreeable” in congressional hearings or elsewhere, but because Republicans know she knows that agency inside and out and would be resolute in her defense of consumers against predation by the banksters.

That’s why throwing Elizabeth Warren to the wolves would prove conclusively to the GOP that Democrats are “flexible” on whether they want the CFPB to be effective. If Obama is willing to sacrifice Warren, he’d be unlikely to replace her with an equally-strong consumer advocate. What would be the point? The GOP would simply make yet another all-out obstructionist filibuster, and that candidate, too, would fall by the wayside. Just look at how many of Obama’s other nominations, from judicial appointments to various government agencies, continue to languish, some since the very beginning of the administration. Getting Obama to jettison Elizabeth Warren will only show the GOP that strategy is working quite well, thank you very much.

But doesn’t Obama have to bend to the will of the GOP minority in the Senate? Isn’t politics the art of the possible, of recognizing when one must compromise in order to make any progress? No. No, he doesn’t, and no it isn’t. President Obama can recess-appoint anyone he likes to virtually any position. George W. Bush did so out of frustration when he recess-appointed the truly loathsome John Bolton to be US Ambassador to the UN, an organization which Bolton once half-jokingly suggested bombing. The GOP, in fact, just used extraordinary measures to keep the Senate in session over the Memorial Day holiday when they were supposed to be in recess, so that Obama couldn’t recess-appoint Warren (or any of his other nominees). This is a parliamentary trick Democrats also used after 2006, in the waning days of the Bush Presidency when Democrats controlled Congress. But it is not something that can typically be kept up forever because the pressure on the party doing the obstruction becomes too great. Right now, pressure is building in much of the Democratic caucus for Obama to recess-appoint Elizabeth Warren:

In the past week, the number of Democratic lawmakers who have signed a letter calling on Obama to use his recess appointment powers to install Warren at the head of the newly-created CFPB has more than doubled from the 36 who were on the list last week.

The formal announcement of the new number of signatories — which is expected to include some members of House Democratic leadership — will come at a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday. Progressive groups are already calling the amped up recess appointment support a victory for their pro-Warren grassroots organizing e


Obama should listen. It would be nice if we could all get along, if Republicans wouldn’t be such meanies about stuff like using their minority power in the Senate to filibuster virtually everything. But the fact is, they DO – and they’re not going to stop. Sometimes, due to the structure of rules in the Senate, there’s no little to no way around such obstructionism. Even then, the fight is often worth having, to show the citizens clearly who is on the side of progress and who stands foursquare against it. But when it comes to appointments of wildly popular and appropriate nominees, the President has a tool in his bag to supersede such bully-boy GOP tactics. He should not fail to use it, nor be distracted by either treacherous Republican wails that they just don’t like this particular nominee, or by pusillanimous calls from putative “pragmatic” allies that he be “reasonable” or “realistic.” Salmon’s flagging of Cohan’s bleat at Bloomberg shows that this latter push is already well under way. Obama should resist both it and his apparent tendency to avoid confrontation and seek whatever he thinks is the “center point” between an increasingly insane and unyielding GOP, and the wishes of the vast majority of not just his supporters, but the country.

** UPDATE ** Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has more.

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