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The Daily Need

In Elizabeth Warren, progressives may have found the hero they’ve been seeking

Elizabeth Warren during a debate Tuesday between six Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

In the recent debates over job creation and the federal deficit, Democrats have merely tip-toed around the idea of raising taxes on the rich. Democratic leaders considered it a victory when they were able to reach a compromise with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on the country’s highest earners last year, and folded almost immediately when Republicans in Congress stonewalled proposals to close tax loopholes as part of a deficit reduction deal.

President Obama has gotten noticeably more aggressive in recent weeks, arguing that higher earners — who make much of their income in investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than salary — should pay their “fair share.” But even that old bromide has, to some degree, left liberals wanting. Whenever the issue of tax fairness arises, Republicans brandish a tidy riposte: “You should be able to keep more of your hard-earned money.” What is the Democratic maxim?

As Obama has correctly explained, the 2012 election will be as much about “values” as it is about “discretionary spending” and “quantitative easing.” Republicans seem to have a much easier time relaying their values to voters: limited government, personal responsibility, freedom. The Democratic logic, if it exists at all, has been much murkier: Rich Americans should pay more because, well, they can. Not exactly fit for a bumper sticker.

Enter Elizabeth Warren.

The longtime consumer advocate and Harvard professor, who was tapped to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before Republicans blocked her appointment, is running for Senate in Massachusetts. And in her first debate appearance on Tuesday night, she gave voice to the frustrations of so many progressives across the country, explaining not only what the Democrats want to change about government, but why they want to change it.

Democrats face an uphill battle in casting themselves as warriors for the “middle class,” because Americans who identify themselves as middle class — virtually everyone — like to think of themselves upwardly mobile. No one wants to believe that the rich should pay more taxes because, in America, anybody can one day become rich. And in America, if you’re rich, you must have earned it.

If her first debate performance is any indication, Warren may well represent the Democrats’ best chance of re-branding themselves as advocates of working Americans. Warren was the perfect composite of professor, politician and person. Perhaps most tellingly, she needled her prospective Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, in a way that would make progressives swoon. “Forbes magazine named Scott Brown Wall Street’s favorite senator,” Warren said. “I was thinking, ‘That’s probably not an award that I’m going to get.'”

Most importantly, however, Warren has articulated a clear and compelling rationale for why tax fairness is in the interest of the middle class. Warren didn’t merely advocate for higher taxes on wealthy Americans as an unpalatable but necessary option for closing the deficit — she offered voters a narrative about the grimness of the last three years, and who was responsible.

“The people on Wall Street broke this country, and they did it one lousy mortgage at a time,” Warren said. “It happened more than three years ago, and there has been no real accountability, and there has been no real effort to fix it.”

Warren also offered a narrative about herself, about her values and about America’s wayward drift from a country where opportunity was available to everyone to a country where the wealth gap is growing ever larger, where the tax system is barely progressive and where some high earners pay lower tax rates than Americans making $30,000 a year. That America, Warren said, needs fixing.

“We have lost our way,” Warren said. “We now live in a world where America’s middle class is getting hammered, and Washington doesn’t get it. Washington is ran for the big guns, the ones who can afford lobbyists and lawyers. That’s not right. We have a choice. We can either choose to give more tax subsidies to those who have already made it big, or we can take that money and invest in opportunities for the next kids who are going to make it big.”