Thirty-five years ago (trust me, I know where I'm going with this), Ronald Reagan's campaign for president turned lemonade into an even sweeter version of lemonade. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy had run a strong but doomed primary campaign against President Jimmy Carter. He'd actually led Carter in the polls before the start of the Iranian hostage crisis galvanized support for the White House. Only in the waning months of the primary did Kennedy start winning states, and at one New York stop he let the president have it.
"I'd say it's time to say: No more American hostages," said Kennedy. "No more high interest rates. No more high inflation, and no more Jimmy Carter."
When Kennedy was out of the race, Reagan's campaign played that clip and tied it off with a button reading "Democrats for Reagan." It was a classic—and there were echoes of that tactic in what American Crossroads pulled this week. On Monday, it put up a TV ad-length (but made for the web) spot that spun out of the Wall Street Journal's story about foreign donors contributing to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Its soundtrack was an audio clip from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Powerful interests have tried to capture Washington and rig the system in their favor. The power of well-funded special interests tilts our democracy away from the people and toward the powerful. Action is required to defend our great democracy against those who would see it perverted into one more rigged game where the rich and the powerful always win.
The ad was a hit—not so much on YouTube (less than 18,000 views so far) but in the press. At CBS News, Jake Miller pointed out that Warren's "words in the ad were originally part of a more general critique about how wealthy special interests are crowding out the voice of the American people." At Talking Points Memo, Daniel Strauss didn't really identify the audio. In The Washington Post, Nia-Malika Henderson simply pointed out that "what makes the ad so effective is Warren's voice."
It took a while for Michael Tomasky to identify the source of the quotes at The Daily Beast. They were not attacks on Clinton. They were mashed up from Warren speeches about the need to amend the Constitution to limit big money in politics. This was what she said on September 26, 2013, for example, at the Constitution Accountability Center, with the Crossroads-redacted quote in bold.
The power of well-funded special interests to blanket our politics with aggregate contributions tilts our democracy away from the people and toward the powerful.
This was what Warren said on September 9, as the Senate began debate on a constitutional amendment—again, redaction restored, in bold.
Action is required to defend our great democracy against those who would see it perverted into one more rigged game where the rich and the powerful always win. This is the time to amend the constitution.
There's trolling, and then there's trolling. American Crossroads opposes the "Citizens United amendment" with the heat of one thousand suns. Yet it was repurposing Warren's words to make it sound like she was angry not at 501c3s, but at foreign donors to the Clintons' charity. When I asked Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsey why this was done, and whether they'd looked for Warren quotes about the Clinton Foundation, he turned the question around.
"Do you have quotes from her on Clinton Foundation?" he asked. "She has not specifically addressed the issue, but we believe much of her rhetoric could be applied."
Actually, Warren has not commented on either the Clinton Foundation story or the ad. Two questions to her office were not answered. In his story, Tomasky noted that her office did not respond to questions about the ad. Clinton's shop didn't want to respond, either, though spokesman Nick Merrill admitted it was "tempting."
To Tomasky, the silence meant that "on some level Warren doesn’t mind being used in this manner." Indeed, the rest of her week has combined wonkery with fairly friendly interviews. On Tuesday, while not commenting on Crossroads, Warren grilled Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen, co-chaired the inaugural hearing of the Middle Class Prosperity Project in an unused hearing room of the Hart Building, and did two interviews with MSNBC. Both ended with softballs about her 2016 ambitions.
"What I want to do is talk as hard and as long and as loud as I need to, to get people galvanized around change," Warren said on Morning Joe.
Later, asked by Politics Nation host Al Sharpton what Warren wanted from Clinton, she gave a familiar answer: "I want to hear what she wants to run on and what she says she wants to do. That's what campaigns are supposed to be about."
Neither host asked about the Crossroads ad, and (unsurprisingly) it did not come up at the hearing. The only mention of her political clout came when California Representative Maxine Waters tried to praise Warren.
"Senator Warren is single-handedly responsible for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau," said Waters. "I mean, single-handedly."
Warren smiled then putting her chin in her hand. "It is the single most important part of the Dodd-Frank reform, and every day we are confronted with attempts to dismantle or undermine it," said Waters.
"You are very generous in your description of my role," said Warren, "but a lot of people worked very hard, across this country, nameless people who said 'enough of this.'"
Warren, who controls the media's access to her as tightly as any national figure, was choosing to avoid political controversies and use her clout to get her issues covered. The problem is that conservatives can run that play, too. Since last summer, conservative groups from the Heritage Foundation on down have used Warren's support for the Export-Import Bank to argue that the Democrats have no claim to populism. If the point of a political scrap is to raise the profile of an issue—and it ideally is—then Republicans and conservatives are trying to use the Warren brand for issues she does not actually care about.
That may matter more for the press than it matters to progressives. While looking into this, I reached out to Erica Sagrans, the campaign manager for Ready for Warren. She did not respond; to be fair, she had spent the week walking precincts in the very successful progressive effort to beat Rahm Emanuel's machine in round one of the Chicago elections.