When Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke at an event on financial reform yesterday in Washington, she opened by joking that it's good to see people still talking about financial reform. Then again, maybe she wasn't joking.
Warren is getting extra attention this week, after Noam Scheiber wrote in the New Republic that Warren is the nightmare scenario of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Scheiber wrote that Democrats have moved closer to Warren's overt antipathy toward Wall Street, making Clinton's ties with the financial industry more of a liability.
Handicapping a potential primary battle that's three years away feels futile, but Scheiber is right to look at Warren as a potential gauge of the current political moment, and of the current Democratic Party. It's just not clear how closely she reflects either.
Scheiber links to a Pew Center poll showing that Americans overall, and Democrats in particular, are less likely to agree that Wall Street makes an important contribution to the U.S. economy than they were when President Barack Obama was first elected. Viewed by itself, that supports the argument that Democrats are hungry for an anti-bank crusader.
But that may be asking the wrong question. A lot has happened since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and Too Big to Fail became a populist rallying cry. The latest Gallup poll shows Americans more concerned about non-economic problems, including government dysfunction and health care, than about the economy or the deficit. In fact, the gap between the rich and poor was mentioned by just 1 in 100 respondents, and corporate corruption was cited by fewer than 1 in 200.
The Obamacare saga has changed the landscape facing Democrats in complicated ways. To be sure, the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov has cast doubt, at least for the moment, on the ability to government to do things well. But Obamacare has also reminded people that political debates can touch them directly, with a tangible impact on their lives. That helps explain why Republicans are so afraid of it.
By contrast, the debate over financial reform remains intangible for most people, a battle of symbols and slogans. Even if the bank foreclosed on your house, there's no straight line between your anger at the bank and your belief in the need for higher reserve requirements or a ban on proprietary trading. You may like the idea of forcing banks to report the pay ratios of executives and average workers, but it won't pay your hospital bill.
So while Warren may indeed track closely with the views of rank-and-file Democrats on financial reform, it's not clear how much that says about the soul of the Democratic Party. The complicated policy questions raised by the financial crisis may already have been replaced by the existential debates that better define American politics: What does the government owe its weakest citizens? Who deserves what, and how much of it? And who should pay for it?
None of this means that Warren won't be a contender for 2016. (Though, really, should we care so much about that question right now?) But she's less interesting as a possible presidential candidate than as a marker for how the political debate has changed since 2007.
Now, and for the foreseeable future, the fiercest political debate isn't financial reform. It's something more fundamental -- about the role of government in people's lives, and the type of country this becomes. If Elizabeth Warren can learn to own that debate the way she owns the debate over banking reform, expect to see more stories like Scheiber's.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)