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Elizabeth Warren vs. Mario Cuomo on whom we must help

September 06, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.
U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren addresses the Democratic National… (Tannen Maury / EPA )

Do Republicans and Democrats agree more than they disagree about whether people must earn their keep instead of relying on the kindness of strangers or the government? That possibility occurred to me as I listened to Elizabeth Warren, the populist academic turned Senate candidate, address the Democratic National Convention.

Warren is the scourge of the 1%, and her speech didn’t disappoint in that regard. But I was impressed by how much she conceded to the Protestant work ethic usually associated with Republicans (including the Catholic Paul Ryan). Warren lauded the ordinary folk who, as Bill Clinton famously said, "work hard and play by the rules."

Warren said: "I’m here tonight to talk about hardworking people; people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth -- the game is rigged against them."

VIDEO: Watch the DNC speeches

But take away the rigging, she suggested, and they'll rise to the occasion, every last one of them: "Americans are fighters. We are tough, resourceful and creative. If we have the chance to fight on a level playing field -- where everyone pays a fair share and everyone has a real shot -- then no one can stop us."

I was struck by the contrast with Mario Cuomo’s seemingly similar speech to the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco. Cuomo’s call for compassion didn’t pretend that everyone would thrive if only they were given a fair chance to make it on their own.

"We believe in encouraging the talented," Cuomo said, "but we believe that while survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order....

PHOTOS: Scenes from the DNC

"Our government should be able to rise to the level where it can fill the gaps that are left by chance or by a wisdom we don't fully understand. We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city, the man called the world's most sincere Democrat, St. Francis of Assisi, than laws written by Darwin." (You can substitute Ayn Rand here.)

At any time, but perhaps especially in this increasingly automated and skill-valuing age, there will be people for whom no amount of un-rigging or fair application of "the rules" will lead to self-sufficiency. Some will be mentally ill, others willfully self-destructive, still others unemployable in any economy other than one that hires everyone and never penalizes poor performance. Cuomo made it clear that, like St. Francis and Jesus (in his better moments; the Lord also said dismissively that "the poor you will always have with you"), he recognized that those people also deserve a helping hand and, yes, a government check.

To be fair, Warren, a former Sunday school teacher, cited Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."  But the least of the brethren are often not those who were denied opportunity but those who squandered it or who lack the wherewithal to compete on the levelest of playing fields. A compassionate society will give them succor even if their "disability" is a legal fiction.


It may be tactically smart for Democrats to co-opt the Republicans’ emphasis on rugged individualism by emphasizing that even self-reliant strivers can be thwarted by greedy corporations or stingy legislators.  According to that vision, the welfare state benefits not slackers but self-starters who just need a bit of an assist.  Cuomo, I think, would have government take pity on the slacker too, in the same way families give that screw-up brother-in-law chance after chance to make something of himself and lend him money when he doesn’t. Mom would want it that way, and so, I think, would a lot of Democrats. That's to their credit.


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