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Democrats Sing Elizabeth Warren's Tune

If you listened closely in Charlotte, you could hear a rhetorical liberal resurgence.

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No, Elizabeth Warren did not give the highest profile — or best received — speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention. And, no, she may not even win her senate race.

But if you listened to the messages at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, it was hard to deny the rhetorical influence of the former Assistant to the President.

For years there’s been an under-reported battle within the Democratic Party, when it comes to economic issues. On one side are liberals, who believe not only in socially liberal causes —abortion, gay marriage, and opposing racial intolerance — but in an economic liberalism that calls for government to protect those who need protecting and promises a social contract encouraging shared prosperity.

Liberals like Warren support investing in benefits and protections for the poor and middle class, even if it means raising taxes on the wealthy. They believe in strong worker protections and regulations of certain industries, even if doing so may impact the profits of wealthy and powerful forces.

On the other side of this intramural battle are what might be called the SPECs, or Socially Progressive Economic Conservatives. SPECs are with the liberals on many of the aforementioned cultural and social issues, but when it comes to investing in measures that would aid those in need — but which cost the government (or big interests) money — they are not totally along for the ride.

Conservative stereotypes or hyperbole aside, in truth the SPECs have been winning this battle for the soul of the party for the last few decades — think Bill Clinton’s legacy of reducing government — and newer adherents like Andrew Cuomo have recently soared to prominence in the party while playing hardball with unions, reducing public services, and opting against millionaires taxes.

Two years ago, when I was a consultant overseeing communications for Eric Schneiderman’s campaign for New York Attorney General, his pronouncements of liberalism so concerned other Democrats that one member of the party demanded to see a new poll of the race before endorsing him in the general election. So novel was the notion of a statewide candidate running as a liberal — even in New York — that the New York Times ran a story during the Democratic primary entitled, “Democrat Tries to Stand Out by Running as Liberal.” This was two years ago, in a blue state, in a Democratic primary.

Which brings us back to Warren, whose speech last year describing a social contract that would lift all boats — “take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along” — quickly went viral. When the decision was first announced to give her a plum speaking slot at the convention this year, Republicans tried to pounce, suggesting that her brand of economic populism would be too extreme for a national audience.

But by the time the convention was over, such concerns were a distant memory – in part mitigated by Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, the poster boy of the ideological conservative wing of the GOP. But, also because Warren-esque appeals to a cooperative society, in which citizens are interdependent, have now become a mainstream component of the party’s rhetoric.

Consider last week’s convention. A year after the president was apparently willing to prioritize the deficit over protections for the poor, disabled, and elderly, the party’s official platform omitted any such cuts to Medicare or Social Security from the section on deficit reduction.

The speeches tell a similar story. In his 2011 State of the Union, Obama was full-on SPEC, praising the renewal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, calling for lower corporate tax rates, and vowing a five-year freeze to annual domestic spending in order to cut the deficit, “the final critical step in winning the future.”

Thursday, the tone was different. “I refuse to ask middle class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut,” the president told the nation. “I refuse to ask students to pay more for college, or kick children out of Head Start programs, to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor, and elderly, or disabled, all so those with the most can pay less.”

“I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit,” he continued. “I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China.”

As if to directly channel Warren, the president then walked the nation through an articulation of the social contract, declaring:

We also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.

We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.

We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can’t afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people’s homes, and so is the entire economy.

We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs, or the scientist who cures cancer, or the President of the United States, and it’s in our power to give her that chance.

It wasn’t just Obama. In Bill Clinton’s rousing speech on Wednesday, the same president who once declared an end to the era of big government; signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, an ingredient in the move towards sweeping financial deregulation; and who as recently as June called for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; now spoke of a cooperative society in which “we believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’”

“The direction America has to take to build a 21st-century version of the American dream [is] a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community,” the former president declared Wednesday night. “If you want a winner-take- all, you’re-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket. But if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we’re-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Of course, party conventions always emphasize differences between the parties, so a more partisan or ideological bent is to be expected in these speeches. But campaigns are aware that these televised moments represent some of their best opportunities to reach independent, undecided voters – so you don’t encounter messages that stray far from the candidate’s core swing-state argument. Indeed, Obama has run with the social contract theme enough on the campaign trail, that his “you didn’t build that” comment describing how successful businesses are the products of an interdependent society, became a Republican talking point.

However, before we declare a new day for economic liberalism, or declare that liberals have overtaken the SPECs for the heart of the party, there’s a critical point to keep in mind. It’s one thing for candidates to put forward liberal rhetoric, but entirely different for them to execute liberal policies in office.

One of the reasons that liberalism is so elusive in the current political system is that, by definition, its tenets sometimes run counter to the self-interests of the most powerful. A politician willing to stand up for financial regulations, consumer protections, and strong union contracts, will often be on the wrong side of wealthy financial services professionals, corporate executives, and CEOs — all of whom have plenty of money to help or hurt a political candidate's next campaign.

As a result, despite this new evidence that liberals may be doing better in the rhetorical battle, this is no guarantee that they will see similar gains when it comes to enacted policy. (Indeed, President Obama's convention speech four years ago spoke of "the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper," and he has been willing to call bank executives “fat cats” in the past, while maintaining a climate that was much more magnanimous to them from a policy perspective).

That said, when Mitt Romney derisively says on the campaign trail that Barack Obama isn't a Clinton kind of Democrat, he may be right -- but with two Bermuda-sized caveats. First, the differences between the two presidents thus far are largely rhetorical, rather than policy-based. And second, the same charge could now be said of Bill Clinton himself.

To fully know the impact of liberals like Elizabeth Warren on her party, though, the question will be whether the rhetoric is then matched by governmental action. When it comes to liberalism, action is always the hard part.

Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff.