Elizabeth Warren Pitches 'You Didn't Build That' 2.0

The Massachusetts senator is reframing the "businesses don't create jobs" debate.

Speaking at the liberal Center for American Progress on Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren put a fresh spin on her brand of Democratic economic populism.

She said the government does not work for "real people" anymore, and that the sort of trickle-down economics implemented by Republicans in the 1980s—and the deregulation and tax cuts it entailed—helped lead to economic stagnation.

Warren also used her speech to reframe an economic debate catalyzed by President Obama in 2012 when he said, in a riff off of Warren, "You didn't build that." Conservative angst was galvanized yet again last month, when Hillary Clinton said, "Don't let anybody tell you that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs."

It's an argument Warren clearly still subscribes to: Private industry is important, but it wouldn't be successful without the state's ability to provide public goods, like infrastructure. In her CAP speech, Warren reframed the "you didn't build that" comment to make it less accusatory and more matter-of-fact.

"We didn't know who would have the next great business idea," Warren said, "but we were pretty darn sure they were going to need electricity."

Warren said infrastructure is about creating an environment for more good jobs, and pointed out that China invests 9 percent of its GDP in infrastructure, compared to the United States's 2.4 percent.

"China is building a competitive advantage for its businesses, while we're cutting our basic investments," she said.

Warren also highlighted the importance of scientific and medical research, saying that for every dollar the National Institutes of Health spends, there's an "economic pop" of $2.21 in the private sector.

This new, nuanced message didn't get the CAP crowd as fired up as her Netroots Nation speech in July, in which she outlined 11 tenets of progressivism—though that could speak more to the makeup of the crowds at the events. At the CAP event, which was more policy-centric, Warren pushed back against GOP claims that the midterm elections were a referendum on government overreach.

"One thing has not changed: The stock market and GDP continue to go up, while families around this country are getting squeezed harder and harder," she said. "This is not about big government or small government. It's not the size of government that worries people. Rather, it's a concern for who government works for."

The Democratic Party is going through a period of philosophical malaise. On Wednesday, Ezra Klein posed the question: Are Democrats out of new ideas? CAP's president, Neera Tanden, told Klein that the problem isn't so much having ideas as being able to implement them.

"The difficulty for progressives in the last few years has been that trying to think up ideas that can make it through the House Republicans has limited the debate," Tanden told Klein. "Republicans have heretofore put forward ideas that are counterproductive. But Democrats have put forward ideas that are insufficient."

And while she probably isn't going to run for president, Warren has become the de facto ideas woman within her party. In a Republican-controlled Congress, her ideas may be moon shots. But at the least, they're ideas that Democrats can get excited about.