The Democrats’ new darling is, like Barack Obama, a former law professor and a gifted orator whose speeches address America’s ‘rigged’ economy. Hopes are rising that the senator will run for president
Elizabeth Warren is an unlikely looking rock star. The 65-year-old Massachusetts senator, with her winning smile, patient, hopeful manner and rimless glasses, is more convincing as the Oklahoma-born Harvard law professor she was for 20 years before regaining Ted Kennedy’s former seat for the Democrats in the upper house in 2013. Yet for the last year or so, “rock star” is undoubtedly the epithet that has tended to attach itself to her whenever she has stepped on to a stage. No progressive rally is currently complete in the US without Warren’s appearance before adoring fans of all ages. The message at each of these gatherings is that screamed by leading liberal donors as she took the microphone at the annualDemocracy Alliance meeting in Washington DC last month : “Run, Liz! Run!”
For the time being, the senator is adamant that she has no plans to seek the Democratic nomination for a presidential campaign in 2016, but large sections of her party, particularly on the left, refuse to believe, in this instance, that no means no. It has long been assumed that a woman would lead the race to succeed Barack Obama at the end of his second term. Hillary Clinton remains the bookies’ favourite to follow her husband to the White House, but Warren’s odds are narrowing by the month. She talks, it seems, not only to beleaguered middle America but also both to the intellectual elite of the east coast, and the Hollywood elite of the west ( Barbra Streisand and Danny DeVito are confirmed fans ; Cher tweets that “Elizabeth Warren is my HERO!”) For the moment, Warren is performing that most elusive political trick, the one that Obama mastered in 2007: looking like the new, new thing.
There is solid basis for this perception. In her time in Washington, Warren has pushed through considerable reform, not least in her successful insistence on the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau , the new independent agency designed to enforce transparency and fairness in financial services. Her rock star status, though, rests partly, naturally, on a couple of widely bootlegged viral video clips, her greatest hits. In the first, from a campaign speech in 2011, she delivers an impromptu retort to the capitalist ideal of the self-made man, and a fiery defence of redistributive taxation: “ There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own ,” she argues. “Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved the goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate… Now look, you built the factory and it turned into something terrific? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid that comes along…”
This was the clip that most dramatically identified Warren in the minds of the followers of conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh as a “dangerous radical” – and which established her status on the liberal left as someone who might finally tell it like it is. She didn’t stop there, however. Her most telling speeches have often been framed in committee as questions to the leaders of financial institutions and the regulators that have failed, before and after the banking crash of 2007-8, to bring them to account. In her measured tones, Warren articulates the inchoate rage of everyone from Occupy protesters to working professionals unable to pay the rent, that those institutions too big to fail monumentally failed, morally and legally. Her catchphrase is becoming this one: “How many executives of Wall St banks have been prosecuted as a result of their criminal actions?” If she wanted evidence that such questions were hitting their target, Warren received it last week from Melissa Francis, anchor at Fox Business Network. “I can tell you from talking to people in the financial industry, in banking, on Wall Street, they think she is actually the devil,” Francis said. “I mean, without question, Elizabeth Warren is the devil.” What rock star could wish for more?
How Elizabeth Warren got to such questions, and how she has the capacity to deliver them with such authority, is the substance of her political memoir A Fighting Chance , published earlier this year. Its opening could be the voiceover for a title sequence of a Hollywood movie, one pitched somewhere between Erin Brockovich and The Waltons. “I’m Elizabeth Warren,” she writes [cue sequence of our heroine at home and at work, sweating over the Thanksgiving dinner and at her president’s side]. “I’m a wife, a mother and a grandmother. For nearly all my life, I would have said I was a teacher, but I guess I can’t really say that any more. Now I’d have to introduce myself as a United States senator, though I still feel a jolt of surprise whenever I say that. This is my story and it’s a story born of gratitude. My daddy was a maintenance man and my mother worked the phones at Sears. More than anything, my parents wanted to give my three older brothers and me a future…”
Those brothers are happily tailor-made, too, for the mission statement. One, a career soldier, fought 288 combat missions in Vietnam. One, a union man, spent a lifetime in the construction industry. One, a serial entrepreneur, started a new business every time the last one failed. It is a family that Norman Rockwell would have understood, the kind of family that the American dream was invented for. But here’s the thing – her kind of people, she believes, no longer count in America: “The game is rigged – rigged to work for those who have money and power… Meanwhile hard-working families are told they’ll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children.”
It is hard to read the subsequent 278 pages of A Fighting Chance as anything other than an extended hustings speech. It is a well-told story, full of heart and struggle; the most powerful book-length pitch for the hearts and minds of liberal America since Obama’s The Audacity of Hope . Whereas Obama’s biography offered the promise of healing the nation’s cultural divides, Warren’s history seems made for a proper assault on exponentially rising economic inequalities.
Inevitably, her CV is widely measured against that of Hillary Clinton’s. Both have used their Ivy League legal background to take on entrenched power (in Clinton’s case, the health insurance companies.) But Warren has more intimate experience of the lives of those she argues for. Clinton, daughter of a successful businessman, moved relatively easily from the elite Wellesley college to Yale, where she met her future husband, to Washington.
Warren’s path was more fraught with difficulty. Her family – whom she has claimed, controversially, to be loosely descended from Cherokee, Native American ancestors – came close to financial ruin when her father had a heart attack and lost his janitor’s job; she watched their station wagon be repossessed, saw her mother forced out to take a telesales job at 50. Warren herself gave up a full scholarship to George Washington university in order to marry her high school sweetheart, and struggled through college once she had two children; by the time she was a professor, she had experienced divorce, single parenthood and remarriage. Her chosen teaching subject at Harvard, when she arrived there at 40, was, pointedly, bankruptcy. “My daddy and I were both afraid of being poor, really poor,” she writes in her book. “His response was never to talk about money or what might happen if it ran out – never ever ever. My response was to study contracts finance and most of all economic failure to learn everything I could.”
That determination has given her the most expert grounding in the key political issue of her times – the imbalanced structure of the “rigged” economy and the vast resultant inequalities of wealth and opportunity. It is the grounding that provides her point of difference not only with Clinton, but also with Obama – who brought her into government but backed away, in the face of Republican opposition, from appointing her as the first chair of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she had worked to create. “He picked his economic team and when the going got tough, his economic team picked Wall Street,” she says of Obama’s administration. “They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over.”
Warren believes it must not happen again. It is the kind of argument that leads inevitably to that other question: Can Elizabeth Warren be the change she describes? There are, it seems, a growing number ready to respond: “Yes she can.”
THE WARREN FILE
Born 22 June1949, in Oklahoma City to Don Herring, a janitor, and his wife, Pauline, their fourth child.
Best of times Against strong opposition from the financial lobby and Wall Street advocating and forcing through the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in September 2010, designed to prevent another crash.
Worst of times Failing to win the backing of President Obama to be the first director of the new agency, after 44 of 47 Republican senators signed a letter to the president suggesting that Warren would have too much power in the role.
What she says “Corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”
What others say “Warren wants stringent government control of firearms, robust health care subsidies, and government-mandated wages for low-paid workers. She would make Obama look like Ronald Reagan.” Bill O’Reilly, Fox News
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014