It seems like just about everyone these days is talking about Elizabeth Warren. I saw Jay Leno -not a very political guy or especially progressive- the other day on Bill Maher’s show, talking about how shocked he was that Elizabeth Warren was only 18 months younger than Hilary because of how vital and energetic she seemed. A focus group of swing voters, who traditionally don’t follow politics very closely, in Colorado a couple of weeks back were disdainful of the politicians they had heard of like Jeb Bush and Hillary who were likely running for president, but loved what they were hearing about Elizabeth Warren. The Sunday “Doonesbury” this weekend was a plea to “run, Lizzie, run” because “she hears the voices no one else hears”. The Washington Post print addition on Sunday had a front page article whose headline asked “What does Elizabeth Warren want?“
Why is a first-term Senator in the minority party, a wonky college professor who had never held elective office before 2013, a woman who insists to everyone who asks that she is not running for president, striking such a chord in American politics right now? Why are hundreds of thousands of people and some of the biggest organizations in American politics begging her to run for president despite her apparent lack of interest? Where did she get the political power to stop the president’s political nominations and almost bring down budget bills that seemed destined for easy bi-partisan passage? Why is the media obsessed with her?
As great as Elizabeth Warren is (and she is), I think the chord she strikes has at least as much to do with the moment we are in as to who she is. I think most Americans in both parties have come to believe that government is too bought off by big money special interests to care about them anymore. They are worn down by an economic system that doesn’t seem to reward working hard and playing by the rules, in Bill Clinton’s famous words, anymore; and they are cynical that the establishment politicians in both parties seem disconnected to the real world of no wage increases and rising costs of necessities. Elizabeth Warren excites people so much because she actually seems like she knows what is going in everyday people’s lives, and because she seems like she will take on the powers that be in both party to fight on their behalf. That is so refreshing to voters and activists alike, and it is turning Elizabeth into an icon that people respond to. She calls “Charge!” on a nomination fight for a position that no one has ever heard of, or a legislative fight that they weren’t even aware of, and people answer the call because they trust her- they know in their hearts that she is fighting for them.
How did all this happen? There were 2 moments that turned Elizabeth Warren into that kind of trusted icon. The first was when Warren had been appointed head of the TARP oversight board. The establishment of both parties was busy telling people how important it was to bail out the big Wall Street banks, whereas all most Americans saw was bankers being bailed out and no one caring what happened to them. When Warren fearlessly took on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at hearings in 2009 and asked him tough, pointed questions even though he was a powerful Democrat strongly backed by Obama, people thought: wow, she’s on our side. She’s willing to take on powerful people in her own political party regardless of who she makes mad. And that image of her stuck with people.
The 2nd moment was when she went on Jon Stewart and explained what had happened to the American economy and why in the financial crisis- she talked about a complicated subject in a way that people could understand and relate to. Stewart and everyone else was so used to government officials, banking industry spokespeople, and other “experts” making everything sound so complicated to make themselves look like they were the only ones who could understand things that when Elizabeth explained things in a way that was understandable and common sense, he blurted out, “I know your husband is backstage, but I just want to kiss you.” It was a sentiment that people could understand: she cut through the BS and let the sunshine in.
Everything she did added to the reputation she had developed. When she ran for senator, she didn’t trim her sails and suddenly get more cautious and start sounding like everything she said had been focus group tested- she continuously said what she passionately believed and didn’t back down. When she first got to the Senate, in her first Banking Committee hearing, her questioning of witnesses was so straightforward and tough-minded that the video was viewed by over a million people- a mind-blowing number of views on a committee hearing.
The large numbers of activists and voters who follow Elizabeth know she is not only smart and tough, but trustworthy to the core. And in this cynical age of politics, where big money and rank partisanship seems to drive everything in DC, having someone you can trust to fight for you, to be on your side rather than on big money’s side, creates a loyalty and a passion that is powerful.
I first started following politics in 1968, and in that year a man named Bobby Kennedy invoked that kind of widespread passion, trust, and loyalty. I don’t think anyone has done it since, unless it was Reagan on the other side. Because folks know she will fight for them, she is going to keep shaking things up, whatever she does next.
As to the question of what she wants, here’s how I described her agenda the other day, based on her speeches and the legislation she has introduced:
Raising wages and incomes for working people:
Raising the minimum wage so that no one who works fulltime will live in poverty
Strengthening and enforcing labor law to make it easier for workers to organize and have bargaining power
Better overtime pay rules
Equal pay for equal work for women
Creating more jobs:
Making investments in roads, bridges, power grids, education, and research
Trade policies that will raise wages and create new manufacturing jobs rather than the opposite results we have seen because of trade deals like NAFTA
Protecting the economic health and dignity of retirement:
Making sure that Wall Street has less power to manipulate the economy and our political system, and that regular people have less debt:
More cops on the beat watching over the big banks so that consumers and the economy as a whole are better protected from financial speculation and fraud
Breaking up the biggest banks to lessen their market and political power
Reducing the level of student debt
Bringing in additional tax revenue in a fair way:
Closing corporate tax loopholes, especially those that subsidize dirty energy companies like Big Oil
Raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans
Creating a financial transactions tax so that speculative trading is dis-incentivized
Beyond those policy proposals, which would go a long way in making our economy work far better for working people in this country, there’s a simple answer: she wants a country where we invest in all of our people, and where everyday folks get the rewards for working hard and playing by the rules. She wants a country where the government is on the side of working people rather than just the wealthiest individuals and biggest businesses.
It reminds me of another progressive response to the question what do we want. More than a century ago, in the midst of that era’s gilded age where the robber barons owned the government (sound familiar?), the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Sam Gompers, was asked what does labor want. Gompers replied:
“We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures...”
Sounds like the same thing Elizabeth Warren wants. And the power of that clear message, and the willingness to take on the powers that be in both parties to fight for it, will make Elizabeth Warren someone to reckon with for a long time to come. The woman has met her moment.