Lawrence, MA — Not long ago, a presidential bid announcement by Elizabeth Warren would’ve been the biggest event of the year for many progressives. When she entered the national political scene more than a decade ago, her aggressive (if wonkish) critique of Wall Street greed resonated with liberals and rankled Republicans. Warren made financial regulations sound almost fun; she has PowerPoint presentations with more than a million views on YouTube. Soon groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began to describe the left flank of the Democratic Party as the “Warren wing,” and several tried to draft her to run for the presidency in previous elections.
Her announcement today is still a big deal for many, especially the thousands who attended official campaign launch in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“The man in the White House is not the cause of what is broken. He is just the latest and most extreme symptom of what’s gone wrong in America,” Warren said of President Donald Trump. “A product of a rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.”
The location was chosen carefully: Lawrence is known as the “immigrant city” and home of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. This textile strike was successfully organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union devoted to ending capitalism – although Warren is explicit that she does not share this goal.
Her defeat of incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in 2012 was one of the most expensive Senate races in history. Warren’s fundraising from small donors – defined as under $200 — was a major strength and helped account for her lack of financial support from the financial sector.
As of 2018, 56 percent of her money came from small donors. This is second among all senators (behind Bernie Sanders at 77 percent), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But much has changed since Warren entered politics. The same economic anxieties that made her popularity surge years ago intensified as the US dealt with the aftermath of the economic crisis and Great Recession. This discontent gave Sanders a huge lift when he entered the presidential race in 2016. His language of political revolution and proposals for free tuition and Medicare for All has pushed the mainstream discourse far enough to the left that Warren’s legislative record and regulatory zeal seem tame in contrast. In 2013, for instance, she proposed a $10 minimum wage, which seems rather weak now in the wake of the Fight for $15 movement. Her student loan refinancing bill (which did not pass a GOP-controlled Congress anyway) did not include bankruptcy protection, which was her specialty as an academic. (Student loans are an outlier among financial products in being exempt from bankruptcy protection and this has caused great distress for borrowers, especially since the 2005 Bankruptcy Law passed with the help of Joseph Biden.)
All of this has forced Warren to sharpen her appeal to the working class and grassroots organizers.
“I think she is a fighter and I think she is genuine,” said Nicole O’Conner, of Somerville, who attended the event with friends, despite fierce winds and frigid cold temperatures. “She has a clear message and I think she has the courage to fight for working people.”
Many progressives don’t merely want good policy. They also want a leader they feel is part of a working-class movement, according to Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution, in an interview with Truthout.
“Warren has been good on a lot of issues in the Senate and she deserves credit for this. She has a strong intellectual case against Wall Street greed,” said Turner, whose group endorses progressive candidate and ballot measures. “Sanders is more about bringing his mission to the people [and] having a movement behind his candidacy. That is the fundamental difference.”
While many on the left see Sanders and Warren as being quite different, the finance industry seems frightened by both. Warren is not a socialist, but she can sure make Wall Street squirm. Consider Ben White’s recent report that Wall Street is “freaking out about 2020.”
“[The nominee] can’t be Warren and it can’t be [Bernie] Sanders,” said an unnamed CEO of a large bank. White’s anonymous sources from the finance industry rattled off additional names the industry would accept, including almost every other Democrat candidate, such as Sens. Cory Booker, Kristen Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — all beneficiaries of the donor class. This sentiment is consistent with the (predictable) anti-Warren frenzy Wall Street made when she was put on some short lists for vice president in 2016.
Warren could make life difficult for Wall Street, but the politics of Sanders is rooted in class mobilization, which is ultimately a more existential threat to concentrated private wealth.
“Elizabeth Warren defines herself as a capitalist and wants to regulate big industry to achieve more economic equity,” said Pia Gallegos, the former chair of the Adelante Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, in an interview with Truthout. “Sanders not only promises regulation of commerce and big industry to close the wealth disparity, he helps us build a movement to continue the work.”
Warren’s campaign has been off to a rocky start. Her polling is in the single-digits, her hometown paper, the Boston Globe, ran an editorial imploring her to reconsider running for president, due in part to her widely criticized attempts to claim Native American heritage. (In May of 2015, the Globe tried to convince her to run for president in 2016.)
Warren still manages to make Wall Street worry. For starters, she is one of the very few Democrats not indebted to the finance industry via donations. Moreover, her record before her political career — as an advocate and academic — suggests that she means what she says when it comes to regulating Wall Street. This cannot be unequivocally said about many of the other candidates expected to challenge her in 2020, as former Sanders delegate Norman Solomon notes.
“She should be commended for [her authenticity]. One of the primary concerns for progressives is trying to determine who genuinely believes in the things they are saying. Many of these candidates only found their progressive self in the last 18 months or so,” said Solomon, co-author of Autopsy: the Democratic Party in Crisis.
Warren: Consumer Advocate, Academic
In a 2010 profile of Elizabeth Warren – before running as a candidate for elected office – The New York Times speculated about her future aspirations in politics. Plan A was to “happily” return to Harvard Law School, the Times said. Elliott Spitzer, the former New York governor, said: ”Plan B is to become Ralph Nader.”
Spitzer was not predicting that Warren would run an ultimately doomed presidential candidacy, but making note of her monumental role in consumer advocacy. Warren had long had a sterling reputation as an academic at the University of Pennsylvania (her Alumni magazine featured her name 11 times in a 1992 issue). She was a success at Harvard Law School as well, where the faculty gave her an “overwhelming endorsement,” according to the Boston Globe’s first ever reference to Warren in 1993. But her big break came after the seminal essay “Unsafe at Any Rate,” which laid out her vision for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Fittingly, this title was a play on Nader’s even more monumental work, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published in 1965. Warren’s essay led to the creation of the agency as part of the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform in 2010. President Obama was a fan of Warren and her big idea, despite some pushback from his own treasury department. While some of the teeth were gutted from the agency in the legislative process, the organization was doing effective work until the Trump administration began sabotaging it.
In 2008 she was named as the chair of a congressional oversight panel to serve as a watchdog for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), issuing regular updates and videos on the fate of the program while attempting to keep the finance industry accountable for a trillion-dollar, tax-free loan from US taxpayers. Warren quickly became popular; the Boston Globe named her Bostonian of the Year in 2009. All of this helped raise her status, though she was not appointed to run the bureau she would be so instrumental in creating.
Warren was influential in her field. She was quoted dozens of times in the Boston Globe and The New York Times prior to her political career, mostly about bankruptcy and student loans, and was even asked to comment on the OJ Simpson civil case.
Warren was also cited frequently by the Boston Globe Spotlight Team in 2006 (five years or so after the events in the movie Spotlight) in an important series on duplicitous practices from collection agencies called “Debtors’ Hell.”
“The creditors are all repeat players. They know exactly how the game works,” Warren told the Globe. ”We’re watching a fight between two players, one a skilled repeat gladiator, and one who’s thrown into the ring for the first time and gets clubbed over the head before they even get a sense of what the rules are.”
Single-Payer and Medical Debt
Another interesting line on Warren’s resume: her role as co-author of an important paper measuring the amount of medical bankruptcies in the United States, published in 2009 and co-authored by Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, two of the most well-known scholars in the single-payer movement. They said Warren was passionate colleague but did not discuss her opinions on national health care reform or single-payer.
Single-payer advocate, Benjamin Day was an advocate in Massachusetts when Warren was working in Cambridge. He is currently the director of Healthcare-Now, a national single-payer advocacy group, but was leading the state-wide organization Mass-Care when Warren was at Harvard.
“When she first ran for office, I know we had a lot of single-payer supporters attend the house parties she organized across the state as an exploratory campaign for whether to run, and she would not provide a straight answer on whether she supported Medicare for All or not,” Day told Truthout. “I attended one of her earliest house parties in Jamaica Plain and asked probably three or four times in a row, but she stuck pretty strongly with evasion and re-direction. My sense was that this must have been a deliberate choice in her campaign.”
Warren remained evasive on the issue throughout her first six years in office, and like most Democrats, focused on supporting Obama’s health reform legislation. She did, however, become the first senator to sponsor Sanders’s Medicare for All bill and the first big-name Democrat to say the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough. “Let’s be honest: It’s not bold. It’s not transformative,” she said on November 14, 2016, in front of wealthy donors.
This took place just after Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Before that time, Clinton, a staunch critic of single-payer, was the de-facto leader of the party. Democrats were wary about defying the front-runner for the presidency. When Clinton lost, however, this calculus seemed to change. After Warren announced her support for Medicare for All, 15 other Democratic Senators – including several would-be 2020 candidates — did the same by the time Sanders released a single-payer bill in 2017.
“Obviously, the atmosphere around single-payer has changed a lot since then, and it was a major breakthrough when [Warren] came out in support of the Sanders bill,” Day said. “It’s not clear to me yet whether this is a high priority for her, but my general philosophy with these things is that pressure from grassroots Democrats during the primaries process will make a big difference.”
Warren has had to walk a political tightrope before. During the 2016 presidential primary, she was under tremendous pressure to make an endorsement. Warren and Sanders are arguably the two most progressive members of the Senate, so there was hope she might buck the establishment and endorse Sanders.
Hillary Clinton, however, was a massive favorite to win the primary and the general election. Very few Democrats strayed from the party line, not wanting to make an enemy at a time when a Clinton presidency seemed probable. Unlike Sanders, Warren is a registered Democrat. Being tugged in two directions she made no endorsement until after the primary (which she later said was rigged against Sanders). This tactic managed to irritate both Clinton and Sanders supporters and is still raised by critics on social media from both camps.
Welcome to Elizabeth Warren’s world. She teeters on the edge of the establishment and the left. She is a loyal Democrat, but the party is financed by the same financial companies she has spent her professional life challenging. She is compared frequently with Sanders, but “he is a socialist, and I like markets.”
But is there still room for Warren — a proud capitalist and supporter of markets – to survive in a primary where Democratic voters prefer socialism to capitalism? Can she win over voters while facing opposition from finance, who will fund establishment figures? It seems Warren may be facing the biggest challenge of her political life.