The former law professor and senator has a plan for everything, including taking on billionaires and reforming the US electoral college. But can she win it?by Emily Tamkin / December 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
The advert making its way around American social media in June read: “Grab a Beer with Elizabeth,” adding “or Coffee or Tea or Whatever.” At one level, its purpose was perfectly clear: to make more people donate to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in the hope of being selected to go for a drink with her.
But there was something else—and more disruptive—about that advert. “The beer test” is such a staple of American politics that articles in the US press no longer need to explain that the test is over which candidate the average voter would rather have a drink with. And for the last 40 years, it is said, the candidate who comes out on top has also claimed the White House.
Traditionally, the more likeable guy for grabbing a beer with is just that—a guy. The very idea of grabbing a beer conjures up images of men drinking together. In the early days of Warren’s campaign, some supporters feared that she might be brought down by the same charges that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2016: that she was “shrill” and not relatable. Another unlikeable woman.
But for several months after that contest, Warren went from strength to strength. And for admirers at least, by weaving her own personal story together with her rage against the sense that America is rigged and her detailed plans for putting that right, she became likeable along the way: they stand in lines after her rallies for the chance to take a “selfie” with her (actually, a photo taken by her campaign staffers).
It is as though her whole campaign is posing a question: what if the candidate to vote for isn’t the man with whom you might want to grab a beer with, just to pass the time? What if, instead, the best candidate—man or woman—to grab a beer (or coffee or whatever) with was, in fact, the person you wanted to listen to, because they might have something useful to say?
Elizabeth Herring was born in Oklahoma in 1949. Her father sold fencing and carpeting, but when Elizabeth was 12, he suffered a heart attack, leaving him unable to work. The family lost their car and, in a story she would grow up to repeat on the campaign trail, came close to losing their home, too. But her mother, after muttering to herself, “We will not lose this house, we will not lose this house,” got out her best dress and got a job at a department store.
Elizabeth’s three older brothers all joined the military. She herself dreamed of being a teacher but dropped out of university at 19 to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren, an engineer. They moved around for his work. She ended up at a Texas commuter college for $50 a semester, and taught children with special needs. They moved to New Jersey, again for his work. She had her first child at the age of 22, and when her daughter—Amelia—turned two, Elizabeth, like many an American youth who doesn’t know what else to do with their life, enrolled in law school, graduating heavily pregnant with her second child (a boy, Alex). She divorced Jim in 1978 and then, two years later, she married her current husband, law professor Bruce Mann (she proposed to him).
Warren practised law for a short while, but then began teaching it, focusing on the issues that deeply affected her family when she was growing up: the financial pressures on the middle class and what it is, exactly, that makes people go bankrupt. Over the course of the next 35 years, Elizabeth Warren, who kept her first husband’s name, went on to teach at a series of increasingly prestigious universities, ending up at Harvard.
She wasn’t big “P” political when she started out, and she was originally a registered Republican; one colleague from her time at the University of Texas at Austin described her as “surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude” in the 1980s. But that same decade, she travelled to bankruptcy courts to review cases and was reminded of her own family. She saw the way in which they’d been forced into bankruptcy, and realised there wasn’t much hope of addressing the fragility of so many families’ finances through a nonpartisan approach to reform. While at Harvard, in 1996, she changed her registration from Republican to Democrat.
By the 2000s, Warren was renowned as an expert in how the financial system impacts the middle class. After the 2008 financial crash, she was asked to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel to provide scrutiny of the Wall Street bailout. Warren, then a special assistant to President Barack Obama, pushed successfully for the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to protect citizens from “financial tricks and traps often hidden in mortgages, credit cards, and other financial products.” But Warren herself was considered too radical to run that bureau—Senate Republicans would have vetoed her.
So Warren found another way in. In 2012, she beat incumbent Scott Brown—that rare beast, a Republican senator for Massachusetts—to become a senator herself. He tried to attack her as a Harvard elitist; she won anyway. In the seven years since, she has been one of America’s most high-profile senators—and one of its most high-profile progressives.
“Warren Has a Plan for That” is not a slogan that you’d expect would help you pass the beer test—overprepared women, as Clinton can attest, are not seen as great drinking buddies
Warren has been outspoken in her attacks on Donald Trump—she was the first Democratic candidate for president to call for his impeachment following the publication of the Mueller report—and she has led the charge against many of his policies and personnel. In 2017, she spoke out against the confirmation of the right-wing Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions, to the position of attorney general. She did so by reading a 1986 letter from Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, which alleged that Sessions, as US attorney for Alabama, had used his power to intimidate black voters. As Warren was reading she was interrupted for breaking the rule that bars one senator from ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” She was interrupted by senate leader Mitch McConnell when she tried to continue, and finally was made to sit down and told she could not speak again for the rest of Sessions’s confirmation process. After Democrats protested, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
This last line has become a Warren rallying cry. Her family almost lost its house, she dropped out of college, got married and had children young, found a way to become a teacher, found a way to become a law professor, pushed for the creation of an agency only to be blocked by senators from running it, and then became a senator herself. Nevertheless, she persisted. And now she’s running for president, and has managed, in a laughably crowded field (as I write, there are over 15 runners for the nomination) to keep herself in contention.
“Warren Has a Plan for That” is not a slogan that you’d expect would help you pass the beer test—overprepared women, as Clinton can attest, are not seen as great drinking buddies. But it is indeed a Warren slogan. You can buy it on a T-shirt, a yard sign or a tote bag. Her supporters like that she has a plan for seemingly everything, from comprehensive and liberal criminal justice reform to curbing lobbyists’ influence in Congress to improving the US immigration system. That she seems to have thought things through is as much of her appeal as the detail itself. At a time when the country seems to be governed by one man’s whims, here are policies that are not the result of a morning’s mood, but of years of study and careful consideration.
Having a plan also means believing something can and must be done to turn the proverbial ship around, which, at this particular point in American history, is almost soothing. And this is the way in which Warren is different from Clinton, who also had more policies than her opponent. Clinton responded to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with “America never stopped being great.” Warren’s policies, by comparison, all come back to one idea: the acknowledgement that something big has gone wrong with the state of the nation, and that only something else big—“big, structural change”—can fix it.
In this way, she is most similar, in this Democratic primary, not to the other women candidates—among them, senators Amy Klobuchar and, until she dropped out in December, Kamala Harris—but to Bernie Sanders. Like Warren, he demands drastic action to correct American inequality, though unlike her he comes with the twist that he is an avowed democratic socialist. No matter, the bold vision of the two of them stands in contrast to the incrementalist offerings of former vice president Joe Biden and mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have criticised Warren’s plans as impractical and polarising.
The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in February will be the first concrete test of what sort of Democrat will get the chance to take on Trump. Warren could falter in either or both, and stumble over many of the further hurdles that lie between then and the Democratic convention in July. Her numbers, remarkable in the early autumn, took a definite dive as the season ground on. And yet she has arguably already got as close to the top of the party as any candidate of the unapologetic Left has done since George McGovern won the nomination in 1972. Even if she doesn’t ultimately win the nomination, she will have helped to rewrite her party’s script.
“I think her overall positivity about the future is resonating deeply. She’s an optimist, and she believes that we can be a better version of our current selves,” according to Abbye Atkinson, one of Warren’s former students who recalls over email how she had the same trait as a teacher: “As a law professor, she was a consummate optimist, and she believed that everyone had the capacity to do well.”
But the Warren pitch is about policies as well as optimism. The most radical of these is a wealth tax, under which those households with a net worth of over $50m would pay a 2 per cent tax each year on every dollar over that and a 3 per cent tax for every dollar over a $1bn net worth, which she doubled to 6 per cent in November as part of her healthcare plan. The vast and seemingly ever-widening wealth gap in America, exhaustively documented by top economists including Thomas Piketty and the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, is the subject of much anguished soul-searching, especially because as the biggest fortunes have rocketed, the share of wealth held by the middle class has decreased.
The wealth tax has won some ultra-wealthy supporters, like Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros—but has mostly been condemned by the mega-rich, including billionaire hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman, who literally welled up on television at his hurt over Warren’s plans, and JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon, who said that she is vilifying successful people.
But that Warren is making billionaires nervous (or even cry) is not necessarily a bad thing. In 2016, 65 per cent of Americans said that the US economic system unfairly favours powerful interests. Americans feel that they live in a plutocracy, in which the rich get richer while the rest wonder if they can raise enough money via crowd-sourcing websites like GoFundMe to pay medical fees. The political charge is all the greater because President Trump, for all his talk of draining the swamp, is regularly accused of using the office of the presidency to enrich himself. And Warren grasps that her detractors are good political fodder. When a clip of CNBC pundits discussing Wall Street’s nerves about Warren was doing the rounds on Twitter, she quote-tweeted it, adding, “I’m Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message.”
The wealth tax is only part of a broader programme to balance the scales in America. Her student loan plan would lessen student debt for 45m Americans, three-quarters of whom would have their loans cancelled entirely. Her housing plan looks to use federal funds to lessen the gap between black and white families, an attempt at addressing the effects of historic racial bias. Most controversial is her healthcare plan—one government-run healthcare scheme for all Americans—costing roughly $52 trillion over the next decade. Confusion over the details here prefigured Warren’s autumn slip in the polls: the politician who is supposed to always have a plan briefly appeared to be busking it in answer to the question of where the money was coming from. But she dug in, and insisted it would not involve raising taxes on the middle class. People go bankrupt because they can’t pay for healthcare, she has said again and again, and it is the job of the US president to fund future healthcare so that this doesn’t happen anymore.
But that Warren is making billionaires nervous (or even cry) is not necessarily a bad thing. In 2016, 65 per cent of Americans said that the US economic system unfairly favours powerful interests.
Unlike all these domestic policies, where everything will depend on what can survive the Congressional law-making machine, in trade and especially foreign policy, the president often enjoys more latitude. And yet Warren’s thoughts in these areas have received much less attention. Like many a progressive, she’s vowed to end endless wars and take a more multilateral approach. She remembers to mention human rights, publicly stating support for protesters in Hong Kong and writing to Trump to demand action against China over its mistreatment of the Uighurs. Her thoughts on trade policy represent a sharper break with anything seen in Washington before: she doesn’t think deals should be about business interests, but about wages and environmental protections. She is for the little guy, from whatever country he or she may be, and against multinational corporations. Here again we have classic Warren, putting herself “on your side,” and finding a very different way to pass the beer test at the same time.
But can she win? If she could clinch the nomination, then some of the polls have shown her beating Trump in a head-to-head contest. But, as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton know to their cost, it is not the nationwide vote but crucial swing states that seal victory in America’s electoral college: votes in states that are neither strongly Republican nor Democrat end up mattering more than those which pile up in Democratic strongholds, such as heavily-populated New York and California. And in those swing states, other polls have Warren losing to the president.
In December, Warren began to talk about abolishing the electoral college in the future. But for 2020 there is no getting round the need to drive up the Democratic turnout in those swing states—like, say, Michigan, which Clinton famously did not visit and lost in 2016. And it must be noted here that Warren is proving less likeable to some groups of voters than others. She has struggled with black voters, arguably the most important Democratic voting bloc. They favour Biden, whom they remember as Obama’s vice president, and might also regard as the more pragmatic choice—more palatable to white America in a general election, and thus more likely to beat Trump. Warren is also lagging behind Biden—and Sanders—with Latino voters.
The politics of race, which is newly salient in the Trump era, has also caught up with Warren in a more problematic and more personal way. In registering for the Texas bar 33 years ago, she wrote that she was not white, but Native American, and formally identified as such at both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard; she has been accused of benefiting from affirmative action even though she went through life as a white woman (the Boston Globe conducted an exhaustive investigation that found that she was considered as such by the boards that hired her). The revelations could be especially serious in these political times. Rage against “politically correct” affirmative action schemes is a perennial rallying cry for the American right. But it has become newly potent not only because of Trump’s stoking of racial tensions, but also because poor white Americans are less likely to feel that they are better off than their parents than are their minority counterparts, and so are inclined to regard protection for other social groups as a racket, and one which comes at their expense.
And unusually, Warren responded to this row with a misstep that made it worse. She made a video of herself taking a DNA test to prove that she was Native American. Surprising no one (except maybe the candidate herself), this backfired—the report suggested that she had just one Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago. Even more fundamentally, only tribal nations, not DNA tests, can determine Native American citizenship. The issue was one of identity and belonging and the way in which Warren has gone through her life; the very fact that she went to get a DNA test means she missed why those nations were upset in the first place.
If Warren has mostly done well in weaving her own life experience and her radical public policies into a new type of “likeable,” this incident painted her as the opposite—hypocritical, thoughtless and unable to understand why she was in the wrong. The controversy didn’t sink her candidacy, but it has haunted it, and, even after apologies and a 9,000-word plan on tribal rights, some tribal leaders remain sceptical of her. And the person least likely to let it go is of course the president, who, demonstrating no regard for the feelings of Native Americans themselves on the matter, refers to her as Pocahontas.
Back in July, after a Democratic debate in Detroit, Warren explained to a line-up of CNN pundits that she understood how, over time, the richest people in America had found ways to fix the system such that they got richer and richer, “and everybody else is left eating dirt.”
Warren is being attacked not only by Trump, but also by her Democratic rivals. Biden has charged her with being angry and condescending, while Buttigieg suggests she’s interested in fighting for its own sake. Not much of this is new. If a man, especially a white man, explains what’s wrong with America, he’s powerful and to be trusted; if a woman does it, she’s haughty. If a man speaks with feeling about Americans losing their healthcare and livelihoods, he’s passionate; if a woman does it, she’s rageful. If a man is angry, it’s righteous anger; if a woman is angry, well, how dare she be?
But this time round, an interesting thing has happened: the attacks have been called out, and quickly, as sexist. The New York Times story was not about the attacks themselves, but criticism of them. Another interesting thing happened, too: Warren didn’t complain about being called angry. She admitted to it. “Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet,” she wrote in a campaign email. “Well, I am angry and I own it,” she wrote. “I’m angry on behalf of everyone who is hurt by Trump’s government, our rigged economy, and business as usual. And we can translate this anger into real change—if we all fight side by side.”
In regular times an openly angry woman would be a very difficult political sell—but these aren’t regular times. So many people are angry, and want to fight, and don’t want to be told to stop talking, or to calm down, or to back down. Biden and Buttigieg criticise anger; Warren embraces it. And with children in cages at the border and foreign policy dictated by tweets and people worrying about how they’ll afford healthcare, which of these positions is the more likeable?
Back in July, after a Democratic debate in Detroit, Warren explained to a line-up of CNN pundits that she understood how, over time, the richest people in America had found ways to fix the system such that they got richer and richer, “and everybody else is left eating dirt.” That, she said, is what we need to talk about, and what we need to fix, by going “after the corruption head on.” “You know what I like about you?” CNN’s Van Jones told her. “You make me feel like help is on the way. You make me feel like something good can happen in America. It’s hard out here.”
It will also be hard, in a different way, if Warren were to win in November. Moving from idea to enactment is a tall order in Washington, as the last president to promise “change we could believe in” soon found out. Even if—a big if—there are Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, the rules of the Senate in particular can give obstructionist voices extraordinary power. Warren has said that she supports getting rid of the so-called “filibuster,” but doing that would itself require her to build support among senators, some of whom might be reluctant to concede the power that it gives them.
But for the moment—like Obama before her—she is a vessel for many hopes. Her former student, Atkinson, now an assistant professor of law who is herself focused on creditors and debtors, freely concedes that Warren might not “single-handedly” be able to get “our country to heal and grow,” but nonetheless insists that she “embodies the idea that we will see positive change if we work hard, if we work together, and if we believe in and focus on a brighter future.” Another former student Dalié Jiménez, now a professor at the University of California, recalls that it was “really kind of amazing to see her teach.” And of seeing her run for the presidency, she is equally in awe: “Incremental change hasn’t really worked. It’s a huge battle. It’s always a battle. Why not have the actual battle?”
And if Warren did ultimately manage to win, this will be why: because whether or not voters believe she’d be fun to share a beer with, they do believe she’ll fight the battles that truly matter—for healthcare, say, or against inequality. Back in July, she already showed in one small way that she’d be true to her word. Warren met with the winner of the Grab a Beer contest, a man named Mike (and his wife, Linda) from Elma, New York. They did indeed have beer. And iced tea, too.
Emily Tamkin is a journalist based in Washington, DC