Elizabeth Warren has a story she wants you to hear. She told it over and over across the state of Iowa on Memorial Day weekend. You could find the repetition a sign that she’s on autopilot, but in person, the opposite effect comes across: that this story is so important that she can’t afford to get a detail wrong. Her approach is chock-full of policy, sure; “I’ve got a plan for that” has become a rallying cry. Her flurry of proposals—for a wealth tax that would fund free public college and universal child care and pre-K, for a “Green Marshall Plan,” for canceling student debt, and for fighting the opioid crisis—is earning her headlines and driving her recent success with voters. In a national Economist/YouGov poll in mid-June, she grabbed second place in the Democratic primary field, behind former vice president Joe Biden and ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In a Monmouth poll of Nevada, the third state to vote in the Democratic primaries next year, she also climbed to second place, and in the latest Des Moines Register/CNN poll for Iowa, she was effectively tied with Sanders for second place. No doubt she’s helped by having the largest staff of all the Democrats; she has more than 50 people on the ground in Iowa, where I watched six meticulously executed events.
But I’d argue that Warren’s newly tight and coherent story, in which her life’s arc tracks the country’s, is contributing to her rise, in part because it protects her against other stories—the nasty ones told by her opponents, first, and then echoed by the media doubters influenced by her opponents. Her big national-stage debut came when she tangled with Barack Obama’s administration over bank bailouts, then set up the powerhouse Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But she was dismissed as too polarizing, even by some Democrats, and was passed over to run it. In 2012, Massachusetts’s Scott Brown mocked Warren as “the Professor,” a know-it-all Harvard schoolmarm, before she beat him to take his Senate seat. After that, Donald Trump began trashing her as “Pocahontas” in the wake of a controversy on the campaign trail about her mother’s rumored Native American roots. And Warren scored an own goal with a video that announced she had “confirmed” her Native heritage with a DNA test, a claim that ignored the brutal history of blood-quantum requirements and genetic pseudoscience in the construction of race.
When she announced her presidential run this year, some national political reporters raised questions about her likability, finding new ways to compare her to Hillary Clinton, another female candidate widely dismissed as unlikable. A month into Warren’s campaign, it seemed the media was poised to Clintonize her off the primary stage. But it turned out she had a plan for that, too.
In the tale that is captivating crowds on the campaign trail, Warren is not a professor or a political star but a hardscrabble Oklahoma “late-in-life baby” or, as her mother called her, “the surprise.” Her elder brothers had joined the military; she was the last one at home, just a middle-schooler when her father had the massive heart attack that would cost him his job. “I remember the day we lost the station wagon,” she tells crowds, lowering her voice. “I learned the words ‘mortgage’ and ‘foreclosure’ ” listening to her parents talk when they thought she was asleep, she recalls. One day she walked in on her mother in her bedroom, crying and saying over and over, “ ’We are not going to lose this house.’ She was 50 years old,” Warren adds, “had never worked outside the home, and she was terrified.”
This part of the story has been a Warren staple for years: Her mother put on her best dress and her high heels and walked down to a Sears, where she got a minimum-wage job. Warren got a private lesson from her mother’s sacrifice—“You do what you have to to take care of those you love”—and a political one, too. “That minimum-wage job saved our house, and it saved our family.” In the 1960s, she says, “a minimum-wage job could support a family of three. Now the minimum wage can’t keep a momma and a baby out of poverty.”
That’s Act I of Warren’s story and of the disappearing American middle class whose collective story her family’s arc symbolizes. In Act II, she walks the crowd through her early career, including some personal choices that turned her path rockier: early marriage, dropping out of college. But her focus now is on what made it possible for her to rise from the working class. Warren tells us how she went back to school and got her teaching certificate at a public university, then went to law school at another public university. Both cost only a few hundred dollars in tuition a year. She always ends with a crowd-pleaser: “My daddy ended up as a janitor, but his baby daughter got the opportunity to become a public-school teacher, a law professor, a US senator, and run for president!”
Warren has honed this story since her 2012 Senate campaign. Remember her “Nobody in this country got rich on his own” speech? It was an explanation of how the elite amassed wealth thanks to government investments in roads, schools, energy, and police protection, which drew more than 1 million views on YouTube. Over the years, she has become the best explainer of the way the US government, sometime around 1980, flipped from building the middle class to protecting the wealthy. Her 2014 book, A Fighting Chance, explains how Warren (once a Republican, like two of her brothers) saw her own family’s struggle in the stories of those families whose bankruptcies she studied as a lawyer—families she once thought might have been slackers. Starting in 1989, with a book she cowrote on bankruptcy and consumer credit, her writing has charted the way government policies turned against the middle class and toward corporations. That research got her tapped by then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid to oversee the Troubled Assets Relief Program after the 2008 financial crash and made her a favorite on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Starting in the mid-2000s, she publicly clashed with prominent Democrats, including Biden, a senator at the time, over bankruptcy reforms, and later with then–Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the bank bailouts.
Sanders, of course, has a story too, about a government that works for the “millionaires and billionaires.” But he has a hard time connecting his family’s stories of struggle to his policies. After his first few campaign events, he ditched the details about growing up poor in Brooklyn. In early June, he returned to his personal story in a New York Times op-ed.
Warren preaches the need for “big structural change” so often that a crowd chanted the phrase back at her during a speech in San Francisco the first weekend in June. Then she gets specific. In Act III of her stump speech, she lays out her dizzying array of plans. But by then they’re not dizzying, because she has anchored them to her life and the lives of her listeners. The rapport she develops with her audience, sharing her tragedies and disappointments—questionable choices and all—makes her bold policy pitches feel believable. She starts with her proposed wealth tax: two cents on every dollar of your worth after $50 million, which she says would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. (She has also proposed a 7 percent surtax on corporate profits above $100 million.)
Warren sells the tax with a vivid, effective comparison. “How many of you own a home?” she asks. At most of her stops in Iowa, it was roughly half the crowd. “Well, you already pay a wealth tax on your major asset. You pay a property tax, right?” People start nodding. “I just want to make sure we’re also taxing the diamonds, the Rembrandts, the yachts, and the stock portfolios.” Nobody in those Iowa crowds seemed to have a problem with that. Then she lays out the shocking fact that people in the top 1 percent pay roughly 3.2 percent of their wealth in taxes, while the bottom 99 percent pay 7.4 percent.
That “big structural change” would pay for the items on Warren’s agenda— the programs that would rebuild the opportunity ladder to the middle class—that have become her signature: free technical school or two- or four-year public college; at least partial loan forgiveness for 95 percent of those with student debt; universal child care and prekindergarten, with costs capped at 7 percent of family income; and a pay hike for child-care workers.
“Big structural change” would also include strengthening unions and giving workers 40 percent of the seats on corporate boards. Warren promises to break up Big Tech and Big Finance. She calls for a constitutional amendment to protect the right to vote and vows to push to overturn Citizens United. To those who say it’s too much, she ends every public event the same way: “What do you think they said to the abolitionists? ‘Too hard!’ To the suffragists fighting to get women the right to vote? ‘Too hard!’ To the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement, to the activists who wanted equal marriage? ‘Give up now!’ ” But none of them gave up, she adds, and she won’t either. Closing that way, she got a standing ovation at every event I attended.
Recently, Warren has incorporated into her pitch the stark differences between what mid-20th-century government offered to black and white Americans. This wasn’t always the case. After a speech she delivered at the Roosevelt Institute in 2015, I heard black audience members complain about her whitewashed version of the era when government built the (white) middle class. Many black workers were ineligible for Social Security; the GI Bill didn’t prohibit racial discrimination; and federal loan guarantees systematically excluded black home buyers and black neighborhoods. “I love Elizabeth, but those stories about the ’50s drive me crazy,” one black progressive said.
The critiques must have made their way to Warren. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently told The New Yorker that after his influential Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” appeared five years ago, the Massachusetts senator asked to meet with him. “She had read it. She was deeply serious, and she had questions.” Now, when Warren talks about the New Deal, she is quick to mention the ways African Americans were shut out. Her fortunes on the campaign trail brightened after April’s She the People forum in Houston, where she joined eight other candidates in talking to what the group’s founder, Aimee Allison, calls “the real Democratic base”: women of color, many from the South. California’s Kamala Harris, only the second African-American woman ever elected to the US Senate, might have had the edge coming in, but Warren surprised the crowd. “She walked in to polite applause and walked out to a standing ovation,” Allison said, after the candidate impressed the crowd with policies to address black maternal-health disparities, the black-white wealth gap, pay inequity, and more.
But the key moment that afternoon, Allison recalled, didn’t have to do with a policy or a plan. “At one point, she turned and looked at the audience and said, ‘I know no one here was ever handed anything.’ And you could feel these women shift in their seats. They felt seen.” Last year, Allison added, she was invited to speak with Warren about her top issues, and the candidate “really listened.” Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn said it’s clear Warren has listened to black policy analysts. “She the People was the moment for me when she really began to resonate,” Jean-Pierre said. “Black women especially want to know, ‘Are you coming for our votes, or are you coming to change our lives?’ ”
Watching Warren in Iowa, I realized I’d never before seen a white politician drill white crowds on the structural white supremacy that persisted after the Jim Crow era. When she said in rural Salem that for every $100 of wealth held by a white family, black families have $5, a stocky white man in a trucker hat let out a loud “Whew!” She won applause from white Iowa audiences for promising that her housing policies will prioritize helping areas where redlining or predatory lending historically diminished black wealth.
The reporters who joined Warren on her six-city Iowa tour tried to get her to talk about her rivals, but Warren made it clear she was not there to criticize other Democrats. She was regularly asked about her relationship with Sanders—at one stop, about whether it bothered her they’re often mentioned in the same breath. “I’m happy to be mentioned by Democratic voters in any breath,” she joked. She was invited to criticize Biden’s reliance on big donors but declined. “The people of Iowa will decide how they feel about it,” she said at one point.
In an interview with Warren, I noted that Democratic debate rules (distributing top-tier candidates over two nights) would up denying her a showdown with Biden in the first debate over the bankruptcy legislation he supported in 2005. What would she like to hear from him on such topics today? She doesn’t bite. “I can’t characterize Joe Biden’s approach. He needs to do that…. You know how I look at it. You’ve seen how I look at it. This is not something new. I didn’t just glue on a bunch of policies. This is what I’ve worked on for my whole life.
“But it is the case that I see a government that increasingly works for a thinner and thinner slice at the top and leaves everyone else behind. Until we take that on and break the stranglehold that the obscenely rich and powerful hold over our country, we can’t straighten out much of anything else.”
I noted that she had worked in Obama’s administration for a while and that, for all the good he did, he didn’t break that stranglehold, either. Why? She paused. “I tangled publicly with the administration over trade and over the regulation of big banks. Tim Geithner and I”—here she chuckled—“had battles that spilled onto the public stage.” In A Fighting Chance, she laments, “The president chose his team, and the president’s team chose Wall Street.” But now she defended Obama, arguing simply, “Barack Obama stood up for the consumer agency when a lot of folks in his administration didn’t want to, when others were willing to throw it under the bus.”
Warren’s face brightened when she talked about the early days of the CFPB. “When he asked me to come set up the agency, it was a delight. Partly to be able to build something from scratch, but something that would matter, and to know that the president of the United States stood behind it.” Still, there was tension over whether she would formally run the agency she’d set up, with many officials, including Democrats, insisting that she couldn’t be confirmed by the Senate. I asked how much she cared about leading it. “Oh, I would have stayed if they let me,” she said right away.
Did that mean she thought Obama could have fought harder to get her through, even by using a recess appointment if she couldn’t be confirmed by the Senate? “Nah,” she said, shaking her head. “At the end of the day, he made the calculation that the agency needed a director who was confirmed, not a recess appointment. And I understand that…. He wanted it to be strong. Part of what was happening was Republicans were changing the ground rules right underneath him.” Indeed, in 2011, the Republicans blocked her appointment to head the CFPB; in 2016, they kept a Supreme Court seat open for a full year to block Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland.
Despite this, Biden claimed last month that once Trump leaves office, “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” and they’ll start to work with Democrats again. Warren seemed to respond in a barn burner of a speech in San Francisco, saying, “Some say that if we just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a crisis. The time for small ideas is over.” In their specificity, ambition, and sheer number, Warren’s policy proposals lead the 2020 pack. So far, her plans have largely been greeted with enthusiasm by progressive policy experts—but not all. While her wealth tax is broadly popular (in a February Politico/Morning Consult poll, more than 60 percent of voters said they back it, including half of Republicans), it has drawn some criticism from progressive economists on practical and ideological grounds. “Even the best-designed tax can be gamed,” Dean Baker, a cofounder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote shortly after she announced her plan. “Gaming the tax system will mean that we will collect considerably less revenue than a static projection would imply… From an economic standpoint, this is a complete waste.” He and others also argue that a wealth tax is less important than changing the laws that enable the rich to earn such enormous sums in the first place.
When I asked her about the skeptics, Warren shot back, “They’ve probably been listening to talking points from a handful of billionaires.” In her view, enforcement is possible. A wealth tax would apply “to all property around the world. We have a growing number of countries with reciprocal trade agreements to disclose property. I’ve built into the proposal stepped-up enforcement, experts at tracking down this property,” she continued. “You really want to say on something like this, ‘It’s just too hard’? Two cents from the top one-tenth of the 1 percent, we can cover child care, universal pre-K, universal college, cut student-loan debt for 95 percent, still have nearly half a trillion left over. It’s the kind of structural change we need in this economy, and we don’t need to hear from a bunch of billionaires that it’s too hard. And you know what? If it’s too hard, we’ll just take it on, and we’ll fix it.”
Kevin Carey, a higher-education expert at New America, is the most prominent critic of her proposal for tuition-free technical colleges and public universities. In an article in the Washington Monthly, he argued that by failing to incentivize states to spend more of their funds on public higher education, Warren’s plan would take “the vast disparities and injustices of the existing higher-education funding system and permanently bake them in place, punishing the states already doing the most to support students”—such as North Carolina, which spends $10,400 per student annually—“and rewarding the ones doing the least.” When I asked her about that criticism, Warren didn’t entirely reject it, but she made clear that putting forward the fundamental message of free higher ed for all was her primary goal. “We have a responsibility to open up opportunity for everyone, whether they live in North Carolina or Pennsylvania or anywhere in this country. We actually wrestled with this problem,” she added, “because I understand the concern…. It doesn’t happen on the first day, but there will be an equalizing in terms of [state] investment. But step one is: Let’s tell every high-school senior, let’s tell everyone who dropped out of school after a year or two because they couldn’t see taking on more debt, let’s tell everyone who now has two little kids and a dead-end job and sees the chance of an education as opening a door…let’s tell them all that they can go to a technical college or a two-year college or a four-year college.”
On Medicare for All, Warren, like some other 2020 progressives, appears to be trying to have it all. Although she is a cosponsor of Sanders’s bill, which would phase out virtually all private insurance in four years, she prefers to talk on the stump about going after “the lower-hanging fruit”: negotiating lower prescription-drug prices and then moving certain groups onto Medicare. “There are a lot of ways you can do it,” she told a crowd in Burlington, Iowa. “You can expand who’s eligible. Enroll the folks over 50. Some say enroll everybody under 30, because they cost less. You can give employers the option to buy in.” I watched Senator Kirsten Gillibrand do the same thing in Iowa: pitch Medicare for All as something that would be such a good deal, folks would be clamoring to enroll. But after four years, enrollment under Sanders’s plan would not be voluntary, and the 180 million Americans who get their insurance through their employers may oppose giving up that insurance in so short a time.
When I asked Warren whether there was a conflict between her approach and Sanders’s, she said, “I don’t think so. I have supported multiple approaches, so long as we’re keeping our eye on the center: that we need care for everyone at the lowest possible cost. And I’m firmly committed to Medicare as having demonstrated that it’s the best way to get that done. But we gotta pull everybody to the table. The unions need to be at the table.” Did she have qualms about the four-year time frame? “I don’t have any qualms. This is about the ways that we identify where we’re headed and the different paths we have for getting there. You know, I meet with people all across the country, and they tell me about going without medication, about not going to the doctor, about rural hospitals closing. All of those are real and tangible costs, and they mean we gotta get there fast. So I don’t want to undercut any notion that we want to do this quickly. We are committed, and we will get this done. But we gotta get everybody to the table to talk about it and to be on board.”
Warren’s position on Medicare for All has drawn criticism from the Vermont senator’s devotees. A piece in Jacobin headlined “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan for Everything—Except Health Care” criticized her for simultaneously supporting the Sanders approach and incremental steps. But in dozens of interviews with Iowans, the only negative comments I heard about her platform had to do with Medicare for All—from people fearing that Sanders’s plan would go too far too fast. In Oskaloosa, former Marion County Democratic Party chair Phyllis Weeks, who is 80, told me she loved Warren but was still not supporting anyone, partly over concerns about progressive candidates’ support for the Sanders bill.
In Burlington, I saw Warren depart from her script for the first time, addressing the flood conditions along parts of the Mississippi. From the 90-year-old brick warehouse that housed the city’s welcome center, she pointed outside to rows of sandbags lining the swollen river. “Farmers here can’t put their crops in the ground,” she said, shortly after a disaster-aid bill was blocked in Congress by a lone legislator, Representative Chip Roy (R-TX). “That is a broken Washington, and we need to change it.” Then she hit her standard stump speech. Just after she wrapped up, a tornado-warning siren began to blare. Warren calmly continued to take selfies with everyone standing in line for one while her anxious staff checked weather reports. Once she made it through the line, they whisked her into a windowless room, inviting along the stranded reporters covering her.
If one measure of “presidential” is whether someone is reassuring in a crisis, Warren met that test. She told stories of hiding in a bathtub during Oklahoma’s frequent tornado scares, assuring us she had never seen one touch down. “The real issue here might be flooding,” she said as she walked out into a storm of biblical proportions to record a video about how climate change is leading to extreme weather. Eventually the rains stopped, the flooding receded, and we all drove away. But five days later, the building we had been in flooded. While reporting in Iowa, I interviewed Oskaloosans at a backyard party with mud between my toes, and in Salem, I made my way to Warren’s events ankle deep in wet hay. Although it went for Trump in 2016, Iowa might be primed to vote for a Democrat who makes the climate crisis a priority in 2020.
But first, Iowans will caucus. They’ll have many choices, but Warren, who has visited the state six times so far, is betting they’ll choose her. There is some concern that her fund-raising, which lags behind other top-tier candidates’—in part because she’s refusing to do big-donor events—might not sustain a large national organization. Warren said she’s not worried. “This is our chance to build a grassroots movement, and that happens one person at a time,” she said. “I’m running the race I want to run.”