Before Occupy was a gleam in an activist's eye, Elizabeth Warren began her relentless crusade against the widening income inequality gap. Will that translate into votes?
Elizabeth Warren hasn't yet won her U.S. Senate race, and already progressives are talking about her as a potential presidential candidate. "I think that if she gets there, she's going to be in the White House someday," activist and former White House official Van Jones told Politico.
That progressive love was on display last week in Providence, R.I., at Netroots Nation, the annual convention of bloggers and activists, where Warren, who is challenging Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, addressed the crowd in a general session devoted to the right-wing war on women. There, nearly any declarative sentence uttered by Warren was met with cheers. In a voice made ragged by a heavy campaign schedule and, she said, the parties following her clinching of the Democratic nomination on June 2, she made plenty of them.
Here's Warren on being a woman in politics:
If you get yourself in a position to run for the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives as you're a woman, believe me, you 've learned how to fight for what you believe in. I've lived for a long time in a world where, in commercial law, in money law, dealing with Wall Street and Wall Street issues, in both the academic world and in Washington, in which -- let me put it politely: there was never a line in the Ladies' Room.
Here she is on being Elizabeth Warren in politics:
I got in this race because real people are getting hammered, and they're counting on me to stand up for them. And let me be clear -- I'm not backing down.
Then there's this, a rejoinder to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's assertion that "corporations are people":
No, Mitt, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they love, they cry, they dance, they live and they die -- learn the difference.
To progressive ears, Warren's proclamations were music worthy of standing ovations.
It Began With the Banks
Before Occupy was a gleam in an activist's eye, Elizabeth Warren was began her relentless crusade against the widening income inequality gap, and the financial-sector shenanigans that were sending middle-class and lower income families into irreparable levels of debt. The progressive romance with Warren, a professor at Harvard University Law School, began with her aggressive advocacy for regulation of the kinds of financial products that were paving a path to ruin for regular people, such as payday loans, as well as mortgages and credit-card contracts with sneaky balloon payments or exploding interest rates. Even before the financial crisis tanked the stock market in 2008, Warren, known as one of the nation's top bankruptcy experts, was imploring banks and politicians to put an end to the public duping.
After failing to get banks to sign onto a "clean contract" pledge, Warren came up with an idea for a new federal agency, first floated in an essay she penned for the journal Democracy, whose job it would be to regulate the language and implementation of mortgage, credit card and loan contracts, and personally lobbied so relentlessly for it that she actually brought to fruition, via the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In her 2007 essay for Democracy, Warren wrote:
It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street -- and the mortgage won't even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner.
President Barack Obama appointed her to set up the new agency, but she deemed so controversial by Republicans and Wall Street toadies that she was passed over for the agency's top job, which ultimately went to Richard Cordray, a former state attorney general from Ohio who served as the bureau's enforcement officer in its earliest days.
Warren was first introduced to the nation as the co-author of a 2003 bestselling book written for a popular audience, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke, which she wrote with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. The buzz around the book earned her appearances on television and radio. She eventually parlayed her media prowess into an effective advocacy platform for the CFPB.
Traveling a meandering path to Cambridge, Warren grew up poor in Oklahoma, and gave birth to her first child at the age of 22, before she attended law school. With her working-class roots and Ivy League pedigree, Warren is the walking embodiment of progressive ideals: an intellectual who sprang from the salt of the earth, at once brainy innovator and plainspoken advocate.
The Progressive's Creed
At Netroots Nation, during an interview conducted by the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel that also included Democratic candidates Mazie Hirono, running for U.S. Senate from Hawaii, and Darcy Burner, running for the House of Representatives in Washington State, Warren said that right-wing spin, particularly on the retrogressive positions taken on women's issues by Republicans, required more than advocacy for the progressive position. Discussing the recent battle over a requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employer-based health insurance plans cover, without a co-pay, prescription contraceptives, Warren offered a prescription of her own.
As an example she spoke of an amendment sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed any employer to withhold contraceptive coverage on the basis of "conscience."
"The Blunt amendment was straightforward," Warren said. "It was about empowering employers and insurance companies to decide not to cover birth control. Did anyone miss that? That's what it was really about. But you listen to all of the Republican spin around it, and it was about 100 other things...it was about religious liberty, it was about freedom, it was about opportunity -- you know, it was about everything else. And this is really a big part of what I think has happened to political dialogue: The reality -- the core -- has gone to a very bad place, but the conversation -- the noise, the wind -- is all somewhere else. That's why I say about these elections, it's not just about sending people to Congress; it really and truly is about changing the conversation. That's the only way we're gonna get real change. That's the only way we going to protect people."
When I asked Warren, after she left the Netroots stage, what she meant by "changing the conversation," she said: "We need to talk about our values; we need to talk about our goals, and we need to clearly differentiate ourselves from today's Republicans."
In her opening remarks at Netroots, Warren sought to do just that by serving up what amounted to a progressives' creed, embedded in a stump speech that featured plenty of barbs aimed at her opponent, Scott Brown, and lines that linked Brown to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who left office after a single term because of his unpopularity. Warren sought to draw that line of demarcation this way:
Today's Republicans call for tax cuts for the wealthiest, and fewer regulations on Wall Street. Think about that: they want to give the richest and the most powerful more money and more power. And at the same time, they want to cut investments in education, in infrastructure, and in science. They argue that is how we will build a more successful and a more successful and a more powerful country. Their vision boils down to a single sentence: "I've got mine; the rest of you are on your own."
Progressives...believe we must invest together in the things we cannot build alone. And we believe in rules for markets so that we have a level playing field for our economy.
And Mitt, learn this: We don't run this country for corporations; we run it for people. We are progressives, and we stand up for people. We stand for families; we believe in making investments in education, and building a future for our kids. We stand for jobs; we believe in putting people to work to rebuild the transportation system and investing in clean energy. We stand for working people. We believe in the right to unionize, and in collective bargaining. We stand for expanding equality and opportunity for all Americans: Equal pay for equal work. Marriage equality and civil rights and justice.
We stand for small businesses, and for the millions of people who work every day to build a better future. And we stand for accountability and a level playing field so no one steals your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.
Not surprisingly, thousands of progressive hearts melted at the sound of those words. But whether that message will resonate with the suburban swing voters of Massachusetts remains an open question.
Strategy and Fundraising
For all of her clearly stated, values-laced rhetoric, Warren didn't offer a single anecdote about a real family in either her speech or the Terkel interview -- an unconventional approach, especially in a tight race. At press time, Warren and Brown were virtually tied in the polls.
But while in most races, the Republican holds the money advantage, Warren is outpacing Brown in fundraising, almost all of it from individual donors. So far, Warren has raised $16 million in campaign contributions, according to the GoLocalWorcester Reporter -- that's $4.5 million more than Brown, who has spent $500,000 on consultants, most of them fundraising consultants.
On the post-Citizens United political landscape, however, campaign coffers don't tell the whole money story. Brown is likely to benefit far more from the independent expenditures of issue groups, often secretly funded by corporations or their top beneficiaries. Those so-called independent expenditures usually result in television and other advertising devoted to slamming the issue positions of a particular candidate.
At Netroots Nation, progressives seemed undaunted by the challenges facing Warren. "Elizabeth Warren is probably the Number One project of the progressive movement this November," Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos and Netroots Nation told Politico's Alexander Trowbridge (video) at the conference.
That matters, because a nod from The Daily Kos can amount to thousands of donations from DK readers, as well as amplification of a candidate's message to the progressive base.
It's point not missed by Warren. In a hastily arranged press scrum on a loading dock at the Rhode Island Convention Center after her Netroots appearance, a reporter from the Boston Globe asked the candidate why she ventured out of state during the heat of the campaign to address the Netroots crowd. "It's important to talk to people who are not using traditional media," Warren replied, "but who have an alternative way to reach readers all across the country -- I should say, readers and listeners all across the country." She then added: "And particularly in Massachusetts."
Onward to the Big Time?
Her focus at the moment may be the Bay State, but there's little doubt that Elizabeth Warren is headed for a future as a national political figure.
"Elizabeth Warren is everybody's favorite human right now," Van Jones told Trowbridge. "She's the rock star of the party...I think there's a reason that Wall Street wants to stop her."
He continued: "I think that when you have a talent like she has, to communicate some of the most complicated ideas in politics in the most simple way, without losing any of the intellectual integrity, but just from the heart, out of her own biography, that's a rare talent. It's a rare combination of rare talents. And I think she's got the brightest future in the Democratic Party right now."
Watch Elizabeth Warren's remarks to Netroots Nation here.
Editor's note: AlterNet does not endorse political candidates. This transcript is provided for educational purposes.