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- American politician
- American politician
- American politician
THE PASSAGEWAY IS NARROW, crowded, and, when Senator Elizabeth Warren comes into view, suddenly crazed. “ ’Liz! ’Beth! Warren!” supporters chant. A phalanx of cameras has begun to move a few paces ahead of her as she shakes hands, cradles babies, and gives a supporter a hug. It is the middle of November, and she’s here on the second floor of the statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire, to register her candidacy for the office of president. Outside, a bone-chilling 17-degree wind is blowing hard; frost dusts the lawn, but a few green leaves wave on a maple, like reminders of a warmer time.
At the foot of the hallway, Warren embraces New Hampshire state representative Ed Butler, an endorser. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he murmurs in her ear as they draw close.
“We’re going to do it,” she says softly back.
Registering in New Hampshire is a formality—Warren declared her candidacy in February of last year—yet, for the senator, the moment is charged in a host of other ways. After a summer of climbing poll numbers, she found herself at the Democratic debate in October attacked as the candidate to beat. What followed was a momentum shift to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s and Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaigns and a significant dip in Warren’s numbers (in late December, her fundraising totals for the fourth quarter of 2019 saw a slight dip as well). Now, with a chance at being both our nation’s first female president and the candidate to carry Donald Trump out of office, her task is to keep rising to this election’s ever-changing occasion. Five hundred miles south of Concord, an inquiry for the possible impeachment of the president is having its first session. Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee could end up running against a commander in chief fresh off a trial by the Senate for abuse of power and obstruction; no presidential race in American history has been like this before.
The tension of the moment is little in evidence as Warren advances past teal dream big, fight hard signs, shaking hands and pinkie-swearing—-her signature greeting for young girls—as the ranks around her tighten to a crush. She is wearing her standard daytime outfit: a black tank top, black pipette slacks, black sneakers with white rubber soles, and a long colored cardigan, in this case forest green. Nora Kate Keefe, her body woman, is crouched on the floor, moving backward while ensuring that the candidate has a maneuvering radius of at least two or three feet. Photographers are packed close, tracking the candidate in a rattle of shutters.
“L! I! Z! She’s got a plan for me!” the crowd starts to chant.
“I’m going to cry!” a woman in a mobility cart exclaims, fanning herself with one hand.
Warren, for her part, seems calm. “I just need a little bit!” she says as she squeezes her beanstalk frame between the office door and burly ranks of press photographers. She takes her place behind an antique writing desk, and then, before the cheering hallway and an audience packed so tightly that a light switch flips on and off from the pressure, she signs the filing book. “There we go,” she declares, lifting her pen. “I’m in!”
SINCE WARREN stepped into the public eye as chair of a congressional oversight panel monitoring the government bailout in 2008, her profile has grown with a vigor unusual for somebody who spent most of her career outside government life—a sign, to some, that she tapped into a change within the Democratic Party. “I’m not sure voters know that they’re in the midst of a fight in the party, but that’s what’s going on,” Perry Bacon Jr., a senior writer at the electoral--analysis site FiveThirtyEight, says. “The Clintons and the Obamas descended from a similar kind of politics. There’s clearly some resistance to that now.” Warren, along with Sanders, is seen to represent a new, change-oriented force that’s based on opposition to big money and, in her case, scrupulously laid-out programs for reform. “It’s helped that she is leftward while being wonky and smart in the way Democrats like,” Bacon explains. “In some ways, if you talk to voters, the fact that she had a plan was more interesting than what the plan’s details were.”
For decades, Warren was a law professor specializing in the causes of American bankruptcy. Then the economy crashed, and her research made her a valuable adviser on recovery. She devised the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and through it became a recognizable figure: efficient, allied with the victims of the crash, and more willing than anybody else to go for the jugulars of bank and corporate leaders. In 2012, she ran against the Republican incumbent for a Senate seat from Massachusetts and, to the surprise of those who described it as a long-shot campaign, won.
Her signal moment arrived in 2017, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to her reading a critical letter from Coretta Scott King during a debate on the confirmation of Jeff Sessions for attorney general. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. It wasn’t the last time Warren’s critics would provide her with an inadvertent endorsement.
“Persist” has also become the moral of Warren’s presidential ascent. In February, when she entered the race, following a widely criticized DNA test taken with the goal of proving Native American ancestry, she was polling at a dismal 9 percent. Her steep climb to front-runner status has been doubly striking because, like Sanders, she disavowed donations from corporate and super PACs and big-ticket fundraisers for wealthy donors. (Critics have noted that Warren did draw on $10 million left over from her Senate campaign, which used more traditional funding.) On the trail, she has been known as a first-rate explainer, laying out elaborate policy ideas in understandable terms. “One of the ways I think corruption has flourished is through complexity,” says California representative Katie Porter, one of three star freshmen women in the House whom Warren chose to cochair her campaign. Warren, Porter says, helps voters understand what’s really going on. “The way she’s run her campaign is consistent with her life’s work as a teacher.”
As of this writing, Warren has introduced 52 “plans” for change. Her platform centers on the idea that the middle class can no longer survive comfortably because the flow of money has been rigged toward the already rich. “Health care, housing, the cost of educating your kids, child care, flat wages—this is what’s put the squeeze on middle-class families for decades,” she tells me, “and all of it goes back to a central problem: The government is working for the giant corporations, the lobbyists, the billionaires, and not for everyone else.” She has made a practice of calling small-dollar donors personally and has hung her image largely on her listening skills. “She engages people as people, not transactionally as voters,” Porter says.
The approach, so far, has had a broad appeal. John Legend supports Warren. So does Michael Dukakis. Saturday Night Live has given her, as played by Kate McKinnon, more of a tacit endorsement than it has any early-cycle candidate in recent memory. (“You know why lobbyists are so against universal health care? They’re afraid you’re going to like it!”) When Julián Castro dropped out of the race, he promptly endorsed her for president. A December CBS News/YouGov poll found that Warren was the second choice—by a big margin—for a majority of Sanders supporters and for the plurality of Buttigieg supporters. The lead second choice for Joe Biden supporters? Warren again. These polls suggest that, at a moment of polarization within the Democratic Party, Warren has the potential to emerge as a unity candidate, the one whom all quarters could get behind.
And yet, for now, her path to the nomination is far from guaranteed. There are her slipping numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. There are the occasional misfires in political judgment: Consider the DNA test, or her chastened-seeming rollout of a health-care budget, which might have been a triumph. She has been called “professorial” (a term also leveled at President Obama in his least popular moments), and there are doubts about whether her peppy, plan--oriented style would stand appealingly against a lockjawed bully in a big red tie.
HALF AN HOUR AFTER signing herself into the race, Warren is moving through another statehouse passageway, flanked by her son, Alex Warren, Keefe, and a small posse of campaign staff. At 70, she is lanky and quick; it is usually her millennial staffers who try to keep up with her. Now, waiting by an exit for her cue to lead a rally on the statehouse lawn, she rocks on her heels. She is wearing a black down overcoat with a pink scarf bearing the Planned Parenthood insignia. Fingering the scarf, she turns toward Alex, a big, smiling computer specialist in his 40s who often travels with her on the trail. “Does it still show?” she asks.
“Yep,” he says. “The P’s are there.”
Warren later tells me that the scarf has become a kind of talisman. “I wore it to Donald Trump’s inauguration,” she says. “I wore it the next day, when I spoke at the Women’s March. I wore it today, when I officially became a candidate for president.” She grins. “I’m going to wear it when I win the primary. And I’m going to wear it when I get elected. And then I’m going to wear it to my inauguration, in January 2021.”
Fashion on the trail is a vexed matter for female candidates, and with good reason: Men in the running have suits to fall back on, a form of dress so standard as to become nearly invisible, while women are compelled to invent their own looks, for which they, in turn, receive extra scrutiny. Warren’s political wardrobe has become an object of quiet fascination for campaign staffers and volunteers, who imagine her closets in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be filled with Benetton-like expanses of identical sweaters and Nina McLemore blazers. To set the record straight: These rumors are true. Warren’s closets, kept in spectral order, look like Mr. Rogers’s stretched across a color wheel. She gets her sweaters at places like Target or H&M, snapping up every color on the rack, and she often buys her sneakers on Zappos, ordering many identical pairs because she likes the white soles to be clean and bright.
“I want to look nice, and I want to spend no time getting dressed,” Warren explains. “When I first ran for public office, I decided I needed a little color, but I wasn’t willing to invest the time in figuring out scarves and skirts and all of that, so I stuck to the black shoes, pants, and top and figured I could put a colored blazer with that.” Keefe and her communications director, Kristen Orthman, select a hue for her every morning, trying to suit her scheduled events. (“Usually one of her first questions is ‘What color do we think today?’ ” Keefe says.) It was a source of some frustration that the debates have had blue backgrounds, keeping her to one stripe of the rainbow—pink, purple, red—but the look has become so distinct that it has proved contagious, and several women in her wake have started wearing Warren-type trousers and shoes.
Waiting to go onstage, she turns to her son. “Okay. Help me with a line,” she says. “New Hampshire voters are—” She looks out at the weather. “A hearty bunch.”
“Stalwart,” Alex says.
“New Hampshire voters have—a lot of long underwear. Come on!”
“New Hampshire voters know how to resist. Or is that too on the money?”
“Uh-huh. It’s cold out here, but fortunately New Hampshire voters are—persistent?” She considers. “Know how to persist. Yeah, that’s it.”
They return to silence. Eventually Alex glances out the window again. “A fine day to run for president,” he murmurs.
On the lawn, a cheer rises. Warren heads outside and takes a direct line to the stage, running toward it, white soles flashing, and, with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” swelling, springs to the podium. “Hello, New Hampshire!” she cries to an explosion of cheers. “Now, some people may say it’s a cold day. Some people may think it’s a windy day. But I think it is a fine day to run for president of the United States of America!”
WARREN’S stump speech is normally divided into three parts—one on “corruption,” one on “structural change,” and one on what she calls the future of “our democracy”—but really it’s a gloss on her platform braided with the story of her early life. Born in Oklahoma, she grew up as the youngest in a family of six with three older brothers, all of whom joined the military and two of whom are now Republicans. When she was 12, her father, a Montgomery Ward salesman, had a major heart attack, and her mother, struggling with the mortgage, got a minimum-wage job at Sears to keep the family afloat. Warren won a debate scholarship to college, dropped out at 19 to marry her high school classmate Jim, a computer engineer, then moved to Houston with him and re-enrolled at a local college, for $50 a semester. She worked as a special-ed teacher at a public school, a job she’s said she was relieved of when she became pregnant. She enrolled in law school, graduating pregnant with Alex, practiced law, she says, “for 45 minutes,” and then entered academia. Her teenage marriage ended, but the law career went on.
Warren’s stump speeches normally end with a lengthy Q&A, and then a line for selfies—“the true measure of democracy!” she always says, and a shrewd way of getting her friendly image to proliferate on social media. The selfie lines can run hundreds of people long, but the senator, who professes still to remember all the students in her first special-ed class, has a brain for names and faces, even those that circle her periphery. (“You must be Nathan!” she exclaims to me across a crowded elevator—and this before we have been introduced.)
Later that day, Warren repeats versions of the stump speech before an audience of parents and toddlers at a local day care, and then at a meeting of the SEA/SEIU, a union audience, in the conference hall of the Holiday Inn. More questions, more selfies. It is dark when she finishes, but, as Warren heads backstage to write thank-you notes and sign books, she still seems keyed up. (“Oftentimes, I’ll be decompressing at the end of the night, and I’ll see her taking laps around the hotel, on the phone with her husband, recapping the day and getting that last bit of energy out before she can sleep,” Keefe says.) She pops up from the signing table, pulls on her padded coat, and heads toward her car. “I am cold!” she exclaims to no one in particular, as if truly feeling the day’s chill for the first time. “I’m gonna go toast up my buns.”
POLITICAL CANDIDATES famously talk about where they came from more than where they are. Warren is not an exception, but her tendency to fast-forward through her years of getting ahead (“I traded little ones for big ones,” she says folksily about her passage from special-ed teacher to vaunted Ivy League law professor) breezes past more than just professional growth. By Warren’s own account, her academic research drove her to enter politics. By other accounts, it also guided a turn in her political views.
Until the mid-’90s, Warren was registered as a Republican (although she voted for Democrats along the way), and some of her early academic writing seems to follow free-market views—the idea that, to put it crudely, businesses trying to make money will take care of their excesses if you let them be. Today, Warren argues for pretty much the opposite. You have to regulate or add extreme-case protections to big business, she suggests, to prevent the most dangerous behavior (like the kind that led to the 2008 mortgage crisis) and to guard against a tendency to spurt money out the top of the system, toward the ultra-wealthy, like a smoothie in a blender with no lid.
Her change of views seems to have come about for simple reasons: In the ’80s, she and colleagues went out into the field as researchers and started hearing from families in bankruptcy court. Warren had thought that she would find people who were bad with money or who were trying to shirk responsibilities. But she found that 90 percent of bankruptcies were due to a cataclysmic expense—an unexpected medical bill, a job loss, a divorce—and most of the people had been living responsible-seeming lives.
The revelation that middle-class families can—and increasingly do—-fail while doing everything right seems to have moved mountains for Warren. She notes that after her father’s heart attack, her mother could support the family with a minimum-wage job. Today, she says, a family can’t live off a full-time minimum-wage income, but ultra-rich people are becoming ultra-richer for reasons that have little to do with the work that they put in. On the trail, Warren likes to say that she is not trying to keep Americans from getting rich. Her proposed 2 percent wealth tax kicks in at $50 million, or around the point, one might say, where wealth reaches the more-than-you-can-spend zone. “I get it” is one of her signature phrases, her way of acknowledging the view from the other side of the fence. Yet she has so far downplayed her Republican past, and I ask her whether she’d expect to talk about it more in the general election.
“Most of the time I end my town halls talking about my daddy, who wound up as a janitor. That breaks away a lot of the stereotypes, or pigeonholes, that people want to put me in,” she says. Her theory is that the partisan divisions of this moment are a reflex, a rush to battlements, that covers a more basic division between people who know they’re getting cheated and people who are coming out far on top. Tap into that split, help articulate it, she thinks, and the partisan line-drawing will fade. “The old alignments—dividing people by left and right, Democrat and Republican—are going to start to break down,” she says.
This startling claim is the clearest window I’ve had into Warren’s strategy for the general election. And yet much is uncertain. Her health-care plan offers a quick transition to Medicare for people under 18 and over 50, plus an income-keyed buy-in for everyone else, supposedly leading to universal coverage later on. “I showed how we can provide Medicare for all without raising taxes on middle-class families one penny,” she says. “After a couple of years, tens of millions of people will have experienced health care without an insurance company in the middle telling people what doctors they can’t see or what prescriptions they can’t fill. We’ll have a lot of allies in the fight to get Medicare for everyone.” Yet the plan has, in fact, irked both strident single-payer advocates on the left and Obamacare champions, including, some fear, unions, which often guard their coverage fiercely. (I ask Warren whether she worries her plan will lose her allies on both sides. “No,” she says.)
Her tax-and-regulatory platform, meanwhile, has made many wealthy progressives visibly nervous. This came to a head in November, when Bill Gates, a reliable Democratic donor and a philanthropic force, made a crack about being sent back to his balance books by a wealth tax. “If I had to have paid $20 billion, it’s fine. But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over,” he joked.
Warren’s campaign has taken such protestations as free advertising: Her big idea is that politics is beholden to big money, so the prospect of what she calls “the donor class” fearing that she won’t serve their interests is on-brand. “I’m not running a campaign put together by a bunch of consultants,” Warren says—a turn of phrase she likes and a gentle dig, perhaps, at Hillary Clinton’s reputedly over-strategized effort. “What I’m talking about as a presidential candidate is what I’ve worked on for pretty much my whole grown-up life.”
So much of Warren’s campaign is predicated on the idea of transparency toward big-money interests that I ask what she makes of the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg, the second billionaire to enter the Democratic race, and a man who is self-funding an aggressive TV advertising campaign. “Bloomberg isn’t just courting rich voters. He’s arguing for a different definition of democracy—he believes he doesn’t need people,” Warren says. “People who come to hear what a candidate has to say, think about it, and then talk about it face-to-face with their neighbors. People who get inspired and volunteer their time. Bloomberg thinks he can skip all that and invest tens of millions of dollars in television ads and drown out the voices.” She pauses, visibly annoyed, and then meets my eyes: “2020 will be about which kind of campaign is stronger.”
A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER, Warren is in Iowa, as she has been about 20 times over the past few months. Because she recently lost her lead, the heat is on. Today’s trip is in and around Cedar Rapids, and it begins with a town hall at Wartburg College, in Waverly. Temperatures have been volatile, leaving the earth wet but unfrozen, muddy in the way that tractors can sink down into, and the corn harvest is running late. Agriculture drives the local economy, and this year it could carry the state blue: Because a lot of Iowa corn is sold to China, the administration’s trade war has cut into farmers’ profits, and they know it.
Today is a pink-sweater day, and Warren’s second husband, Bruce H. Mann—“H-2, I call him,” she says—is wandering around in a maroon fleece looking proud. When they first met, at an academic retreat, Warren was teaching in Houston, and Mann was a legal historian at the University of Connecticut. Eventually, with some trepidation, he let her sit in on one of his classes. “I said, ‘What did you think?’ ” he recalls. “She said, ‘What can I say? Will you marry me?’ ” The offer was, apparently, serious. “Fortunately I had the presence of mind to say yes,” Mann says.
Warren and Mann both ended up at Harvard. Then she turned to politics, and the rhythm of their partnership changed. “Our time—hers in particular—was no longer our own,” Mann says. “As academics, we had very flexible schedules.” Political life brought the end of that and what he calls “a general sacrifice of privacy.” In their unscheduled time these days, of which there is hardly any, Warren and Mann go on walks with their dog, Bailey—an affable golden retriever who has emerged as the silent star of Warren’s Instagram feed—or chill out with a TV show. Warren’s taste has been found to run in surprising directions (“Elizabeth is well known as a fan of Ballers,” Mann observes), but lately they have been working through Unbelievable and The Crown.
The two of them watch Casablanca together, by tradition, every New Year’s Eve.
At work and on the trail, Warren goes for an early-morning walk each day. When she has a few free moments here and there—in cars, between events—she phones home or listens to audiobooks. Astonishingly for someone at the center of a campaign whirlwind, she does not drink coffee, and Keefe says that she seems to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night. “Sure, I do things to take care of myself,” Warren says. “I eat every two or three hours, I get plenty of sleep, and I exercise every day. But what really sparks my energy is that I feel the urgency of this moment.” According to Keefe, Warren seems to gain rather than lose energy over the course of her big-crowd events.
After the Wartburg town hall, Warren rides to Taft Middle School, in Cedar Rapids, where an evening rally will be held. When it is time to go onstage, Keefe leads Warren and Mann down a causeway to the gym. Warren grabs Mann’s hand, and at the entrance, they kiss. Then Mann slips inside while Warren awaits her cue.
It is at this point that she starts keying herself up. She rocks back and forth on her toes. She hops from one foot to the other. She does cancan kicks. “Did we have music at the last event?” she asks Keefe, still moving. “I don’t think we did.”
“We did, yeah,” Keefe says.
“Oh, that’s right, because I was dancing onstage,” she says. “Although I could have been dancing without music,” she adds. “I provide my own music!” Her hands are in the air now, as if holding on to invisible ski poles, and she’s knocking her hips back and forth, rocking out to the beat of an unheard song, as her staffers look on in sober silence. “Yeah!” she whisper-yells. It is hard at such moments to fathom Warren being called professorial.
The energy of these exertions carries onto the stage. On TV she can be persuasive, but in the room she exudes a different sort of appeal, and it seems to touch even chary, politically jaded Iowans. “Pete was my number one,” says Tara Pickering, a mother on her way out from a Warren town hall. “But coming today and hearing not just ideas but plans won me over—hearing the plans laid out, seeing how she answered questions, and, quite frankly, watching how the crowd reacted.” “I was leaning toward Kamala”—then still in the race—“until I heard her speak,” another Iowan, Nora Crosthwaite, says. Even the unmoved feel a pull. “In person, she seems like a very smart and capable person—on TV and in sound bites it’s not something that you can see as easily,” says a young man named Steve Cully, who adds that he still plans to vote for Sanders because of his stronger stance on single-payer health care. It surely helps that Warren has a natural instinct for creating moments: the sorts of telling interactions that voters and journalists alike crave. At an event in Marion, Iowa, in early December, she gave a teary 17-year-old questioner—“I was wondering if there was ever a time in your life where somebody you really looked up to maybe didn’t accept you?”—a moving account of broaching the failure of her first marriage to her mother. Under the eye of Rebecca Traister, writing a New York magazine profile before her run began, she took up a pair of scissors and started cutting off the bottom of her sweater with folksy flair. Warren’s campaign can end up in a tangle when it releases information through conventional channels, but it thrives in situations that arise from Warren acting spontaneously in the room.
Talking spontaneously, about unprepared topics, seems different. The experience of interviewing Warren these days is distinct from seeing her either on the stage, where she is secure in her message, or with staff in the greenroom, where she gives herself over to the wacky wound-up whimsy that Saturday Night Live has shorthanded as “Mom-hosting-Thanksgiving energy.” In our interview she speaks very slowly, with a lot of thoughtful pauses; more than once, I have the impression that she is talking to me as if working at a typewriter, envisioning the sentence on this page while weaving it aloud. Her circumspection can seem extreme. At one point, I ask her what she’s been reading. “I read lots of fiction,” she says but won’t elaborate. I ask whether her prospective status as the first female president will figure more prominently in the general election. “I don’t know,” she says meditatively, and begins talking about the climate and student-loan debt.
You learn something from a candidate who leaps out of the way of hard-pitched questions; you learn something slightly different from someone who steps back from the softer pitches, too. Warren’s almost stubborn refusal to venture a lateral step on the fly grew plain in the October debate, when Buttigieg pressed her for information about the financial details of her health-care platform. In the moment, Warren held to her lines, and she suffered for it. Then, two weeks later, she came out with full details of her plan.
THIS SLOW, careful accrual of solid material has become the backbone of her presidential bid. Buttigieg’s highly strategic campaign can seem to adjust the candidate’s affect at each inflection point—conciliator here, attack dog there—as if fiddling with the contrast knob on a TV. Sanders’s campaign seems to operate from an ideological understanding of big social forces; Biden’s continuity campaign bears forward tried-and-true ideas. Among the front-runners, Warren is the only woman, the only field researcher, and the only candidate who had not launched a political career by 30. Each of these facts leaves a trace.
I ask Warren when she realized that she wanted a different kind of life from the one she’d had in childhood—one doesn’t, after all, go from a struggling family in Oklahoma to a high perch at Harvard and a New England senatorship by accident. “As a young woman I wanted what I’d been taught to want, and I tried really hard to succeed at that,” she says. “I just wasn’t cut out to stay home and build my life around my husband. I understood that many women did, and for a long time I felt like a failure.” Instead, she says, she kept trying to supplement her life. “With each one of those steps, I built a more independent life—not purposefully to take me away from the vision of marriage I’d grown up with, but because I needed to do more.” Her project can seem like a giant ball of yarn, gathering strands over decades as it rolls through the world.
At the center of the ball is Warren the woman—“a fighter,” she likes to say, but evidently not the kind who darts and feints. I ask her outright how she thinks her careful, slow-growing, super-planner nature squares with the flashes of wild spontaneity that sometimes break through: the part of her that seems to love improvising among selfie-seekers; the part that, as a working mother, proposed marriage to a man who lived eight states away.
“What an interesting question!” she says, and sits in uncharacteristic stillness. “To plan,” she begins slowly, “helps me make sure that I’m headed in the right direction, and that I know what the eventual goal is. But at every moment along the way, I’m open to any new piece of information, or new idea, that could either improve on the plan or take me”—she smiles—“to an even better place.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue