The Warren Rapport: New York liberals thrill to the sound of Elizabeth Warren's 'transformational' rhetoric
8:35 am Nov. 2, 20111
To a certain kind of established New York liberal, Elizabeth Warren is already much more than simply a candidate for Senate in Massachusetts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am not here to urge you to support a loyal Democratic soldier," New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told a crowd of more than a hundred Democratic donors who had gathered at the home of Dennis and Karen Mehiel on the Upper East Side on October 19. "I am here to urge you to support a leader in the effort to get the truth out, expose the cruel flaws in the economic and social policies of the right, and to transform the language of American politics.”
“This is not about retaking a Senate seat,” Schneiderman went on, according to a prepared version of his remarks obtained by Capital. “This is about retaking America.”
Warren, a Harvard professor and consumer advocate who declared her candidacy on September 14, has already begun to inspire grand dreams in other progressive officials, as well as donors and activists, who see her forceful articulation of progressive principles as an ideal model for Democrats everywhere.
“She can have an impact even before she's elected,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler in a phone interview last week. “Candidates have one thing in common: they want to win elections. And if she, by comments like she made, shows that you can say things and get a public response, more people will do it.”
So far, the response has been overwhelming. A video of her impassioned case for a tax on high earners, shot at a house party on September 18, and rooted in a practical explanation of the social contract, has been viewed nearly a million times online, and has helped fill her campaign coffers with record-breaking speed.
In six weeks, Warren raised more than $3 million dollars, from nearly 60,000 donors. No less a politician than Senator Charles Schumer, the reigning king of campaign fund-raising in the Senate, told me that kind of rapid return was “almost unheard of.”
“When I heard she was going to run, I wanted to do whatever I could for her,” said Sarah Kovner, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser and Clinton loyalist, who helped organize the event with Schneiderman.
“All of the candidates have been coming here endlessly,” she said. “There's not a day or night or breakfast where some Democratic candidate is not here for money. They're all doing OK. Some are doing better than others. But she's ignited a spark that I haven't necessarily seen in some of the other people.”
Warren is profiting, literally and figuratively, from the feeling among many liberals that the party lacks any strong fighters on its left flank. The most strident progressive voices, like Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, have come and gone from public office, while Schneiderman, who has drawn plaudits for his refusal to accept a sympathetic mortgage settlement, has mostly allowed his legal work to speak for itself.
That leaves the party’s message in the hands of a president in search of elusive grand bargains; aggressively anti-partisan governors like Andrew Cuomo; and Schumer, a masterful political tactician specializing in packaging progressive policy as plain, middle-class-oriented pragmatism through relentless repetition of effective talking points.
In Warren, a longtime consumer advocate whose Senate candidacy only came about after Republicans blocked her appointment as head of the new Consumer Protection Bureau, liberals have a known quantity willing to make a forceful case, in plain English, for progressive taxation and government spending.
“Elizabeth Warren resonates with the public with two critical factors: authenticity and compassion,” said Spitzer, when asked to explain her appeal. “The key to her conveying her message is that she believes it so deeply. She speaks with a voice that is both understandable, and powerful in its depth of persuasiveness. And she does not try to parse her words in a way that suggests at every turn compromise and uncertainty. She’s the real deal and the public knows it.“
Some of her erstwhile opponents apparently feel the same way. Warren has already chased most of her serious competition out of the Democratic primary. Last week, she was endorsed by one former rival, Newton mayor Setti Warren (no relation). A few days later, City Year founder Alan Khazei, who ran for the seat in 2010 and had already raised $1.3 million for next year’s race—he was a favorite of Mayor Michael Bloomberg—officially dropped out too (to Warren's apparent surprise).
Recent polls show Warren running just about even with Senator Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent who thwarted Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority when he won Ted Kennedy’s seat in January of 2010. Facing a somewhat aloof opponent in that race, Brown won a surprise victory with a folksy everyman charm, epitomized by the mileage he put on his pick-up truck.
Warren's supporters point out that she's got a biographical rebuttal to the pick-up truck, in that she's able to talk about her time growing up in a middle-class family in Oklahoma.
“Where she comes from is a very down-home place in her whole thinking,” said Kovner. “It's not that she's got a different issue, it's that she's got a different voice … She says it differently; she says it in a way that really connects with people.”
“It's definitely what she's saying, but it's also how she says it,” said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who was a co-host for the fund-raiser at the Mehiel home. “You get the impression that she really wants to engage people.”
After meeting her for the first time, Brewer described Warren as “kind of perfect,” and “like magic.”
That Warren is a woman makes her that much more appealing to some supporters.
“She's what women are looking for,” said Brewer, who paid her the high compliment of comparing her to Secretary of State (and, of course, former senator) Hillary Clinton. “My women friends were so excited to meet her they couldn't stop talking about it.”
But Warren is also benefiting from some of her pre-existing relationships in New York.
“I talked to her last night,” Schumer told me on Monday morning. “I talk to her all the time.”
Schumer, who steered the party to sweeping Senate victories in 2006 and 2008 as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is now officially charged with crafting the public message of the Democratic Senate conference, was twice spotted dining with Warren in the weeks leading up to her announcement. Schumer has frequently cited her research, from a few years ago, that middle class incomes are declining, and he said her rhetoric is not so far from the message he’s crafted for Senate Democrats.
“You know, Elizabeth Warren and I have been talking about the same thing: middle class, middle class, middle class,” said Schumer. He added, “I think Democrats as a whole, when we focus on the middle class, focus on jobs, focus on the economy, things are going to get a lot better for us. I think 2012 is going to be a better year for us than 2011. And Elizabeth Warren exemplifies that.”
Nadler and Kovner both met Warren in the 1990s, during a decade-long battle against an industry-backed bill to stiffen bankruptcy laws. According to Nadler, it was Warren who debunked the banking industry’s claim that filings had increased because Chapter 11 had lost its social stigma; in fact, Warren provided evidence that consumers were plunging themselves deeper into debt, as a ratio of their earnings, before they declared bankruptcy.
“The fact is, she has been the—what's the word I’m looking for—the fire, the champion for consumers and for the little people, the middle class and low income people who are getting shafted by the banks,” Nadler said. “And now is the moment for that.”
Warren did not visit Zuccotti Park on her trip to New York, but she has become something of an intellectual godmother to the Occupy Wall Street movement, claiming, for better or worse, that she helped lay the intellectual foundation for the protests. Republicans have tried to brand her with the excesses of the movement, going so far as to label her the “Matriarch of Mayhem” in a web video.
Democrats, enticed by the energy of the movement, have mostly shrugged off that criticism.
Nadler said Warren is “in the perfect position to represent everybody else,” because of her long history with consumer protection, which was made all the more conspicuous when Republicans blocked her nomination as head of the new Consumer Protection Bureau established by the Dodd-Frank Bill.
“It's visible that they don't want her,” Nadler said. “And for the obvious reasons: that she was going to fight the banks. She was going to fight for the little guy.”
The hope among liberals is that she could bring that kind of a voice to the upper chamber, which has lost some of its strongest progressive voices, like the late Paul Wellstone, and the recently-defeated Russ Feingold.
“People look to her as somebody who could get to Washington and be a spokesperson,” Kovner said.
It’s an idea that’s already been championed by the New York Times editorial board—“[Senate Democratic leaders] would be better off listening to Elizabeth Warren,” the paper wrote—and Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, who wrote that it was “obvious” Democrats would be in a better place if they took a page from Warren’s populist playbook.
So, will those Senate Democrats take a lesson from Warren?
“I think that Elizabeth Warren is very capable of taking the anxieties of the middle class and putting it in a frame,” Schumer responded, when asked if we could expect to hear more Warren-like rhetoric. “And I think that's a good, good model for Democrats.”
Warren met Schneiderman for the first time on Valentine’s Day. The incoming attorney general had been busy with setting up his new office and didn’t know much about her politics. They bonded over a shared conception of the financial crisis.
As Schneiderman remembered it in his remarks, she turned to him and said, “We can’t let these guys rewrite history.”