The overflow crowds and effusive responses to Elizabeth Warren’s public speeches in Iowa over the weekend said a few things about the mood of the state’s Democrats: They’re neither hung up on fresh young faces, as some pundits would suggest, nor shying away from female candidates or those branded as too far left. They’re just hungry for someone with a bold message who is willing to speak unapologetic truth to power.
The Massachusetts senator has much going for her that excites Democrats. She has a message and she’s not afraid to call out the problem, which she describes as the corruption of democracy by a system of legalized corporate bribery of politicians. That was enabled by Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling attributing personhood rights to corporations. Warren has a history of sponsoring bold legislation for financial fairness. And she has an inspiring personal narrative of how American could, and did, work for her family when she was growing up, in ways it no longer does for the average person.
She speaks of her father’s heart attack when she was a middle-school student in Oklahoma. Her 50-year-old, stay-at-home mother got a minimum-wage job at a department store to save the house from foreclosure. Her dad ended up working as a janitor.
Her point: Full-time minimum wage jobs used to support a family of three. Today, the minimum wage is instead set to “maximize the profits of the rich.”
“Whatever issue brought you here tonight, I guarantee it intersects with corruption in Washington,” she said.
That “corruption” is Washington working for the rich and democracy being bought by corporations that fund politicians’ campaigns. Her goal is to “close the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street.” She said she rejects money from corporate PACs, or any lobbyists, and calls on other candidates to do the same.
As part of this legalized bribery, oil companies block anti-climate change legislation, drug companies oppose lower drug prices, corporations in general oppose a higher minimum wage and the National Rifle Association blocks gun safety laws.
Wages are not set to cover the cost of education or child care, Warren said. But she didn’t give a full-throated denunciation of capitalism and its inherent sorting of people into different classes based on who owns the wealth-making machinery and who works to produce it. She didn’t mention the working class (staying focused on the middle class) until an audience member in Des Moines asked about that group. She didn’t call for Medicare for all or tuition-free college, though she called health care a human right and debt-free college a must.
Instead, she said that until the 1980s, when a company did well, everybody got a piece of the pie but since then, it’s all about returning more wealth to shareholders. And she spoke of how African-Americans pay a disproportionate price in low home ownership rates.
Of potential presidential candidates, Warren would be considered on the left side along with U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown. But she clearly intended her message to be one of economic populism rather than socialism. Having already established her leftist credentials, she may be looking to forge an appeal to some disaffected Trump voters. “Democrats, Republicans and independents get corruption,” she told the crowd. “They know government’s broken; it’s not working for our families.”
By focusing her critique on the system rather than any individual, she barely had to mention Trump. Instead, her calls were for building a movement to hold capitalism accountable by, among other things, passing legislation requiring corporations to let employees elect 40 percent of the corporate board; and rewriting tax laws to free up public money to invest in education and infrastructure. Ultimately, she says Citizens United must be overturned. She has proposed legislation to close the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.
Warren was smart to visit red and blue parts of the state and, breaking from the last Democratic presidential nominee, not start out limiting herself to small, strategically selected audiences. Interestingly, the only criticism I heard of her for supposedly backing away from her progressive credentials came from the Republican PAC, America Rising. They must see something in her to fear.
It’s just the start of a long vetting process that could bring several dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls to town. So here are some early lessons from her visit that candidates ought to take to heart. The assumption from polls and political handlers may be that there’s some template to follow to win, whether it’s to be young and into identity politics or seasoned and self-confident. But how would that explain all the Sanders supporters who turned to Trump in the last election, going from a socialist who critiqued the “billionaire class” to a rich, ego-driven capitalist hustler who demeaned the most marginalized groups? And how to square that with midterm election results, which ushered in a wave of insurgents, women and people speaking up for the underrepresented?
If we’ve learned anything from Trump’s election, it’s that conventional wisdom isn’t worth much. Candidates have to be strategic but true to themselves, willing to name the problem and offer up bold solutions, to not be bought and not be bullied into submission.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.