December 1, 2023

Heaven Is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren

Warren has been something of a left-wing idol for a couple of years now. While heading Congressional oversight of TARP, she more than anyone asked tough questions about what, exactly, was done with all that bank bailout money. And on her subsequent mission to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — which was designed to enforce long-ignored rules meant to protect consumers entering into everything from credit-card agreements to mortgages — Warren became a regular guest of Bill Maher’s and Jon Stewart’s, and both went weak for the straight-talking professor. Stewart told her he wanted to make out.

But this fall, at exactly the time our economic forecasts started souring again and Barack Obama appeared to be at his most ineffectual, Warren’s entrance into the race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat turned her from a cult-hero crusader into something far bigger. A clip of Warren at a fund-raiser in Andover, Mass., talking about how “there’s nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” reminded liberals that there was someone out there who could still articulate a muscular progovernment worldview. “If more Democrats were able to make the case for the underlying social contract as effectively, our discourse would be vastly less mind-numbing,” wrote Steve Benen in a Washington Monthly article that summed up what many liberals across the country were feeling.

Over its first weeks, Warren’s campaign raised an impressive $3.15 million, about 70 percent of which came from out of state and 96 percent from donors giving $100 or less. That last metric is crucial, because a consumer advocate who recently said, “The people on Wall Street broke this country,” is not likely to enjoy big-ticket backing from the financial sector. By late October, three of her biggest primary challengers had dropped out.

Even though she’s running for the Senate and not for the presidency, the early devotion to Warren recalls the ardor once felt by many for Obama. On its face, this is odd: Warren is not a world-class orator, she is not young or shiny or new, she doesn’t fizz with the promise of American possibility that made the Obama campaign pop. Instead, she’s a mild-mannered Harvard bankruptcy-law professor and a grandmother of three, a member of the older-white-lady demographic (she’s 62) that was written off in 2008 as being the antimatter of hope and change.

And yet, on a deeper level, her popularity makes perfect sense. Embracing Warren as the next “one” is, in part, a way of getting over Obama; she provides an optimistic distraction from the fact that under our current president, too little has changed, for reasons having to do both with the limitations of the political system and the limitations of the man. She makes people forget that estimations of him were too overheated, trust in his powers too fervid. As the feminist philanthropist Barbara Lee told me of Warren, “This moment of disillusion is why people find her so compelling, because she brings forth the best in people and she brings back that excitement.”

At the annual Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus dinner at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Warren, who was not part of the night’s program, cruised from table to table before the event, introducing herself to guests and blithely ignoring an M.C.’s request for people to settle down. Slipping out the door as the program began, Warren was swarmed by a trio of college students. There was actual shrieking. When I observed to Warren that she has fangirls, she replied, “I know,” with a self-assuredness that female candidates have often found difficult to convey.

“It makes me feel very responsible,” she said as she watched the young women disappear into the night. “Very excited, but very responsible.”

Among other things, what Warren offers is a reasonable, expert face for the free-floating anger currently on display at Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere. She can get wonky about the economy when she wants to, but what sets her apart is her ability to tell a coherent, populist story about it in a way that other members of her party are either unwilling or unable to do.

Rebecca Traister is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the author of ‘“Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women.”

Editor: Greg Veis

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