Why Is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?
With her populist proposals and fierce criticism of President Donald Trump, Senator Elizabeth Warren has become the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 presidential race. So why are so many Massachusetts voters souring on her?
Boston Magazine | April 2017
IT'S A LATE afternoon in February, and Senator Elizabeth Warren is talking about Donald Trump and what she calls “the Twitter business.” Surely you’ve seen her tweets. For much of last year’s presidential race, she went blow for blow, tweet for tweet with the Republican nominee. After Trump complained that the polls were rigged against him, Warren fired back: “You’re not losing because it’s rigged. You’re losing because we see through your creepy bullying.” After Trump denigrated a former Miss Universe in a series of early-morning tweets, Warren replied, “Is this what keeps you up at night, @realDonaldTrump? Thinking of new & interesting ways to call women fat or ugly or sluts?”
At first, the idea of shaming a presidential candidate in 140-character bursts struck her as “pretty lame,” she tells me, sitting in her third-floor office in Washington. “But it was his tool of choice, and I believed he needed to be bloodied with his own tool.”
Now that Trump is president, Warren, more than any other Democrat, has taken up the mantle of antagonist in chief. Her schedule is so packed that I’m told she’ll be able to meet with me at some point during a two-day span and that I’ll get a 10-minute warning before having to drop everything and hustle over to her office. When we do finally talk, the news has just broken that Andrew Puzder, the fast-food executive who was Trump’s pick for labor secretary, has withdrawn his nomination. Senate Democrats, led by Warren, had barraged Puzder with criticism over his company’s questionable labor practices and old allegations (since withdrawn) made by Puzder’s ex-wife that he’d hit her. Puzder’s exit is the first big win for Democrats. Warren looks gleeful at the news, beaming from ear to ear.
Here’s the thing about interviewing Elizabeth Warren: It isn’t so much a conversation as a stump speech to an audience of one. (Two, if you count the spokeswoman who is sitting in on our conversation.) She swats and jabs at the air, talking about “what we fight for every single day” and “what defined America was the idea of opportunity.” I’m reminded of what a friend of hers told me: “The public persona is the private persona. There is no other person.” When I ask Warren about Trump’s first few months on the job, she leans back in her chair, awed by the chaos so far. “They can’t run the White House right now, and they can’t run the country. However,” she says, “that does not mean they can’t do a lot of damage.”
Warren has had a busy few months of her own. She’s a fixture at protests against Trump—railing against the president’s travel ban at Logan airport and speaking out in favor of the Affordable Care Act at Faneuil Hall. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans refused to include her witnesses at confirmation hearings, so Warren held shadow hearings during which working men and women offered testimonies critical of Trump’s appointees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to silence her on the Senate floor during the debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination to be attorney general—and Warren’s refusal to be silenced—became a headline-grabbing controversy that her allies cheered as a bold act of resistance and her enemies dismissed as shameless grandstanding. Nearly 13 million people have watched the video of Warren reading Coretta Scott King’s letter outside the Senate chamber. McConnell’s admonishment of Warren became a full-blown meme—the Warren campaign is selling “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirts and women have been lining up to get “Nevertheless, She Persisted” tattoos.
All of this, every battle cry and tweet, has elevated Warren to de facto leader of the anti-Trump resistance. If you’re a true believer, a liberal who has felt cheated every day since November 8, she is the antidote to your despair. And for a hobbled Democratic Party in need of an answer to Trump and Trumpism, Warren is seen by many as a potential torchbearer, someone who can reach voters in Dayton, Ohio, and Macomb County, Michigan. Her life story seems ready-made for the Rust Belt campaign trail. She sounded the alarm about the vanishing middle class long before it was fashionable, championing the cause of those squeezed out by globalization back when Trump was still a registered Democrat. In the early betting for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Warren is the frontrunner.
But first there is the matter of her reelection. After four years in the liberal vanguard, Warren is possibly the most deeply polarizing figure in the state. Massachusetts is often depicted as a left-wing mecca, but we’re also the state that rocketed Mitt Romney to political prominence and now has a Republican governor with a 59 percent approval rating. Despite our liberal reputation, our dirty little secret is that once you leave the coast, the state’s political sensibility is closer to that of western Pennsylvania than Brookline. So as much as Massachusetts Democrats adore Warren’s brand of fiery populism, to a certain type of independent voter—let alone a conservative—her rhetoric can seem just as over the top, vitriolic, and off-putting as Trump’s.
That means she begins her bid for a second term being far from widely beloved. A January WBUR poll found that a mere 44 percent of Massachusetts voters thought Warren “deserved reelection” and 46 percent said they were open to giving someone else the seat. The poll also showed that Governor Charlie Baker’s 59 percent favorability rating was considerably higher than Warren’s 51 percent. A 2016 survey by the polling firm Morning Consult found that Warren had the second-highest disapproval rating of all U.S. senators in New England, after New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen.
The reasons why more voters don’t embrace Warren are varied. They range from her politics to her unwillingness to compromise to, in some cases, flat-out sexism. The people of Massachusetts expect their senators to be national leaders but also local champions who deliver for the state. While Warren’s high-profile moments may rally the progressive base and raise bundles of small-dollar donations, it’s no exaggeration to say she faces questions here at home. From now until election day, Warren must balance the demands of being a liberal leader in the Trump era and being a local politician. “If she’s too aggressive on national issues, they’ll say she doesn’t care about the people back home,” says Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant who has never worked for Warren. “When she comes back home, the people will say, ‘You’re a national voice—why don’t you deal with bigger issues?’”
Can Warren navigate her dual identities—and, in the process, appeal to enough independents to win reelection in 2018? “The most dangerous period for Elizabeth Warren,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, “is the next two years.”
ELIZABETH WARREN HAS never been afraid to get bloodied in battle. She grew up in the gritty plains of Oklahoma, where her lifelong crusade for the underdog began, as she likes to say, “on the ragged edges of the middle class”—just one car accident, medical emergency, or job loss away from financial peril. The economic insecurity that gnawed at her family would spur her life’s work. After earning degrees from the University of Houston and Rutgers Law School, Warren and her second husband, a fellow law professor named Bruce Mann, took jobs at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. Warren asked her dean if she could teach a course on bankruptcy, a field she had little experience in. It was the early 1980s, and a sweeping new national bankruptcy law had recently gone into effect. “Bankruptcy was a terrible admission of failure,” she wrote in her memoir, A Fighting Chance, “and I wanted to believe that everyone who filed had done something terrible or stupid or had lazed about and never tried to make anything of themselves.” What she found instead was that the wise old heads in bankruptcy law had no clue who filed and why.
For the next two decades, Warren and several colleagues embarked on what amounted to the first exhaustive investigation of why people declare bankruptcy. The conventional wisdom for why this happened—laziness, overspending, stupidity—was all wrong. Instead, as Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, wrote in their 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, having a child was the single best predictor of whether a woman would declare bankruptcy. More Americans filed for bankruptcy than for divorce. Even families with two earners were skating by paycheck to paycheck. Just one emergency—a layoff, a visit to the ER—could send them into bankruptcy court. “Over the past generation,” wrote mother and daughter Warren, “the signs of middle-class distress have continued to grow, in good times and in bad, in recession and in boom.”
This was not a popular idea at the time. On the surface, the late 1990s and early 2000s were fat, happy years. Unemployment was mostly low, GDP high, jobs aplenty. But in reality, many families had come to rely on second mortgages and credit cards to stay afloat. And it was Professor Warren who kept popping up in newspapers and on TV segments raising concerns. “The modern American family is walking on a high wire without a net,” she once told a Denver Post reporter, and “praying there won’t be a wind.”
Research in hand, Warren had no qualms confronting the powerful interests and lawmakers that arrayed against her. As a professor she fought legislation to overhaul the bankruptcy system that she viewed as a giveaway to the credit-card industry. One memorable battle came during a 2005 hearing on bankruptcy-reform legislation when Warren stood up to then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, one of the most senior members of Congress. She had recounted one of the many horrifying stories she’d accumulated during her research, of a woman who had borrowed $2,200, paid back all but $100 of it over the next two years, and after all the fees and interest, wound up owing more than she’d borrowed, forcing her to file for bankruptcy. The credit-card industry was plenty screwed up, she said, but at least that woman had a fair bankruptcy system to protect her—a safety net that, in Warren’s view, would vanish under the proposed bill that Biden supported. “Your problem with credit-card companies is usury rates,” Biden protested. “It is not about the bankruptcy bill.”
Warren wouldn’t cave. “But, Senator, if you are not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred of protection from these families.”
“I got it,” Biden said, relenting. “You are very good, professor.”
Her combination of expertise and plainspoken bluntness led to a gig on the Dr. Phil show, where she served as a personal financial guru of sorts to the show’s guests and its audience of millions. If her first “aha” moment was uncovering the real causes of consumer bankruptcy, her second was discovering the power of a big platform, even if all she did was serve up TV sound bites. “You’ve been doing this work for 20 years now, and it is unlikely that any of it has had as direct an impact as these 45 seconds,” she later told a reporter. “Is it all about writing more academic articles, or is it about making a difference for the families you study?”
For all her successes, she was still an outsider looking in on the policymaking machine in Washington, DC. But Warren’s years-long work on bankruptcy reform—an industry-friendly bill passed, over her objections, in 2005—caught the eye of then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In 2008, Reid asked her to chair a new watchdog group, the Congressional Oversight Panel, composed of outside experts and current and former lawmakers and created to track the government’s bailout of the nation’s largest banks in the wake of the financial crash. Warren and her four colleagues published reports each month that found, among other things, that the federal government—and, by extension, the American taxpayers—had overpaid by $78 billion when it rescued the too-big-to-fail banks.
It was around this time that Warren developed a public following as a merciless interrogator of government officials, Republican and Democratic alike. Video clips of her grilling Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, an Obama appointee, over such arcane subjects as credit-default swaps quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views.
With momentum building in her favor, Warren lobbied heavily for any Wall Street reform legislation to include a new agency tasked with protecting consumers. She’d popularized the idea in 2007 when she argued that mortgages and credit cards should be regulated like toasters, and she knew she’d have to fight hard to withstand the pressure of the banking lobby and hostile politicians. “My first choice is a strong consumer agency,” she said in 2010. “My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.” Warren’s efforts paid off: The Dodd-Frank financial reform law enacted later that same year called for the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But in one of the great disappointments of Warren’s career, President Obama snubbed her and appointed Richard Cordray as director of the new agency. One of the more respected and feared figures in Washington was now out of a job.
ELIZABETH WARREN HAD to be convinced to run for the Senate. Scott Brown, a truck-driving Republican who’d won a special election in 2010 to fill the seat left vacant after Ted Kennedy died, was slipping in the polls and his fish-out-of-water routine wasn’t playing well with voters at home. Still, Warren had her hesitations. According to people close to her, it took a sustained effort by her friends and allies to show her that, in the hands of the right person, a senator at the bottom of the seniority list could still wield influence. Political consultant Doug Rubin remembers his early conversations with Warren about her campaign. “Most of those initial conversations with candidates are about mechanics: ‘How do I put a campaign together?’ ‘Who should I talk to?’” Rubin says. Warren was different. “She knows who she is. She knows what she wants to say. She’s very clear about it. The only question is: Is what she wants to say translatable into a political campaign?”
On September 14, 2011, Warren announced that she would run. In her rollout video, she spoke of middle-class families that had been “chipped at, hacked at, squeezed, and hammered for a generation now” and of a political system that was “rigged for big corporations that hire armies of lobbyists.” She singled out the company GE for not paying taxes, while student-loan debt piled up and financial aid to seniors got cut. “It isn’t right,” she said, “and it’s the reason I’m running for the United States Senate.” It was a powerful declaration of values, albeit with a curious absence: Warren didn’t once mention Massachusetts.
From the start, Warren’s message was geared as much to a national audience as it was to the voters in her state. At an early event in Andover, Warren gave a stirring defense of liberal economics and government to a roomful of activists. “Now, look,” she said, “you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” An attendee recorded the remarks and put them on YouTube. “I got a call from a reporter saying, ‘What about this video?’” Rubin says. “I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’” The clip went viral, and President Obama cribbed Warren’s message during his 2012 campaign. “What that video showed us,” Rubin told me, “was that this was something that could go beyond Massachusetts and have a national appeal. How do we leverage that to help us in Massachusetts?”
With money, for starters. Warren’s campaign raised a record $42 million on the way to a bitterly fought victory. Brown had hammered Warren for claiming Native American ancestry and for her decision to self-identify as a minority while working at the University of Pennsylvania law school. The controversy bogged down Warren’s campaign for months—Rubin has said the campaign could have handled it better—but it wasn’t enough to tip the race in Brown’s favor. To this day, though, it remains the preferred bludgeon of Warren’s conservative foes, and it will no doubt resurface during her reelection campaign.
Warren entered the Senate in 2013 with her reputation as a liberal leader fully formed, and she set out to use her platform to influence the big national issues she’d built her career on. Her office churned out an unrelenting sequence of letters, statements, and reports advocating action on economic issues both sexy and obscure: big banks, executive compensation, the market for over-the-counter hearing aids, wage theft by federal contractors. She took on the Obama administration almost single-handedly when she blocked the nomination of Wall Street banker Antonio Weiss to be the third-ranking official at the Treasury Department. The liberal base soon branded itself the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the party.
As an advocate for progressive causes, Warren rivals Ted Kennedy. By other measures, the jury is still out. What’s often overlooked about Kennedy, the “lion of the Senate” and liberal icon, was his laserlike focus on delivering for the state. He first ran for Senate in 1962 with the slogan “He Can Do More for Massachusetts.” When his back was against the wall, like during his bitterly fought 1994 reelection campaign against Mitt Romney, Kennedy touted what he’d done for the state, trotting out oversize Treasury checks on the campaign trail: “Here’s $750,000 for preliminary work on restoring rail service between New Bedford and Boston. Here’s $400,000 for the cleanup of Buzzards Bay. Here’s $1 million of EDA money….”
“What made Senator Kennedy great,” says Ben Downing, a former Democratic state senator who represented the Berkshires, “was that he found that perfect balance between being a national leader—the liberal lion—and being the guy in the delegation who you would pick up the phone and call if you had an immigration issue or a problem with Medicare that you couldn’t figure out.” Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of the financial-reform group Better Markets, as well as a former aide to Kennedy, recalls that Kennedy’s constituent-services operation was “second to none” among U.S. senators. “If Kennedy ever heard that one of his staff didn’t respond to somebody lickety-split, he’d blow a gasket,” Kelleher told me. “There was nobody who was worried more about the bread and butter of Massachusetts than Ted Kennedy.”
It’s hard to picture Warren campaigning with blown-up treasury checks. Warren has never enjoyed the same level of home-state support as Kennedy or even a Republican like Governor Baker. “Her numbers have never really been off the charts,” says Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. “The thing that’s made it hard for her to be in Charlie Baker territory is [that] Republicans have never warmed to her.”
Unlike Baker and Kennedy, though, Warren doesn’t aspire to be a bipartisan uniter. She’s an advocate for her specific issues, not a master legislator or dealmaker. Consider her vote on the 21st Century Cures Act, which contained $1 billion in funding for opioid prevention and treatment at a time when opioids are ravaging her home state, killing four to five people here per day. She called it a massive giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry and was one of only five senators to vote against it. In a 2015 index measuring the bipartisanship of U.S. senators compiled by the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Warren ranked 85th out of 98. (The index excludes the majority and minority leaders.)
There’s also, of course, the matter of blatant sexism and the subtle—and not-so-subtle—misogyny that seems to be ingrained in American politics. “Kennedy’s aggressiveness versus a woman’s ability to be aggressive in politics is always going to be a problem,” Goldman, the Democratic consultant, says. But it’s not a problem isolated to the power brokers of DC. As Jill Filipovic, of Cosmopolitan, noted in a recent column, Warren has gone from “a handy shield for Hillary-hating leftists to use as a defense of sexism” to a “woman who may actually be seeking power against a man, not a theoretical interloper against another woman.” Filipovic and many others argue that even the most enlightened liberal men are “reflexively hostile” to a woman seeking power—let alone a woman who rips the sitting president of the United States by telling him to put on his “big-boy pants.”
To lift her approval ratings out of the low to mid-50s, Warren needs to appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters in Massachusetts, something she has yet to do or show much interest in. She has her message, and you either love her or loathe her for it. “There’s not a lot of middle ground on Elizabeth Warren,” says Will Keyser, a Boston-based consultant who previously worked for Ted Kennedy and now advises Governor Baker.
WARREN EXPECTED TO find herself in the opposition following this past presidential election—only she figured the president she would be pressuring would be Hillary Clinton. Warren envisioned her role for the next four years as prodding President Clinton to surround herself with cabinet secretaries and staffers who would carry out the decidedly liberal policy agenda Clinton had established on the campaign trail. Then Trump pulled off the upset and sent Warren scrambling to rewrite her postelection speech. Suddenly her remarks, in front of a crowd at the AFL-CIO, morphed into an olive branch of sorts directed toward Trump. She pointed out that Trump, during the campaign, had spoken to “the very real sense of millions of Americans that their government and their economy has abandoned them,” and she vowed to work with him if he was serious about his pledges to help working people. “When President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues,” she said, “when his goal is to increase the economic security of middle-class families, then count me in.”
But as Trump began assembling his cabinet of billionaires and enlisting alums of Goldman Sachs to advise him on the economy, Warren changed her tune, and she has now emerged as the face of the anti-Trump resistance. It’s a role that hasn’t been without its hiccups—notably, when she and several other progressive senators voted in favor of housing and urban development nominee Ben Carson at the committee level, faced tremendous blowback from the base, then switched to a “no” during the full floor vote. “There was virtually no new information between the time she said she was going to support him to the time she opposed,” says Marty Linsky, a Harvard Kennedy School faculty member and ex-aide to former Governor Bill Weld. “The only new information was that her national base was furious.”
The question on the minds of many in Boston and Washington is this: Can Warren navigate the demands of leading the resistance and do it without turning off Massachusetts voters, many of whom consider themselves moderates, and still get reelected?
Steve Koczela, whose firm produced the January WBUR poll that found weak support for Warren’s reelection, told me that any questions about softening in the public’s support of her had to be weighed against her 2018 challengers. Former Red Sox pitcher turned right-wing Trump clone Curt Schilling was weighing a run, only to throw his weight behind V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, a Boston entrepreneur who claims to have invented email and who announced in a 4:23 a.m. tweet in February that he would challenge Warren. In early March, reports surfaced that John Kingston, a Republican donor and successful businessman worth millions, was eyeing a potential run. One political consultant I spoke with said he’d recently met with two individuals who have the money to self-fund a Senate campaign and were weighing a challenge to Warren. While nobody has officially emerged as of yet, rest assured that Republicans are eyeing Warren’s numbers. If they can find a candidate who jibes with Charlie Baker and displays a modicum of levelheadedness and bipartisanship, they will attack Warren at every turn and paint her as a partisan bully who places her political ambitions and hatred for Trump over her constituents’ needs.
Bring it on, say Massachusetts Democrats. For now, what concerns them about Warren’s reelection isn’t so much who might run against her as how much of a national role she should play in opposition to the Trump administration. Rubin told me his biggest worry was Warren getting pulled in too many different directions by national groups over the next two years. “I worry that that is a tough thing for her to handle,” Rubin, who says he is not working on Warren’s 2018 race, told me. “She’s done it well so far. But my concern is, as we look to the midterms, there’s an increased demand on her time. She’s only one person, and she has a job to do here in Massachusetts and in the Senate.”
Warren’s hard-won reputation as a fighter is now being tested like never before. Trump has taken direct aim at her on Twitter and in private meetings with lawmakers, reviving the issue of her Native American ancestry and referring to her as “Pocahontas.” And it’s not just Trump—national Republicans are betting that Warren’s liberal reputation and in-your-face persona can be used against Senate Democrats up for reelection in Trump-voting swing states. “Elizabeth Warren is the face of the Democratic Party,” Senator Cory Gardner, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Politico.
Warren scoffs at Trump and her Republican critics. “He needs some new material,” she says of Trump’s “Pocahontas” attacks. “If he were a reality show, he would’ve been canceled by now.” When I asked her about how she balances her role as the leader of the resistance and representing Massachusetts, she rejects the premise of the question. “They reinforce each other,” she says. Do Massachusetts voters want to see her fill the role of anti-Trump advocate? “It’s just who I am,” she insists.
Warren had nearly $5 million in the bank to begin the year, a sign she isn’t taking reelection lightly. If she wins—and, ideally for Democrats, wins big—the pressure on her to run for president in 2020 will be immense. Progressives in Massachusetts and nationwide are already clamoring for her to challenge Trump, and the list of Democratic leaders better equipped for the task than Warren is short. “Her message is literally the way forward for progressives and Democrats nationally,” Rubin says. “Democrats have to figure out a way to communicate that message with people, or we’re in trouble.”