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? By Andy Kroll
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the news has just broken that Andrew Puzder, the fast-food executive who was Trump’s pick for labor secretary, has withdrawn his nomination.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Warren, had barraged Puzder with criticism over his company’s questionable labor practices and old allegations (since withdrawn) made by Puzder’s ex-wife that he’d hit her.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.”