Can Elizabeth Warren Win It All?
On September 20, 2016, John Stumpf, the C.E.O. of Wells Fargo, appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to defend his company’s role in one of the biggest financial scandals in recent memory. Wells Fargo employees, who were under pressure from senior management to meet overly aggressive sales targets, had opened more than two million bank and credit-card accounts for customers who had never asked for them.
The tone of the questioning was initially courteous. Then Elizabeth Warren spoke. Peering over her glasses, she launched into a series of questions so scathing that the Senate chamber fell silent. “Since this massive, years-long scam came to light, you have said repeatedly, ‘I am accountable,’ ” Warren said to Stumpf. “But what have you actually done to hold yourself accountable? Have you resigned as C.E.O. or chairman of Wells Fargo? . . . Have you returned one nickel of the millions of dollars that you were paid while this scam was going on?”
Warren pressed Stumpf on whether he had fired any senior executives over the revelations (he hadn’t); paraphrased his comments, on an earnings call, about how lucrative the sales-quota strategy had been; and asked him to tell the audience how much money he had made personally as the company’s share price shot up during the years of the fraud. When Stumpf declined to answer, Warren supplied the number: two hundred million dollars.
“A cashier who steals a handful of twenties is held accountable, but Wall Street executives almost never hold themselves accountable,” Warren said. “Not now, and not in 2008, when they crushed the worldwide economy. The only way that Wall Street will change is if executives face jail time when they preside over massive frauds.” She declared that Stumpf should be criminally investigated, accusing him of “gutless leadership.”
A video of the exchange, posted on YouTube, became a sensation. One news site called it an “epic takedown”; another described Warren “verbally destroying” Stumpf. In May, when I met Warren on the campaign trail, she told me that she was “furious” as she went into the hearing. “He was building a business model for a huge financial institution that was built on knowingly cheating people,” she said. “I figured that he deserved every punch he got.”
The episode was a pointed demonstration of Warren’s ability to tap into public anger about economic unfairness. Warren is one of the country’s foremost critics of Wall Street firms and big banks, which make much of their profit, in her view, by abusing consumers and taxpayers. It’s a perspective that has grown out of Warren’s work as an academic and has shaped her ideas as a politician, propelling her from Harvard Law School, where she was a professor specializing in bankruptcy law, to the Senate, where she has represented Massachusetts since 2013.
On many economic issues, Warren has been remarkably prescient. She has spent decades warning Americans about the pernicious effects of income inequality, predatory corporations, and consumer debt, and about the failures of our financial system—issues that are at the heart of the 2020 Presidential campaign. Now, as one of twenty-three candidates seeking to become the Democratic nominee for President, Warren is betting that the energy behind her ideas can appeal to enough swing-state voters to get her into office. At the same time, she is trying to expand her brand beyond that of a Wall Street critic. She is attempting to position herself as a pragmatic advocate for the middle class, someone who can bring systemic reforms to education, health care, and democracy itself. But, unlike the Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Warren doesn’t describe herself as a “democratic socialist,” and says that she isn’t trying to do away with capitalism. “I believe in markets,” she says, over and over. She says that she simply wants to make them work better for more people.
Warren, who is sixty-nine, is thin and sprightly, with bright-blue eyes and flushed cheeks. On campaign trips, she often makes three or more appearances each day, sometimes in different states. She rarely shows signs of fatigue. In March, a videographer for the gossip Web site TMZ captured Warren and three campaign staffers sprinting into Penn Station, in New York, to catch an Amtrak train. “You’re the fastest Presidential nominee I’ve ever seen!” the camera operator said, sounding breathless, as Warren streaked past wearing a small backpack, her purple jacket flapping.
I met Warren two days later, in Washington, D.C., at her apartment, a few blocks from the National Mall. The space has the spare feel of a hotel suite, with a beige couch and spotless surfaces. Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann, a law professor at Harvard, was working at the kitchen table, papers spread around him. Warren looked relaxed, dressed in sneakers, yoga pants, and a zip-up sweater. While we waited for water to boil for tea, she showed me a video on her phone of Bailey, the couple’s golden retriever, bounding through deep snow during a campaign trip to New Hampshire. Bailey, who is named for the community banker played by Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” features prominently on Warren’s campaign stops and in her social-media feeds, where his escapades help offset the more intimidating aspects of her persona.
In person, Warren is animated and folksy. As we moved to the living room, she spotted, on her coffee table, an Op-Ed in the Times titled “The Fleecing of Millennials,” about the dim financial prospects of young Americans. “This was going to be my next project, if I hadn’t run for office,” Warren said. “I was going to write a book about generational theft.” Warren’s campaign staff is emphasizing face-to-face encounters with voters. At coffee shops, she has been meeting with people who have donated sums as small as five dollars. At large events, she has been staying as long as necessary to take pictures with anyone who wants one. (According to the campaign, she has posed for more than thirty thousand photographs; the media-intelligence firm Zignal Labs recently described her as the candidate “most associated with the term ‘selfies.’ ”) “Is she knock-it-out-of-the-park every single time? No. But she has some gifts,” one of Warren’s former campaign staffers told me. “She can make someone feel like she has heard them, and has been responsive to their questions, in a way that no other politician I’ve heard can do.”
After being portrayed as a Presidential front-runner for much of 2018, Warren launched her campaign at an especially weak moment. Republicans had created a media tempest over revelations that Warren had claimed to have Cherokee ancestry. She’d also made a principled but politically risky decision not to hold high-dollar fund-raisers or to seek contributions from wealthy donors during the primaries. The strategy had prompted her finance director to leave the campaign, after voicing concerns that she might run out of money.
Since then, Warren’s poll numbers have steadily climbed; in early June, two polls, one national and one in Nevada, had her in second, behind Joe Biden but ahead of Sanders, for the first time. With the help of advisers working from her headquarters, in Boston, Warren has been releasing a torrent of detailed policy proposals. She has issued a plan to dramatically reduce student debt and to offer free tuition at public colleges; a plan to unwind large agriculture conglomerates in order to make the market more equitable for family farms; a plan to require large corporations to pay more in federal taxes; a plan to dismantle the behemoth technology companies and regulate them like utilities; and new legislation to address opioid addiction, modelled on a bill passed by Congress in 1990 to combat the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic. She has announced an “Economic Patriotism” plan, intended to create opportunities for American workers, and has issued proposals targeted at Donald Trump, including one that would make it permissible to indict a sitting President.
Together, the proposals promise a new level of government intervention in almost every aspect of economic life. Some of the ideas are pragmatic; others seem aimed more at marketing than at implementation. Regardless, “I have a plan for that” has become a rallying cry for her campaign—an echo of the way that “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a tagline for Warren supporters after Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, used it to describe Warren’s refusal to stand down during the confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions, Trump’s former Attorney General. In May, the comedian Ashley Nicole Black wrote, on Twitter, “Do you think Elizabeth Warren has a plan to fix my love life?” Warren responded, “DM me and let’s figure this out.” Even Tucker Carlson, the right-wing Fox News host, recently opened his show with an eight-minute monologue touting Warren’s Economic Patriotism plan, saying that she sounded like “Donald Trump at his best.”
Warren has trailed Biden and Sanders in fund-raising. She faces comparisons to Hillary Clinton, and questions of “electability”—concerns that running another brainy, older white woman against Trump would be a mistake. In reality, the resemblance between Warren and Clinton is largely superficial. Warren doesn’t hesitate to show anger and frustration, relishing her reputation as someone who “knows how to fight.” The adjectives that are often affixed to women with strong opinions—“angry,” “strident”—are labels that Warren would embrace. “Gentle and soft-spoken she isn’t, on anything,” Charles Fried, one of Warren’s former colleagues at Harvard Law School and a Solicitor General in the Reagan Administration, told me. “She either doesn’t speak or it is high voltage.”
Many voters saw Clinton as flip-flopping and opportunistic; Warren comes across as straightforward. She rarely brings up breaking the “highest and hardest glass ceiling,” as Clinton often did, although she acknowledges its existence. She told me that, when she was considering running for the Senate, in 2012, people advised her against it because of her gender. In the previous election, Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general, had been beaten by an inexperienced Republican, Scott Brown. “Massachusetts is not going to elect a woman. It’s just not going to happen,” Warren was told again and again. “Every time I heard that,” she said, “I’d think, I’m definitely getting in this race.”
When I asked Warren what lessons she had drawn from Clinton’s loss, she tried to be diplomatic. “I can’t relitigate 2016,” she said. “All we can do is learn how to go forward. In 2020, it’s not going to be about Donald Trump. I know that sounds surprising, because Donald Trump gets lots and lots of attention. But we win when we talk about what’s broken, how to fix it, and how we have the power to make real change.
“You know who agrees with that, by the way?” Warren continued. “Steve Bannon. It just hit me as I was telling you this.” She paraphrased something that Bannon, the adviser who helped engineer Trump’s victory, had said in 2017: “If the Democrats are talking about what’s happening in the lives of working people—if they’re talking about the economics of America—they’re going to win.”
Warren first made this appeal in September, 2013, when she spoke at the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s annual convention, in Los Angeles. It was one of the first important addresses that she gave after being elected to the Senate, and she was nervous. “I still remember writing this speech,” she told me, recalling that her grandchildren rode with her to the venue. “You’re in a big warehouse,” she said. “It felt like a zillion people were there.” The pitch of the speech, she told me, was “There are a lot of things as a country that we disagree on. We’re just different! And we have strongly held views that are in conflict over many issues. But on economic issues? On the question of how we build a future for ourselves and our children? Americans are surprisingly united.”
Warren had collected polling data—from people of both parties, living on the coasts as well as in the center of the country—that showed a remarkable consensus on issues such as raising the minimum wage, increasing Social Security benefits, and reducing student-loan debt. “Every core progressive economic issue was supported by somewhere between sixty and seventy-five per cent of America,” she said. “My tagline in that speech was ‘The progressive agenda is America’s agenda.’ ” She said that this realization had put her on the “runway” to her Presidential campaign. “This is not only how we win Democrats and energize Democrats,” she said. “It’s how we win independents and some Republicans.”
The Democratic candidates have many months of campaigning ahead of them. The Iowa caucuses aren’t until February, after which there will be five months before the Democratic National Convention, in Milwaukee. “There are two meat grinders you have to get through if you want to be President,” the former Warren campaign staffer told me. “You have to handle the media, the news cycle, and the background proctology examination of the primary. And if you get through that then you have to get through the Trump meat grinder, and the vast-right-wing-conspiracy meat grinder.”
When I asked Warren how she would survive all that, she said, “I know how to fight and I know how to win.” She pointed to two of her major accomplishments in Washington: the creation of a new regulatory agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2010, and her Senate campaign against Scott Brown.
“After the financial crash, I knew that we needed a consumer agency to keep big banks from cheating people,” she said. “People told me two things: ‘It’s a great idea’ and ‘Don’t even try it. You can never get it passed into law. The big banks will never permit this. They’ll fight you every inch of the way.’ ”
She paused. “But we got organized. We fought for working people. We built a grassroots movement. And President Obama signed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into law.”
A little more than a year later, Democrats encouraged Warren to challenge Brown for his seat, despite considerable odds. “I decided that I was not going to wake up on the day after the election and he would still be my senator, voting against my values, and I would have done anything less than everything I could to stop that from happening,” she said. “And I went from down seventeen points to beating Brown by seven and a half points.
“The same will be true in 2020,” Warren went on. She leaned forward, her eyes gleaming: “People all across this country understand that government works great for the rich and powerful, and isn’t working for them. We’ll get organized. We’ll fight for working people. We’ll build a grassroots movement. And that’s how I’ll be the first woman elected President of the United States.”
In Dubuque, Iowa, in early March, a crowd of people in sweatshirts and padded coats filled the Stone Cliff Winery, an airy space with exposed-brick walls, situated near the banks of the Mississippi River. Warren hopped onto a stage wearing a crimson sweater and black pants. “Hello, Dubuque!” she shouted to an almost entirely white crowd. There were men in Carhartts, clusters of gray-haired women, and some young attendees wearing “Mt. Nasty” T-shirts, which showed the faces of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Warren, and Michelle Obama superimposed on Mt. Rushmore.
“This is a very dangerous time for our country,” Warren said. “The direction we go in 2020 is going to determine the America we become.” She pivoted around the stage, addressing each quadrant of the room and jabbing the air with one long, lean arm. Warren doesn’t generate the hysterical fandom that politicians like Trump and Beto O’Rourke provoke at rallies. But her performance was a reminder of how much she has changed since she first arrived in Washington. During the A.F.L.-C.I.O. speech, she seemed less sure of herself. Now she’s quick on her feet, giving the impression that she has an answer for everything. This charisma doesn’t always translate to television.
Warren usually begins events with her biography. She grew up in a series of towns in Oklahoma and had three brothers who were significantly older. “I was what used to be called a ‘late-in-life baby,’ ” Warren said on the stage, eliciting laughter. “My mama always referred to me as ‘the surpri-i-ise.’ I was about thirty before it hit me what that meant.”
All three of her brothers joined the military. One flew two hundred and eighty-eight combat missions in Vietnam; another, now in his seventies, served as a combat medic, and still carries a pocketknife in case he has to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Warren’s father had dreamed of being a pilot but ended up in various unrelated jobs, including one selling carpeting at Montgomery Ward. When Warren was in middle school, he had a heart attack. “We thought he was gonna die,” Warren said, her voice low. “He pulled through, but he couldn’t work for a long period of time.”
The medical crisis sent the family into a financial crisis. In her 2014 autobiography, “A Fighting Chance,” Warren describes the moment when she learned that her parents’ station wagon had been repossessed, and writes of accompanying her mother to look at rental houses. Warren’s father eventually went back to work, in a commission-based position selling lawnmowers and fencing. At night, when she was supposed to be asleep, Warren would listen to her parents talk. “That’s when I learned words like ‘mortgage’ and ‘foreclosure,’ ” Warren said. One morning, she walked into her parents’ bedroom and saw something spread out on the bed. It was, Warren said, “the dress.”
“Now, some of you will know ‘the dress,’ ” Warren went on. “It’s the one that only comes out for weddings, funerals, and graduations. And there it was. And my mama was in her slip and her stockings, and she was pacing back and forth. ‘We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.’ ” Warren’s mother was fifty years old and had never worked outside the home. Eventually, she “wrestled” the dress on, along with a pair of high heels, and walked to the local Sears, Roebuck store, where she got a job answering phones. “That minimum-wage job saved our home. And it saved our family,” Warren said. “If you want to know who I am, you just heard it. ’Cause that’s the story that’s written on my heart.”
Warren has told the dress story countless times. Gradually, she says, she realized that many families had a version of the experience. “It was years later than that that I came to understand, it’s also a story about government,” Warren said. “Because when my mama walked off to the Sears and got a minimum-wage job, a minimum-wage job in America would support a family of three. It would pay a mortgage, keep the utilities on, and put food on the table. Today, a full-time minimum-wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.” Her voice grew hard: “And that is why I am in this fight.”
Warren says that, as a girl, she dreamed of being a schoolteacher. “I used to line my dolls up and teach them,” she said. She wanted to go to college, but there was no money to pay for it; her mother encouraged her to find a husband. “I didn’t have the highest grades in my school,” Warren writes in “A Fighting Chance.” “I didn’t play a sport, couldn’t sing, and didn’t play a musical instrument. But I did have one talent. I could fight—not with my fists, but with my words. I was the anchor on the debate team.” At the age of sixteen, she began secretly applying to schools that had debate teams. When she got to the financial-aid forms, she realized that she needed her parents’ help. They agreed to hand over their tax returns so that she could fill in the relevant information. “I divided their income by 52 and saw how little money they earned each week,” she writes. “I knew money was tight, but were we poor?”
George Washington University offered her a scholarship, but, in her sophomore year, Warren reunited with her high-school boyfriend, Jim Warren. In campaign appearances, she describes with self-deprecating humor what followed. “At nineteen, I fell in lo-o-ove,” Warren says, with an exaggerated eye roll. She got married, gave up her scholarship, and dropped out of school so that she could move with Jim to Houston, where he had a job with I.B.M. She completed her degree at the University of Houston, where tuition cost fifty dollars a semester. (She notes that she never would have finished if she had needed huge student loans.) The couple later moved to New Jersey, where Warren taught at a public school. She says that after she got pregnant with her daughter, Amelia, she wasn’t invited back. Warren went to law school at Rutgers and graduated in 1976, when she was pregnant with her son, Alex. She soon got a job at the University of Houston.
When Warren talks about her early years as a working mother, she sounds like a comedian doing a bit. She jokes about bribing Amelia with M&M’s to get her potty trained in time to start day care, and about jiggling Alex on her hip while frying pork chops and fielding a job offer over the phone. She felt guilty about the patchwork of babysitters, neighbors, and subpar childcare centers that helped take care of her kids. “The new job was hard, and at home my world was stretched to the breaking point,” she writes in her memoir. “I felt as though I had this giant pile of duties balanced on my head as I rode a wobbly bicycle on a high wire stretched across a canyon.” Warren would have given up on her career if her aunt Bee hadn’t flown in from Oklahoma City to help out. (One of Warren’s most impassioned issues is universal childcare, which she connects directly to the economic well-being of women, especially women of color.) Warren split from her husband not long afterward.
In 1981, the University of Texas at Austin invited Warren to teach at its law school, which was considered one of the best in the country. Warren was thirty-one, and had recently married Mann, who was likewise offered a job at the school. Informed by her family’s experience, Warren was interested in teaching a course on bankruptcy law. Most academic research on bankruptcy centered on corporations, but Warren wanted to find out how it affected individuals. “When a family goes bankrupt, it is a moment of great defeat and, often, personal shame,” she writes in her memoir. In 1978, Congress had passed a major revision to the bankruptcy code; between the early eighties, when Warren began researching the subject, and the mid-eighties, the number of personal-bankruptcy filings doubled. Warren partnered with Jay Westbrook, a law professor specializing in bankruptcy, and Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist who later became the president of the University of Virginia, to investigate what was happening.
The commonly held belief was that people who filed for personal bankruptcy had been irresponsible. The debate in Washington around poverty was racially charged and highly partisan. A few years earlier, Ronald Reagan had popularized the concept of the “welfare queen,” a derogatory term for a single, often black, mother who supposedly had babies in order to collect government benefits. In 1982, the School of Management at Purdue University published a study arguing that thirty-three per cent of bankruptcy filers could have paid off their debts, reaffirming the prevailing conservative view that the system was being abused.
Westbrook told me that he, Warren, and Sullivan often talked heatedly about policy ideas but that they rarely discussed politics. Warren was for a time registered as an independent, and later as a Republican, although she has said that she thought little about party affiliation. Westbrook told me that she was “moderately conservative”—a “straightforward, Midwestern girl, a ‘You ought to pay your debts’ kind of person.”
That began to change as the team examined more than fifteen hundred bankruptcy filings. The data showed that most of the debtors had earned middle-class incomes before encountering a financial calamity, such as the loss of a breadwinner’s job, and that they often spent months trying to recover while incurring more debt. The personal stories were harrowing: “Wife died of cancer. Left $65,000 in medical bills after insurance” or “Lack of full-time work—worked five part-time jobs to meet rent, utilities, phone, food and insurance.” Westbrook told me, “I think all of us were affected when we went through the files and began to see the stories and began to talk to the lawyers and the debtors.”
In 1989, Warren, Westbrook, and Sullivan published their research in the book “As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America.” Their conclusion—that bankruptcy primarily affected people who had worked hard all their lives—became a seminal finding in the field, and the book won an award from the American Bar Association. “It blew away this myth that there were all these people who were just immoral and irresponsible, that after they left Neiman Marcus for the day they went to bankruptcy court to get rid of it,” Westbrook said. “Bankruptcy was there to help middle-class people.”
Perhaps nothing has shaped Warren more than the ten-year battle that she refers to as the “bankruptcy wars.” In 1992, Warren and Mann moved to Massachusetts, where Warren took a job at Harvard Law School. According to former students, she was a demanding and dynamic professor. Joe Kennedy III, the congressman and the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, has spoken of being publicly humiliated by her on his first day in her class. She asked him to define a fourteenth-century legal term; when he didn’t know the answer, she said, “Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary?”
In 1995, Congress began a review of the American bankruptcy laws, and Warren was invited to serve as a consultant on a nonpartisan commission that would recommend changes. It was Warren’s first exposure to Washington, and to the outsized role that lobbying played in lawmaking. “There was nothing fun about the National Bankruptcy Review Commission,” Warren writes in her memoir. “Nothing.” Warren was representing the interests of families and individuals; on the opposing side were well-funded bank and credit-card lobbies, which wanted to create barriers for consumers to dispense with debt. “She fought that,” Fried, her former Harvard Law School colleague, told me. “She fought it very hard.”
By 1997, when the commission delivered its recommendations to Congress, Warren’s arguments had prevailed. Warren was disenchanted with Washington, and hoped to return to teaching full time. But it soon emerged that the credit-card lobby had got a bill introduced that would enact harsh new restrictions on debtors. One of the rules, which Warren says still incenses her, would have made it impossible for single parents to collect overdue spousal support until outstanding credit-card bills had been paid. Warren began another multiyear period of flying back and forth to Washington, trying to persuade lawmakers to reject the bill.
Warren, Westbrook, and Sullivan continued to update their research, and, in 2003, Warren published “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke.” Warren authored the book with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, who had an M.B.A. and had worked at the management-consulting firm McKinsey. The book showed how household economics had evolved over time. “The single best predictor that a family would go bankrupt was if they had a child,” Warren writes in her memoir. “And this didn’t just apply to poor, single mothers with limited education and limited opportunities.” The cost of raising a child—of paying for groceries and health care, and especially of buying a home near a good public school—was rising sharply, while wages for most middle-income earners were barely going up. People were trying to compensate for their stagnant earnings by taking on debt. As a result, millions of families, even those with two incomes, were closer to the edge of financial disaster. The book caused a stir in policy circles and drew attention in Washington. The Presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards both read it.
In the spring of 2005, a version of the bankruptcy bill that Warren had fought against was approved by the House and the Senate, by large margins. Eighteen Democratic senators had voted for it, including Biden. In “The Two-Income Trap,” Warren writes, “Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.” Fried, referring to Warren’s consumer-friendly vision for the legislation, told me, “What had happened is blindingly clear. The industry—and this is why she hates lobbyists—absolutely killed it. I think anybody who had been through this and had her convictions would have been angered by it.”
The experience transformed Warren. Westbrook told me, “She became increasingly convinced, in a very concrete way, that money talks, and that our system of democratic society was under serious siege just by the sheer power of wealth.”
The financial crisis of 2008 confirmed many of Warren’s economic predictions. One of her Harvard colleagues, Einer Elhauge, recalled bumping into her on a flight to Washington, about a year before the crisis. Warren told him that she was going to deliver a talk about “systemic risk”—when interconnected companies take on similar liabilities, leaving the entire industry vulnerable to collapse. “I was struck by that,” Elhauge told me, noting that systemic risk turned out to be a primary cause of the crash. “Basically, during the Great Recession, she was proved to have called it.” Warren told me, “I had been ringing the alarm bells about what the giant banks were doing to American families for over a decade: the subprime mortgages, the predatory bank practices, the teaser-rate mortgages, the ways in which big banks were raking in billions of dollars in profits, cheating people. And that it was all going to end very, very badly. I wish I hadn’t been right.”
That October, during the final months of the George W. Bush Presidency, Congress approved the creation of a controversial seven-hundred-billion-dollar fund to bail out the financial industry. On November 13th, just days after Obama was elected, Warren was getting ready to host thirty law students for dinner at her home in Cambridge when she got a call from Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader at the time. He asked Warren to join an oversight panel that would monitor the disbursement of funds.
Warren was excited about the role. “Our country was in a crisis,” she told me. “And if he had asked me to come to Washington to mop the floors I would have said yes. It didn’t matter how much I did or didn’t like politics. What mattered was that I was needed and I would serve.” She later learned that the oversight panel had little real authority; its primary responsibility was to issue a report each month.
In Washington, Warren immediately tangled with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and with his successor, Timothy Geithner. She believed that the Treasury Department was giving huge amounts of taxpayer money to the largest banks with few conditions attached, while community banks and homeowners were left to absorb their own losses. “The banks were getting away with so much, without any accountability,” Warren told me. “Here they had just gotten this huge bailout, and no one was insisting on replacing the C.E.O.s and forcing some of these big banks to own up to what they’d done.” In “A Fighting Chance,” Warren puts the seven-hundred-billion-dollar bailout in perspective. With that money, she writes, “we could have fixed our roads and bridges and public transportation. We could have launched universal preschool and made state universities affordable again. We could have doubled our federal investments in medical research and scientific research for the next twenty years.”
Warren learned to make strategic use of media appearances. In April, 2009, she was invited to appear on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” She was sick with nerves before the show and later described the beginning of the interview as a “disaster.” Although she briefly blanked on the definition of a little-known acronym, her explanation of the financial crisis—that it was the result of the government dismantling the rules and regulations that had been put in place after the Great Depression—and her impassioned argument for new legislation made Stewart swoon. “I know your husband is backstage. I still wanna make out with you,” he joked. The clip turned Warren into a minor celebrity. She started giving interviews regularly and appearing on cable TV; she was lively, and skilled at explaining financial arcana in comprehensible language. In 2010, Time put her on its cover with Sheila Bair, the head of the F.D.I.C., and Mary Schapiro, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, with the headline “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street.”
By this time, Congress was crafting the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill, to address the weaknesses in the financial system. Warren argued that the bill should include a new regulatory agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which would protect consumers from exploitation by banks and require financial institutions to make clear the terms of their products and services. Warren had first proposed the idea in the journal Democracy, in 2007. Consumers “shouldn’t learn about an unfair rule or practice only when it bites them—way too late for them to do anything about it,” she later wrote. “The time for hiding tricks and traps in the fine print is over.”
A person involved in the effort to get the C.F.P.B. included in the bill told me that Warren’s drawn-out bankruptcy battles had helped her acquire the skills to get things accomplished in politics. “She was pretty good about both the inside game and the outside game, and how the two intersect,” he said. “The inside game is very important: you need to get a bill passed in Congress, and she understood this and got C.F.P.B. into Dodd-Frank. And then she did a lot of press interviews and a lot of things to engage the public.”
After the legislation was approved, in 2010, Warren seemed the obvious choice to lead the new agency. But Neil Barofsky, who oversaw the bailout with her, told me that her desire for the role never entered into her decision-making. The head of the new agency would initially report to Geithner, and Barofsky recalled a hearing in which Warren aggressively questioned Geithner about his treatment of the insurance company A.I.G., which had paid its traders generous bonuses after taking taxpayer funds. “If she had pulled punches in that hearing, nobody would have known,” Barofsky said. “And she just eviscerated him, and exposed the hypocrisy and the failure of the program.”
News outlets later reported that Geithner opposed the idea of Warren running the C.F.P.B. He wasn’t alone. The financial industry mobilized to derail her potential nomination. “You remember preapproved credit cards?” Warren told me. “I was a pre-rejected nominee.” One group resisting her efforts, the Payday Loan Bar Association, which represents payday lenders, created a PowerPoint presentation for its members. “Who Is This Person?” the presentation said, above a schoolmarmish photo of Warren, before listing her credentials. “Regardless of who actually runs” the agency, the report read, “her influence will be enormous.”
When I asked a member of the group why the opposition to Warren had been so vehement, he sighed. “To be clear, the financial institutions were self-interested,” he said. “The only thing they cared about was ‘How am I going to maintain my current level of business?’ ”
Obama, facing intense resistance, nominated Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, for the role. But he asked Warren to help set up the agency; she spent a year doing that. Under Cordray, the C.F.P.B. forced financial institutions to return twelve billion dollars to customers who had been targeted by scams such as unauthorized overdraft charges and illegal fees for student-loan repayments. Congressional Republicans kept up their opposition; by 2017, they had introduced a hundred and thirty-five bills and resolutions to weaken or eliminate the agency.
In 2011, when Warren met with Obama to tell him that she was returning to Cambridge, the conversation took a surprising turn. According to Warren, Obama began talking about the upcoming Senate race in Massachusetts, telling her that if she ran, and beat Scott Brown, she could continue advocating for the issues that she cared about. It was a conversation that launched her political career.
Fried told me, “It was one of the wonderful ironies of life, because the bankers and the credit-card companies hated her. They said, ‘O.K., we’ll give in on the C.F.P.B., but Warren is not going to be the first boss of it.’ ” Fried continued, “If she had been, her leave of absence at Harvard would have expired and she would have come back and she’d be a law professor. Now they’ve got her until the end of time. Maybe they were underestimating her.”
At the Local Moose Café, in Manchester, New Hampshire, a handful of people were waiting in a corner that had been decorated with Warren signs. It was a slushy day in mid-March, and the Warren campaign was experimenting with what it called “pop-up events.” Warren swept in shortly after 1 p.m., wearing a forest-green cardigan, and worked her way around the room, shaking hands and patting backs. There was a quick shuffle to get everyone seated. “Here, we’ll pull one up for you,” Warren said, sliding a chair to a member of the audience. Then she sat down at the center of the circle and crossed her legs, as if at a neighborhood potluck. “Instead of spending my time behind closed doors with a bunch of millionaires and then planning to use all that money to do a bunch of TV ads, I want to do this person to person,” Warren told her listeners. She went on, “So, tell me what you want to talk about. Give me a question. Anything you want to ask.”
Warren is focussing her efforts on the early primary states, particularly New Hampshire and Iowa, where she has hired more than fifty field staffers. At events, she generally avoids speaking about Trump directly. “Our job is to make clear what our vision is and not just say, ‘Not him,’ ” she said. Instead, she concentrates on policy, and especially on a handful of alarming statistics. Adjusted for inflation, average wages for U.S. workers have not increased since 1978. In 2018, the largest corporations spent nearly a trillion dollars on stock buybacks, which primarily benefit executives and shareholders. Student-loan debt has placed a generation of young adults in financial peril.
Trump recognized the power of campaigning on a sense of economic injustice, of appealing to America’s “forgotten” people. At moments, Warren uses language similar to Trump’s. “But here’s the difference,” Warren told me. “Donald Trump says, ‘Your life isn’t working, and the reason is all those people who don’t look like you. They’re not the same race as you, they don’t worship like you, they don’t talk like you. So blame them.’ His answer is: divide working people. It’s racist. And, ultimately, it makes everyone poorer.” Instead, Warren is directing her criticism at the wealthy and the well connected, who, she says, have manipulated the system to serve their interests. Her argument taps into some of the same voter outrage—her rhetoric is more about fighting than about hoping. One Warren campaign staffer told me, “It’s not enough just to inspire. You have to inspire and fight for something. You have to name a villain.”
Warren’s policy proposals, released in posts on the Web site Medium and in newspaper op-eds, have made many of her primary opponents seem ill-prepared by comparison. At a series of CNN town halls, in April, every other candidate was asked about her plan to forgive student-loan debt for millions of Americans. The Warren campaign hopes that the Democratic debates at the end of June will further highlight the robustness of her platform.
In January, Warren announced what may be the defining idea of her campaign thus far: a proposed wealth tax of two per cent on the assets above fifty million dollars of the seventy-five thousand richest families in the country. (There’s a surcharge for billionaires.) She calls this the Ultra-Millionaire Tax, and, during campaign events, she jokes about it in ways that most candidates wouldn’t, for fear of being accused of fomenting a class war. At an event in Salem, New Hampshire, she pointed out that most middle-income voters are already paying a form of wealth tax, through property taxes. “All I want to do that’s different is include the Rembrandt and the diamonds!” she said. A man called out from the audience, “And the yacht!” Warren replied, “And the yacht with the Imax theatre!”
To illustrate how the tax would work, Warren describes a schoolteacher who has no savings and an “heir” who has five hundred million dollars in “yachts, jewelry, and fine art.” If both of them made a fifty-thousand-dollar salary, they would pay the same amount in federal income taxes. Raising income-tax rates would do nothing to fix this disparity, Warren says, and the very wealthy have numerous tax-sheltering strategies to protect them anyway. Based on estimates by two economic advisers, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, of U.C. Berkeley, Warren’s wealth tax would generate $2.75 trillion in revenue over ten years by having the I.R.S., in the words of her plan, chase down “all household assets held anywhere in the world,” including “residences, closely held businesses, assets held in trust, retirement assets, assets held by minor children, and personal property with a value of $50,000 or more.” Warren proposes using the money to fund universal childcare and pre-kindergarten, to forgive student-loan debt, and to finance infrastructure projects. She frequently says that, even after these initiatives are paid for, she’ll have two trillion dollars left over.
In polls, a majority of voters have expressed support for the wealth tax, including half of Republicans. At events, the idea reliably draws cheers from the audience. “Listen, you got a chance to build a great fortune, and good for you—or inherit a great fortune, O.K., it’s O.K. You got a chance to do that. Good for you,” Warren said in Dubuque. “But, remember, you built that fortune in America, where the rest of us helped pay for the education of all your employees, where the rest of us helped pay for the roads and the bridges so you could get your goods to market, where the rest of us helped pay for the police and the firefighters who were there to keep you safe. We were all glad to pay. We understand that’s how America works. But, when you build one of those great fortunes, just take a little and pitch it back in the kitty . . . so every kid gets a chance in this country.”
Unsurprisingly, the demographic least thrilled with the idea of a wealth tax is the one that would have to pay it. Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks C.E.O., who is contemplating a Presidential run, called the proposal “ridiculous” and accused Warren of cynically using a sensational idea to generate headlines. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York City mayor, suggested that taxing wealth, as opposed to income, could violate the Constitution. A major Democratic donor who works in finance told me that the tax wouldn’t address any of the underlying problems that have caused so much resentment. “I hate people who are blamers,” he said. “Stop blaming everybody. The problem with this country isn’t people who have made money. The problem is, how do you help people who have not made money? That’s what people are mad about.”
Trump and other conservatives hoped to derail Warren’s candidacy early on by resurrecting questions, dating back to 2012, about her self-described Cherokee heritage. During her Senate race that year, hecklers at campaign events harangued her about the issue, and staffers for Scott Brown were caught on camera mocking Warren by making tomahawk gestures. A right-wing radio host announced that he had swiped a pen cap that Warren had removed with her teeth and said that he had sent it to a lab for DNA testing. Warren exacerbated the issue when she took a DNA test and then released the results (showing a very slight ancestry) in a slick campaign video. It angered members of the Cherokee Nation and generated criticism from the left that she had given in to Trump’s race-baiting.
By this spring, the subject had died down. But the controversies around Warren—especially the sexism-tinged electability issue—may obscure more important questions about her candidacy, particularly ones about the wealth tax, the pillar on which much of her agenda rests. Trey Beck, who left a career in finance to become active in Democratic politics, and who supports Warren’s candidacy, told me that more aggressively auditing high-income earners, raising marginal tax rates, and taxing income and capital gains at the same rate were more practical correctives to inequality. “What she’s saying is, rich people have too much money, and people without money have too little. And I a-hundred-per-cent agree with that,” Beck said. But introducing a new tax based on appraising billionaires’ N.B.A. franchises and luxury sports cars, he cautioned, was “an inefficient prescription for a real problem.”
A wealth tax would surely encounter strong political opposition. (Historically, there has been fierce resistance to raising the estate tax, which affects a similar demographic.) It’s also unclear how much revenue the tax would yield. An estimate by Natasha Sarin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a finance professor at Wharton, and the former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers suggested that the financial windfall would be about forty per cent of Warren’s figure. “People’s wealth is often in things that are both incredibly difficult to value and incredibly illiquid,” Sarin told me. “Imagine that someone’s wealth is all jewelry or art or antiques. There is going to be a whole industry that will pop up that is about attractive appraisals of your assets, that is going to lead to you having a lower tax liability.” Sarin noted that, in 1990, twelve countries had wealth taxes; today, only three do, mainly because the tax sounds so much better in theory than it turns out to be in practice. “It just strikes me as incredibly problematic,” she said.
Some critics believe that Warren is using the tax to inflame public sentiment. “She’s very smart, and I don’t believe that she does anything without considering how it will message to voters,” Beck told me. “A wealth tax sounds confiscatory. I think her campaign may find it advantageous that talk of a wealth tax—and not exactly the same thing by another name, like a capital tax—lights an emotional fire.” One of Warren’s policy advisers told me that Warren has every intention of implementing the tax. He added that the campaign had studied how similar policies in other countries have failed and then designed the tax to address those weaknesses, by, for instance, increasing the budget of the I.R.S. and imposing an exit tax on Americans who try to avoid the tax by giving up citizenship. “In a world where you can ask the ultra-wealthy to pay a very low-rate tax to fund an incredible number of programs, in our view it’s worth it to try,” he said. “That’s sort of our approach—to throw everything we can at it because the reward is so high.”
Other skeptics argue that some of Warren’s proposals could harm the economy. Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University, who has clashed with Warren since the nineties, is probably her most vocal policy critic. He characterized Warren’s political philosophy as similar to that of Louis Brandeis, the early-twentieth-century Supreme Court Justice and leader of the Progressive movement, who challenged corporate monopolies and fought for labor rights. Zywicki outlined three facets of Warrenism. “First, she has a distrust of big corporations,” he said. “Big corporations have market power, they can take advantage of consumers, and can tilt the playing field against small businesses.” Second is her belief in aggressive regulation as a way to rectify the injustices of the economic system. A third is “reflected in her personal narrative,” he went on, including “a skepticism of inherited wealth.”
Zywicki told me that Warren “thinks what she’s doing is keeping the essence of capitalism and markets and trying to make them work better without going full-blown socialism.” But, he said, the type of government intervention that she is proposing often has unintended consequences. Warren’s theory was the kind that “goes fundamentally awry when it hits the real world,” he said. “When government intervenes to ‘rebalance the equation,’ it often ends up favoring some interests over others, and in my view that happens based on political clout.” He pointed to the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which was supposed to reduce the power of big banks; he argued that the new regulatory costs disproportionately hurt smaller banks and “made the big banks even bigger, entrenching ‘too big to fail.’ ” (In 2018, Congress loosened oversight of small and medium-sized banks.)
In a primary race that is splitting Democratic voters between a desire for a return to the status quo, represented by conciliatory centrists like Biden, and a desire for dramatic change, represented by the more extreme leftism of Sanders, Warren’s candidacy falls closer to the side of insurgency. The profound changes that a Warren Administration could bring are unnerving to some. “I think she would sow as much discord as Trump has,” the major Democratic donor who works in finance told me. “She would be playing to her base.”
It’s not surprising that Wall Street executives dislike Warren, but she may need their support if she secures the nomination. She hasn’t ruled out seeking contributions from corporations and big-ticket donors in the general election. “Republicans come to the table armed to the teeth. They’ve got all of their donors, their wealthy, wealthy donors,” she told MSNBC. “I do not believe in unilateral disarmament.” Even now, Warren’s primary campaign is relying on $10.4 million from her Senate campaign account—money raised in part from the kinds of donors that she currently eschews.
The question of Warren’s commitment to capitalism has become a topic of conversation among politically minded businesspeople, who have watched with discomfort as young people have flocked toward socialism. “She’s left the clear impression, rightly or wrongly, that she’d like to see many bankers in jail—that she’d like to see the activities of banks severely circumscribed in ways that, in the minds of bankers, would not allow the market to function well,” a major Wall Street Democrat told me, adding that he didn’t know anyone who supported Warren or Sanders. “Her certainty that she’s right, her moral indignation, her stridency scare people when you couple it with what she’s saying she wants to do. She’s not saying, ‘We should be thinking about the role of companies. We should have a conversation.’ You have a sense that this is a person who has made up her mind, has her views, and her job is to put them across and not have a debate.”
Others on Wall Street admit that some changes are necessary. Tom Nides, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley and a former Obama Administration official, told me, “Frankly, I think that she knows how to get stuff done, which in Washington is a pretty remarkable achievement.” Several people I spoke with said that Warren’s incendiary language is what really bothers them. “What drives people crazy is not necessarily the policies—it’s the rhetoric,” one said. “I think she gets that. She needs the rhetoric to get the attention.”
When I met with Warren in early May, in Ohio, she had recently generated headlines with her muscular argument, during a CNN town hall, that Trump should be impeached for welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election. She’d been travelling at a hectic pace, and many of her trips had been organized around a theme: a swing through South Carolina, Iowa, Texas, and Nevada was tied to her student-loan-debt-cancellation plan; in Colorado and Utah, she spoke about the environment and her proposal to stop drilling on public land; in Kermit, West Virginia, a town of four hundred people that has been ravaged by the opioid crisis—drug wholesalers had shipped more than nine million pills to a single pharmacy there—she talked about her plan to combat the epidemic.
As we sat huddled in a basement room inside a concert venue in Cincinnati, where Warren was scheduled to appear before a rowdy crowd of college students, I asked her why people try to attach the label of socialism to her ideas. Warren chuckled. “I just laugh, because it’s the Republicans—that’s their new bugaboo,” she said. “Markets are terrific at spurring innovation, driving down costs, and producing consumer benefits—if those markets operate according to some basic rules.” An aide handed her a cup of hot water with lemon. (Warren doesn’t drink coffee.) But, Warren went on, “capitalism without rules is theft. People say the game is rigged, and they’re right.”
Even some corporations and wealthy individuals have begun publicly acknowledging that the financial system is badly off balance. During a company event in March, Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, said, “I don’t want to be a tone-deaf C.E.O. While the company is doing fine, it is absolutely obvious that a big chunk [of Americans] have been left behind.” In April, Ray Dalio, the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, appeared on “60 Minutes” and declared that income inequality was a “national emergency.”
One politically connected Wall Street executive told me that just because some financiers were acknowledging inequality didn’t mean that they were ready to embrace Warren’s solution to the problem. “To them, she’s nothing short of the Devil, and she would lead the country into economic ruin,” he said. But, he conceded, “I think Elizabeth is actually doing something that’s quite important, which is updating some of the old Democratic issues for the modern economy: What does antitrust policy look like in the modern economy? What should modern banking look like? I don’t agree with her on all of those ideas, but she’s very thoughtful.”
This sense of competence seems to be connecting with voters. At one rally, I asked a retired health-care marketing professional named Kathy Kantner what she thought of Warren. “I like her because she actually knows what she’s talking about,” Kantner said. “I mean, she’s lived all these different lives. So she knows academia, she knows corporate law, she knows Wall Street. She knows the people in power.”
Warren’s unusual trajectory can seem like a liability, but her focus throughout her life has been on Americans’ economic security. At one point, reflecting on her career, she told me, “I know people look at it and say, ‘Wow, what a bunch of disconnected pieces.’ But it’s not. It’s all the same fight.”
Westbrook told me that Warren’s lack of political polish is part of her appeal. “She’s in an unusual position in Congress of not being a career politician,” he said. “She is an academic. That’s how she thinks of herself.” She has already accomplished more than she ever expected, he added, and she doesn’t see winning the Presidency as a “life or death” issue, as some of her opponents seem to. “I think she became convinced—notably, by the election of our current President—that you’ve just got to go out there and grab the bull by the horns and try to do something about the very difficult situation our country is in,” Westbrook said. “She thinks, By golly, I could do some things that could really be good for the country, things I’ve believed in and argued for my whole career. And that would be the culmination of my life’s work.” ♦