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Elizabeth Warren Has Made Her Story America’s Story

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Elizabeth Warren has a story she wants you to hear. She told it over and over across the state of Iowa on Memorial Day weekend. You could find the repetition a sign that she’s on autopilot, but in person, the opposite effect comes across: that this story is so important that she can’t afford to get a detail wrong. Her approach is chock-full of policy, sure; “I’ve got a plan for that” has become a rallying cry. Her flurry of proposals—for a wealth tax that would fund free public college and universal child care and pre-K, for a “Green Marshall Plan,” for canceling student debt, and for fighting the opioid crisis—is earning her headlines and driving her recent success with voters. In a national Economist/YouGov poll in mid-June, she grabbed second place in the Democratic primary field, behind former vice president Joe Biden and ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In a Monmouth poll of Nevada, the third state to vote in the Democratic primaries next year, she also climbed to second place, and in the latest Des Moines Register/CNN poll for Iowa, she was effectively tied with Sanders for second place. No doubt she’s helped by having the largest staff of all the Democrats; she has more than 50 people on the ground in Iowa, where I watched six meticulously executed events.

But I’d argue that Warren’s newly tight and coherent story, in which her life’s arc tracks the country’s, is contributing to her rise, in part because it protects her against other stories—the nasty ones told by her opponents, first, and then echoed by the media doubters influenced by her opponents. Her big national-stage debut came when she tangled with Barack Obama’s administration over bank bailouts, then set up the powerhouse Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But she was dismissed as too polarizing, even by some Democrats, and was passed over to run it. In 2012, Massachusetts’s Scott Brown mocked Warren as “the Professor,” a know-it-all Harvard schoolmarm, before she beat him to take his Senate seat. After that, Donald Trump began trashing her as “Pocahontas” in the wake of a controversy on the campaign trail about her mother’s rumored Native American roots. And Warren scored an own goal with a video that announced she had “confirmed” her Native heritage with a DNA test, a claim that ignored the brutal history of blood-quantum requirements and genetic pseudoscience in the construction of race.

When she announced her presidential run this year, some national political reporters raised questions about her likability, finding new ways to compare her to Hillary Clinton, another female candidate widely dismissed as unlikable. A month into Warren’s campaign, it seemed the media was poised to Clintonize her off the primary stage. But it turned out she had a plan for that, too.

In the tale that is captivating crowds on the campaign trail, Warren is not a professor or a political star but a hardscrabble Oklahoma “late-in-life baby” or, as her mother called her, “the surprise.” Her elder brothers had joined the military; she was the last one at home, just a middle-schooler when her father had the massive heart attack that would cost him his job. “I remember the day we lost the station wagon,” she tells crowds, lowering her voice. “I learned the words ‘mortgage’ and ‘foreclosure’ ” listening to her parents talk when they thought she was asleep, she recalls. One day she walked in on her mother in her bedroom, crying and saying over and over, “ ’We are not going to lose this house.’ She was 50 years old,” Warren adds, “had never worked outside the home, and she was terrified.”

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