After watching dozens of speeches in the last two weeks, one still sticks in my mind.
Elizabeth Warren’s “warm-up act” for Bill Clinton Wednesday night.
She’s the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts, a consumer advocate, Harvard law professor and, she’d be proud to tell you, a grandmother.
But it was her message I remember, a message that mentioned the middle class at least a half-dozen times.
The middle class that “has been chipped, squeezed and hammered.”
I can relate. We’ve gone through layoffs and months of unemployment in our household.
We’re not alone. Last month, the Pew Research Center released a report on the lost decade of the middle class. The size of the middle class has shrunk from 61 percent to 51 percent of households from the 1970s, while median income fell 5 percent and wealth dropped 28 percent.
Warren put a human face on those changes. She mentioned a construction worker who went nine months without work, the head of a manufacturing company who wants to protect jobs but also worries about costs, and a college student “drowning in debt.”
Her points were met with boisterous applause more than two dozen times, and the roar of the applause nearly drowned out Warren as she repeated the lines found on her campaign t-shirt: “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts. They have kids. They get jobs. They get sick. They cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die, and that matters.”
Warren didn’t have to say she felt our pain. You just know she does. She’s been there, growing up “in a family on the ragged edges of the middle class.” After her father suffered a heart attack, her mother worked at Sears “so we could hang on to our house.” The young Elizabeth went to work as well, waitressing at the age of 13.
She mentioned marriage at 19 and teaching elementary school, but she didn’t elaborate on her route to college, law school and public career, which faced interruptions from marriage and motherhood, a road many of us have traveled.
Warren entered the national spotlight when she headed up the Congressional Oversight Panel to supervise the $700 billion TARP program.
Now she’s become an advocate for middle class families against the corporate greed of Wall Street. “People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she said. “And here is the painful part. They’re right.”
She cited the billions in profits for oil companies and billionaires enjoying lower tax rates than their secretaries. (Does anyone remember the famous line about “greed is good” spoken by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street?)
She talked about her idea for a consumer protection agency to stop rip-offs and the recent work of “that little agency”— the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- which found one of the largest credit companies guilty of lying to customers, resulting in a $210 million fine.
She also cited the work of President Teddy Roosevelt and other Progressives in the early 1900s “when corrosive greed threatened our economy and our way of life.”
We need our middle class. “We know the economy doesn’t grow from the top down but from the middle-class out and the bottom up,” Warren said to thunderous applause.
A Methodist and a former Sunday School teacher, Warren quoted one of her favorite passages of Scripture (yes, Democrats can be Christians, too): “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” Matthew 25:40.
As Warren explained it, “The passage teaches about God in each of us, that we are bound to each other and we are called to act, not to sit, not to wait, but to act all of us together.”
She invoked the late and popular Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) who understood the call to act, “to restore opportunity for every American…to give America’s working families a fighting chance…to build something solid so the next generation can build something better.”
Warren, who stayed true to her populist principles in her first-ever (and I hope it’s not the last) convention speech, faces a tough battle for the U.S. Senate seat against Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
There’s no doubt she has quite the fan base among progressives in the rest of the country. Her name’s even been mentioned for the 2016 presidential race. Right now, her concern’s more immediate: Will the voters who matter in her home state agree with her message?