At heart, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is a teacher. She was a well-respected law professor. Her students to a person speak admiringly of her intellectual fairness and rigor. She came to the public’s attention by lecturing and writing about the bankruptcy system, translating arcane laws into comprehensible lessons and self-help advice for financially distressed families. It should not be surprising that her political speeches are as much history and political science tutorials as political rallies.
That was certainly the case in Lawrence, Mass., on Saturday, where attendees and those watching at home heard her hold forth on the “Bread and Roses” labor strike of 1912, the benefits of the labor movement, rising inequality between white and black homeownership, the substance of her far-reaching ethics proposals, and the slow but steady evolution of enormous economic and political equality. She did have plenty of applause lines (“When I talk about this, some rich guys scream, ‘Class warfare!’ Well, let me tell you something, these same rich guys have been waging class warfare against hard-working people for decades — I say it’s time to fight back!”). However, much of her speech was delivered in a calm, sober voice to a silent, rapt audience.
She was building a case — or teaching a class, if you prefer — about the intersection of financial inequality, political power and government policy. Her campaign is built around a simple theme: The rich have gotten richer and hence more powerful, so government doesn’t help average working people. In Warren-speak, the system is “rigged.” (“We all want a country where every American — not just the ones who hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers — everyone can participate in democracy. Where every child can dream big and reach for opportunity. And we’re all in the fight to build an America that works for everyone.”)
Only after you fix the power imbalance can policy change, she argues: “Corruption is a cancer on our democracy. And we will get rid of it only with strong medicine — with real, structural reform. Our fight is to change the rules so that our government, our economy, and our democracy work for everyone.”
Regardless of whether you agree with her analysis, she has a coherent theme and a persuasive argument for her candidacy. Campaigns, however, are not classrooms. Successful candidates have to marry an argument with emotion, a vision of the country with the faith that this person can make that vision a reality.
More than DNA testing per se, or Republican complaints about her ideological rigidity, her challenge will be both to capture Democratic voters’ hearts and to convince them she’s capable of winning back the White House.
The DNA testing matters only insofar as it points to her shortcomings as a politician. She lacks the sure-footed instincts of her competitors. She comes across as more stiff and cerebral than other hopefuls. One could see her brand of academic populism connecting in living rooms in mostly white Iowa and mostly white town halls in New Hampshire. Beyond that, it’s unclear if she can win over the broad Democratic electorate.
The question remains whether she has the political skills, the rhetorical gifts and the reach that other candidates have. Her message is not all that different from, say, Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s, but Harris’s delivery, ability to connect with the crowd and joyful demeanor make her, at this stage, a more appealing candidate. Harris can attract, as of now, a more diverse crowd and forge an emotional bond with her audiences in a way that may still elude Warren.
One can see why students loved Warren’s classes and readers gobbled up her books. She’s whip-smart and tells a compelling story. That does not, however, mean she is the strongest candidate in the field. Unfortunately for her, she is in a race with many more-adept politicians. She’ll have to learn fast if she is to survive the first few primaries.