If you want to know why Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been rising in the polls and why Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a shadow of his 2016 self, you could use the Democratic convention in New Hampshire as a microcosm.
Sanders got a big welcome from fans not only in one section of the Southern New Hampshire University Arena but throughout the hall. Warren got by far the biggest, most raucous and enthusiastic welcome, her supporters decked out in mint-green T-shirts and pounding on noise-maker sticks. Sanders went through his litany of promises — single-payer health care, forgiveness of all student debt, and more. Warren told how she’d pay for (albeit with a wealth tax many economists doubt would raise enough funds) an agenda built around her central theme and presented in the context of her own biography.
“We have a country that is working great for the wealthy and leaving everybody else behind,” Warren said. "We have a country where our economy, our democracy, our government are working for those with money and not so much for anyone else.”
“So I grew up out in Oklahoma in a paycheck-to-paycheck family,” Warren continued. “I’ve had the same dream since I was in second grade. I wanted to be a public school teacher. There it is. My path was a little bumpy, my family didn’t have any money, I dropped out of school at 19 and got married.” Right there, she had a good chunk of the electorate who could relate. And she pointed out how she made her way: “My big chance was what was then a commuter college that was about 45 minutes away and cost $50 a semester.” She added, “I held on for dear life. I’ve lived my dream job, I’ve been a special needs teacher.”
Not only does her life story ground her in a reality with which most voters can identify, but it explains why, unlike Sanders’s platform, her agenda is not scattershot, spraying goodies for all whatever the cost. She told the audience:
And what can we do with two cents [her 2 percent wealth tax]? We can do universal child care for every baby in this country age zero to five – two cents! Universal pre-K for every three year old and four year old in this country – two cents! Raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in this country – two cents! We can do all of that, and we can make technical school, community college, and four-year college free for everyone who wants an education – two cents! . . .
We can put $50 billion into our Historically Black Colleges and Universities – two cents. And just one more I’ll mention. We can do all of that and cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of the folks who got it – two cents. Two cents.
Whether you think her plan adds up or not, she seems to channel the ghost of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the friend of the little guy who is going to save capitalism from itself.
“I get it that in America, there are gonna be people who are richer and people who are not so rich. And the rich are gonna own more shoes, and they’re gonna own more cars, and they may even own more houses,” she said. “But they shouldn’t own more of our democracy.”
She is out to solve a problem of inequality, to help real people in their lives. She’s not there to promote a revolution for the sake of revolution.
Warren’s tone and Sanders’s are radically different, even if ideologically they may come out in much the same place. Sanders has one volume — loud — and one mood — angry. Warren certainly can rouse the crowd, telling people, “This is our moment to dream big and fight hard!” But she also tells a story and has a conversation with her audience.
Another contrast was on display: Sanders called out President Trump as racist, xenophobic, homophobic and bigoted against other religions He’s a “pathological liar,” Sanders said. Warren didn’t mention Trump’s name.
Perhaps in a preview of the debate this Thursday, Warren cautioned the crowd, “There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared." Continuing her not-very-subtle jab at former vice president Joe Biden, she told the crowd: “We can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in. We win when we call out what is broken, when we show how to fix it, and when we build a grass-roots movement to get it done.”
These days, Warren has a better electability argument than she did eight or nine months ago. Clearly, she has energized the base in a way Biden has not. She’s not a self-identified socialist, but she is a fighter for the constituency Trump betrayed with plutocratic, incoherent policies. And finally, she’s now beating Trump in some head-to-head polls.
The secret to her success (aside from more than the 50,000 selfies she mentioned having taken with voters on the trail) may be that, as Trump sinks in the polls and gets crazier by the day, voters may figure out that “electable” includes most of the Democratic field. Warren says they can have excitement and electability. That’s a compelling message among Democrats these days.