NATICK, Mass.— Ever since Donald Trump’s inauguration, voters at each of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 29 town halls have greeted her with the same pleas, sometimes multiple times in succession.
“Tell me how else to get in the fight,” she says, paraphrasing the entreaties. And she is happy to oblige.
No other Democrat seems to get under the president’s skin quite like Warren, 69, or to revel as much in the give and take, a fact chronicled in recent months as the two have exchanged cross-country taunts of “Pocahontas” and “bully” on Twitter and in the media.
“He tries to bully me to shut me up,” Warren told reporters on July 8, gleefully broadcasting her enthusiasm for the fight. “It’s not going to work. Keep it up.”
The suspense now is whether Warren’s brand of pugilistic populism is what Democratic voters outside Massachusetts want in their next presidential candidate. Although she denies pursuing a 2020 run, Warren has been positioning herself for one — joining the Senate Armed Services Committee and traveling the country for 2018 candidates while building an oversize campaign operation for a reelection bid this year that she will probably win by double digits.
She is not the only one with a fighting spirit in her party, but none of her potential rivals has so identified with bare-knuckle combat against banks and credit-card companies, Democrats and Republicans. In 2010, during the fight over a new consumer regulatory agency she conceived, she publicly threatened to leave “plenty of blood and teeth” on the floor if she did not get her way.
With dozens of Democrats eyeing a presidential campaign, there will probably be lots of other approaches on offer, from the soaring calls for “a nation of love” preached by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to the post-partisan pragmatism of Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Steve Bullock of Montana.
Several Democratic leaders have pointed to moderate victories in recent Democratic primaries to argue that the party will ultimately choose a low-decibel moderate as the most electable counter to Trump’s erratic style. Veterans of presidential campaigns past, including former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also wait in the wings.
But Democratic strategists increasingly point to the logistical barriers for any candidate who tries to clear a moderate path in the current political environment. In a crowded field, candidates will need to attract as much as $100 million for the primaries, find a way to gain traction in the outrage-favoring algorithms of social media, and win over liberal activists who play a disproportionate role in the early states.
“People want someone who can beat Trump and they want someone who can be a fighter,” said Steve Elmendorf, a prominent Democratic lobbyist and campaign fundraiser. “For this Democrat, I don’t really care about the policies as long as we can win. We are in a crisis here.”
In private conversations, Warren has offered her theory of defeating Trump by describing a two-part test voters will pose to candidates: Are you on my side? And are you willing to fight for me?
A failure on the fighting front was part of her critique of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which Warren wrote about in her 2017 book with the telling title “This Fight Is Our Fight.”
“Obviously, not enough voters had believed that Clinton was the candidate most committed to fighting for their families,” she concluded, in a nod to the Trump campaign’s success.
She privately says now that the Democratic goal should not necessarily be to win a war of words with Trump himself. Rather, she says that Democrats just need to demonstrate their will to fight harder than him for working Americans, according to people familiar with the conversations.
“Somebody who can give people a reason to vote,” she said in an interview after her Natick town hall, when asked what the party needs right now. “That’s what this is all about.”
Unlike others in her party who have described Trump as a historical aberration, she diagnoses his rise as the predictable result of a bipartisan failure to recognize the economic suffering of middle-class Americans.
Two days after Trump’s victory, in a speech to AFL-CIO members that had been scheduled on the assumption that Clinton would win, she condemned the “racial attacks” and xenophobic appeals of the Trump campaign and promised to push back on his conservative policies.
But she also noted his success in addressing the economic pain felt by many Americans. “The truth is that people have a right to be angry,” she said, citing stagnant wages, rising costs and the disproportionate power of the wealthy. “The president-elect spoke to these issues. Republican elites hated him for it and he didn’t care. He did it anyway.”
Democratic Party leaders, and many of their biggest donors, have long viewed Warren with some concern as well, owing to her arguments for new economic regulation, bank breakups and a much larger social safety net. She served as both an ally and a thorn in the side of President Barack Obama during his first term, railing against Democratic reliance on bank executives to fill government posts, harshly criticizing the execution of the 2008 bank bailouts, and raising alarms over regulatory compromises.
Her prescription for the country is a sort of mirror-image antidote to Trump’s conservative populism, without the nativism at the core of the president’s brand but with a similar level of venom for those she views as preying on the middle class.
Where Trump wants to cut regulations in the name of helping the “forgotten men and women of our country,” she wants to build up federal rule books to give more protections to consumers. Where he targets undocumented immigrants as foes, she targets corporate lobbyists and bank executives who have disproportionate influence in Washington. Where he has signed tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, she wants to increase the same to fund a broader social safety net.
Groups including the Democratic think tank Third Way, which has tangled with Warren in the past, have argued that the ideas of the party’s liberal populists will make it harder to elect a Democrat in 2020, since they could confirm a perception, especially among swing voters, that the party is anti-business and overly focused on helping the poor.
“Democrats have struggled with the jobs issue for almost a decade, and the party was not equipped to challenge Donald Trump’s zealous pro-jobs message in 2016,” one Third Way analysis based on focus groups concluded last year.
Like several other Senate candidates eyeing 2020, Warren has endorsed a suite of expensive policy proposals that have made some in the party nervous. They include a pilot program that would guarantee a $15-per-hour government job to all adults in certain parts of the country, a $1.4 trillion-a-year plan to provide government-paid health care for all Americans, and a $47 billion-a-year measure to provide free public college tuition to all families making $125,000 or less annually.
For this reason, some Republicans have signaled that they would welcome a Warren run in 2020. Stephen K. Bannon, a former aide to Trump, dismisses Warren as “the weakest candidate the Democrats could put up.”
“There is a populism on the left, but it absolutely can’t get over the hurdle of mass illegal immigration that keeps down wages of the black and Hispanic working class,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chose to elevate Warren early last year when he kicked her off the Senate floor for quoting criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama.
“If the agenda of the progressive left is the vehicle Democrats are going to ride to the big dance, McConnell will make sure they have a parking spot right out in front so everybody can see how they got there,” said Josh Holmes, a veteran political adviser to McConnell.
Warren has embraced such pushback, expressing pride that so many women have tattooed their bodies with “Nevertheless, she persisted,” the words McConnell used to describe her parliamentary rule violation when criticizing Sessions.
At the Lookout Farm orchard on July 8, T-shirts with those words were the most common fashion accessory.
Warren drew more than 1,400 people to her town hall at a flag-draped fruit orchard outside Boston, where she compared the turmoil created by Trump to “a windstorm, in a hurricane, in an Alice in Wonderland book.” She denounced the “damn profit” the federal government makes off student loans, and then rallied the crowd to choose something every day to resist.
When voters came to the microphones, four asked her to tell them what to do.
One man rose to ask her for “action items for change.” A female Army veteran asked “what we can do” to protect noncitizens serving in the military. A third person asked what “people of faith” could do to help create a just society. A fourth asked again “what can we do” to protect democracy in the age of Trump.
Having taken such questions before, Warren has refined her answer into a sort of pep talk, one her team has spread on social media. On this day, it began with practical advice such as planning to vote, joining civic groups and making a commitment to a daily display of activism.
But it ended with a rallying cry, which applies not just for the midterm elections but also for a potential presidential effort.
“Yeah, it is tough out there. It is really tough out there. But we’ve changed. We are not the same people,” she called out to the crowd, walking between hay bales on a stage and looking every bit like a presidential candidate stumping in Iowa.
“There is a whole lot more of us than there is of them,” she said. “And when we speak out, we will beat them.”