Elizabeth Warren usually opens with a joke. It is not that funny. Funny is not the point.
“Can y’all hear me in the back row?” she said here on Saturday morning, looking out from the lectern at a rally for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “You can always tell a schoolteacher. I will be keeping an eye on those of you in the back row. You may be called on at some point during this. I know why you’re in the back row.”
At this rally, the joke didn’t even make a lot of sense. It is a gag written for big rooms — for the college lecture halls that Warren has been filling as a guest speaker for Democratic candidates this year. But on this day in New Hampshire, the crowd was small. The “back row” was only about 20 feet away. They could definitely hear her.
Warren used the joke anyway. The point is not the joke — the point is the word “schoolteacher.”
Every bit of Warren’s 17-minute stump speech is designed to do a job, and the job of this section is — in speechwriter lingo — to “establish bio.” It reminds people that once (actually, about 43 years ago), Warren worked with children at an elementary school. With that word, she locates herself inside the middle-class audience she intends to persuade.
Warren — a second-year senator from Massachusetts who is not up for reelection — might be one of the few Democrats in the nation who are enjoying 2014. She has been invited to rallies for candidates in six states, even in conservative places such as Kentucky, where on Tuesday night she campaigned with Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.
One secret of Warren’s success has been her mastery of an old political art: the stump speech. Other Senate Democrats, after years on the defensive, have been trained to give mumbly attack speeches focusing mainly on what their opponents get wrong. Warren, by contrast, uses old rhetorical tricks to sweep her audience into a celebration of what she says Democrats get right.
Warren’s speech might not win any elections this year, but it certainly seems more fun for people in the back row.
“So, this is a rally? Let’s rally for a minute. Let’s remind ourselves what we get out there and fight for,” she told the small crowd in New Hampshire. And she started in with a kind of credo, reciting the things they all believed together. “We believe we need more restraints on Wall Street.”
“Woo!” said the crowd.
“Yeah!” said the senator from Massachusetts. “Woo!”
Warren, 65, grew up in small-town Oklahoma, and became a Harvard law professor studying bankruptcy and why so many Americans fall into it. That work drove her to become an activist, trying to protect people from predatory practices at big banks. That activism eventually made her famous, as a tough-talking founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
At Warren events, there are often groups of “Ready for Warren” supporters, who want her to run for president in 2016. She has not publicly indicated an interest.
But Warren has been a politician only since 2011, when she began her campaign to unseat Scott Brown (R). At times, it still appears that she’s adjusting to the task of visiting strange states and haranguing strangers about how to vote.
At one campaign event with Shaheen, the stage was hung with two New Hampshire flags. The opening act was a local hip-hop trio, who rapped a near-endless song about . . . New Hampshire (“You can drive Mount Washington/ hike up Mount Monadnock./In 1787, we invented the alarm clock”).
Then Warren came out and forgot what state she was in.
“The people of Massachusetts are not taking Scott Brown!” she told the crowd. Shaheen is running against the very same Scott Brown, who has relocated to his vacation home in the Granite State. “They’re taking Jeanne Shaheen.”
There was some awkward clapping.
“Massachusetts didn’t want him,” Shaheen said, saving the moment. “And we don’t want him either.” (Warren flubbed a New Hampshire reference again Tuesday, saying during an appearance on “The View” that Shaheen is “out there working for the people of Vermont.”)
But on most days, Warren’s stump speech is one of the best in the Democratic Party. Aides say she has honed it and memorized it over the course of three years, adding and refining its main pieces. One of the oldest pieces is the schoolteacher joke, which dates to her campaign against Brown.
One of the newer pieces is the disclaimer, which Warren has used in her swings through conservative-leaning states this year.
“Look, Jeanne and I don’t agree on every issue,” Warren said in New Hampshire.
The idea is to reassure voters that these Democrats aren’t Massachusetts Democrats and that they might not share Warren’s more liberal views on guns and climate change. Then, most of the time, Warren quickly shifts back to something that she and these other Democrats do share: their enemies.
“Mitch McConnell is here to work for the millionaires and billionaires. . . . This is right in line with the Republican philosophy across the board, because their view is the most important thing government can do is protect the tender fannies of the rich and powerful,” Warren said Tuesday in Kentucky. McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate minority leader, and the incumbent that Grimes is trying to unseat. “Let’s be clear about this: The game is rigged, and Mitch McConnell wants to keep it rigged.”
This, of course, is a not a new idea. Labeling your opponents as tools of nameless Wall Street fat cats has been a tactic of American politics for more than a century, and a tool of Democrats since FDR.
The next part of her standard speech is an emotional buildup using an audience call-andresponse that she has employed for about a year. On the day she campaigned in New Hampshire, the difference with other Democrats was obvious. Shaheen, speaking first, had used her own call-and-response, but only to hammer her opponent. The responses also didn’t seem to be as loud as she wanted.
“Do you think Scott Brown cares about New Hampshire?” she said.
“No!” the crowd said.
“Louder!” Shaheen said. “LOUDER!”
“NO!” the crowd said.
Warren’s call-and-response, by contrast, is a recitation of things that she says Democrats believe. For the audience, it does not sound like a story about Brown — it sounds like a story about them and about things they and Warren want to do together.
“Nobody should work full time and still live in poverty,” Warren said. She was drowned out by cheers.
“Everyone is entitled to get an education without being crushed by student-loan debt,” she said. Cheers again. “Woo!” Warren said. Then she turned to students waving signs on the stage behind her. “Woo!”
Warren shouted other beliefs: that Social Security and Medicare should be preserved, that women deserve equal pay for equal work. These were well-worn Democratic policy ideas, repackaged as the bylaws of a movement.
Then the big one, the line that usually draws the loudest applause in the speech.:
“Corporations are not people,” Warren shouted.
At this high point, 76-year-old Christina Angell turned to her companion in the back row. “She’s a lot better than Obama,” she said.
Warren’s speech ends, as most good speeches do, with a view of the apocalypse. For the past few years, Republican candidates have won votes by sketching doomsday scenarios where freedom itself is lost, to debt or dictatorship. Warren warns her audience that democracy itself might be lost — buried under the big money of conservative billionaires — if they don’t help elect Democrats right now.
“It comes to you, to tell us how democracy really works,” she said in one New Hampshire speech. “Is democracy all about those who can drop a half a million bucks — millions of dollars — can pump in money to buy an election? Or is it about people?”
Here, her cadence slowed down, to emphasize every clause: “Is it about who you trust. To work. For the people. Of Massachusetts?”
“New Hampshire!” the crowd interrupted.
“Did I do that again?” Warren said. “Damn.”