Elizabeth Warren - profile: The US outsider coming up on the inside
The US still awaits its first woman President. Could this champion of the people beat Hillary Clinton to the honour?
Will Hillary Clinton be the next President of the United States? For a long time she has been viewed as the Democratic Party’s best prospect for 2016. The woman herself has yet to declare; she regularly deflects the question, which insiders say is neither coyness nor strategy but because she genuinely has yet to make up her mind. Her four-year stint as Secretary of State left her exhausted. If elected, she would begin her tenure aged 69. There are plenty of reasons to think long and hard.
And suddenly, running up on the inside very much as Mr Obama did in 2008, comes another woman: a professor trailing clouds of liberal credibility, with a passionate belief in her mission to restore justice and fairness to a system which has “chipped, squeezed and hammered” the middle class.
Elizabeth Warren, who launched her political career in 2012 by thrashing Scott Brown, the Republican magpie in the Massachusetts senate seat, is not running for president. She has said so many times and on many occasions. Furthermore she is a huge admirer of Hillary, the “presumptive nominee”. “I think Hillary Clinton is terrific,” she says. Hillary is “one of the coolest women on the planet”.
But Hillary Clinton is also mortal. She has not made up her mind. And suddenly, despite all the poker-faced denials – “I am not running for president: ask me any way you like” – Warren’s possible challenge is the talk of America. If you were to design the perfect CV for a liberal presidential contender from the ground up, you could not do better than her life story.
Today, aged 64, she sits fair and square among the great and the good: the first woman to sit in the Senate from Massachusetts, a law professor at Harvard, a former special adviser to the Consumer Protection Bureau, a champion Democratic fundraiser. And she looks and sounds the part, with her conservative suits, her timeless blonde bob, her frameless spectacles.
But such an outcome would have seemed unlikely when, as 13-year-old Elizabeth Herring from Oklahoma, she began waiting on tables to help support her family. The Herrings had already lost the family station wagon after her father Donald – some-time carpet salesman, maintenance man and caretaker – suffered a heart attack; now the family home was at risk, too.
At 19, she married a Nasa engineer then began teaching disabled children in a special primary school. When she subsequently gave birth to the couple’s first child and stopped working to raise her daughter at home, it would have taken a shrewd judge of character to see any special glory in her stars.
But Mrs Warren, who had already gained one university degree, clearly saw that her life was destined to hold more than housework. She enrolled in law school, took summer work with a law practice, and then after the birth of their second child and divorce from Jim Warren, supported her family by working as a lawyer at home, writing wills and negotiating mortgages.
After a second marriage to a Harvard law professor called Bruce Mann, she rose through the profession until reaching the same revered law school as Bruce. And along the way her ideas began to change.
A Republican voter in her earlier years, it began to dawn on her that the dice were increasingly loaded against her own kind, what she calls “the ragged edges of the middle class”. A turning point came in 1995 when she was asked to advise the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. She fought long and hard to give consumers the biggest possible right to file for bankruptcy; her failure to overturn the opposition of the powerful big business lobbies taught her a lesson in what the common American man and woman were up against.
Through a steady stream of books, lectures and interviews she became known as a consumer advocate, but her rise to national prominence was sudden. After the Wall Street crash of 2008 she was appointed chairwoman of the Congressional committee appointed to oversee the use of the vast sums which the government had poured in to big financial institutions. She was not impressed, and in a series of televised challenges that were forensic in detail but quietly passionate in intensity – not unlike the parliamentary committee performances of our own Margaret Hodge – she set the bankers and their political defenders squirming. The word went around that the ordinary Joe had a vigorous new champion. YouTube did the rest.
Under her persuasion President Barack Obama set up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and she was the favourite to head it. And when, under massive Republican pressure, Obama chose a candidate less likely to test the bureau’s powers to the limit, Warren did an about-turn and headed for the Senate.
She came very late to politics, which makes her impact all the more impressive. In Massachusetts she raised more than $40m for her campaign, more than any other Senate candidate. And although her oratorical style is meat and potatoes compared to Obama’s, it has inspired a huge following of Democrats convinced that America is in need of radical change. “People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she told the Democratic Convention in 2012, “and here’s the painful part: they’re right.”
By setting out her stall on the issue of chronic and growing inequality, she has hit a nerve. “Billionaires,” she told the same audience, “pay less tax than their secretaries… People don’t resent that other people make more money – we’re Americans, we celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”
On the stump in Andover, Massachusetts, it was put to her that forcing the rich to pay more tax was “class warfare”. Her improvised reply – another YouTube hit – was perhaps the most succinct rebuttal of the Tea Party’s anti-government dogma ever made.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said. “You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate… You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…
“You built a factory and it turned into something terrific. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
It’s a simple, timeworn message. But as Americans digest the sombre message of French scholar Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century – proving beyond doubt that economic inequality is growing out of control – it resonates powerfully.
A Warren candidacy would have a gale of popular support behind it: professor, senator, economic policy wonk, for the grassroots she is above all a passionate activist.
In her just-published memoir A Fighting Chance, she recalls a dinner in 2009 with Lawrence H Summers, then President Obama’s top economic adviser. “Larry offered me some advice,” she writes. “I could be an insider or an outsider… Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them.”
People on the inside listen to Elizabeth Warren – but it is as a potent outsider that she is prized. Could that potency survive a run for the top job?
A life in brief
Born: 22 June 1949, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Family: Her father was Donald Jones Herring, a maintenance man, her mother Pauline Herring (née Reed) worked for Sears department store.
Education: Graduated in 1970 from the University of Houston in speech pathology and audiology.
Career: Served as Assistant to the President and Special Adviser to the Treasury Secretary under Barack Obama in 2008. Elected Senator for Massachusetts in 2012
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