Saturday, May 3, 2014

Elizabeth Warren is For Real

I went down to the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC, yesterday, to get a look at Elizabeth Warren. She appeared as part of a national book tour for her new book, A Fighting Chance. The book is primarily a history of her adult life. It is eerily reminiscent of a book called Dreams From My Father that appeared before Barack Obama, its author, had run for his first political office.

In Dreams, Obama gave an intriguing account of his early life, ending just before he entered Harvard Law School. He included the story of his indigent mother and her husbands, one (Barack's father) Kenyan, the other, married after a divorce, Indonesian. The writing style is plain and inspirational at the same time. Obama was running for his first political office, a virtual unknown. 

Dreams contains some details that his political opponents later used to attack him: His father was Kenyan, he lived for a short while in Indonesia, a Muslim country, and he was born in Hawaii, which many Americans do not consider a "real" state, but rather a place on the other side of an ocean, inhabited by a handful of mixed-race people who have no connection to the "real" America. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, it was probably admitted because of Peal Harbor, when its importance as a military base was recognized for the first time.

Warren's book, like Obama's, tells about her growing up in reduced circumstances, about the family who loved her, and about her adventures as an adult. Warren has had many more adventures than Obama, because he was only 34 when Dreams was published and she is now 64. The book contains some information that has already been used by her political opponents to attack her. In particular, she relates that her father's family did not approve of her mother because her mother was part American Indian. Scott Brown, Warren's opponent in her Senate race, mocked her claims of Cherokee Indian relationship, but the book makes it clear that this was a liability, not an advantage in Oklahoma before WWII.

Warren likes to connect with people by telling folksy stories and using straightforward language. Asked her opinion of Republican refusal to raise the minimum wage, she said, "It stinks". Asked her opinion of Janet Yellen's appointment as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, she said "woo-oo!" in a high, clear soprano yelp. Warren's speaking voice in person is no better than it is on tv. She has a weak, reedy delivery that sometimes becomes unintelligible, as when she tried to say "Buffett Rule" the first time. She later clarified what she meant by Buffett Rule: A millionaire (or billionaire, like Warren Buffett) should pay at least as high a percentage of his income in taxes as his secretary. Warren likes that rule.

The suspicion that Warren may be using her book to kick-start a presidential run is not idle. Warren indicated that once before, during the fight for a consumer review board, she was willing to fight because she didn't want a job in the capital. Additionally, she was introduced by Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO. Warren told a story about how she had met Trumka at the White House. She backed a chair into his shins, at which point he remarked, "I've got your back." Now he adds, in a larger, more forceful voice--the kind that Warren lacks--"And I always will have your back". Hillary Clinton, take note.

Hillary has reason to be concerned about Warren. Warren negates Clinton's main advantage in the race to become president in 2016: she's also a woman. Additionally, Warren has the "log cabin" childhood that has served presidential candidates so well since Lincoln, which is to say, her family struggled and her mother had to go to work at a minimum wage to support the family. Hillary, on the other hand, graduated from Wellesley and served on the board of directors of Wal-Mart. Hillary makes public appearances perfectly coiffed and dressed in designer duds; Warren buys her clothes at Target and clearly styles her own hair.

When Hillary and Elizabeth appear in debates together and the topic of debate turns to income inequality, Hillary will look like a one-percenter; Elizabeth will look like what she is, a teacher and a member of the working class. Elizabeth will have another advantage: She won a state-wide debate contest in Oklahoma as a high-schooler. As Warren puts it, she wasn't pretty and she didn't have the best grades, but she knew how to fight.

Supporters of Barack Obama often wish that he had a stronger competitive urge. As President, Elizabeth Warren would give us exactly what we have been missing: a born fighter.

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