Elizabeth Warren didn't come to New York City's Washington Square to perform, but to teach.
Unlike Barack Obama, who spoke in nearly exactly the same spot while also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination almost exactly 12 years ago, she didn't joke about hanging out in Greenwich Village as a college student, one who possibly did drugs. She didn't quip about which baseball teams she liked, or do a whole lot of call-and-response with her assembled fans. Warren didn't even talk all that much about Donald Trump, the surest way to establish instant rapport with strangers in a city that loves to hate its native son.
Instead, the former Harvard professor who was a regular on Dr. Phil before she was a viral star on The Daily Show, was exactly herself. She was corny, promising selfies to all who wanted them. She talked—to the delight of fans who love her for it—about her bevy of policy proposals. And, because she can't seem to help it, she gave a history lesson to a crowd that was mostly white and mostly young.
Warren used her first major 2020 campaign appearance in America's largest city to describe the nightmarish death of dozens of women and girls at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory down the street, over a century earlier. Painting a picture of a Gilded Age economic system so craven it left the blood of locked-up, laboring children to spill out "into the gutters," Warren's official purpose was the unveiling of her latest anti-corruption agenda. She had the detailed plans needed to reform the country's comically broken political system, which in turn would make her laundry list of Democratic priorities, from Medicare for All to a Green New Deal—policies supported by a number of progressive candidates—possible.
But implicit in her message was something a bit more subtle: You can get young people, the vast majority of whom we know supported Bernie Sanders and talk of "revolution" during the 2016 Democratic primary, to yell wildly in downtown Manhattan about the decidedly less exciting intricacies of chipping away at America's brazen influence game.
What remains to be seen is whether Warren—who some polls suggest has failed to reach many young people of color and those less trusting of the political system—can claw significant numbers away from her democratic socialist rival, as well as frontrunner Joe Biden.
"Young people want to plan for the future, and she has great plans for the future," said Devin Domeyer, a 23-year-old originally from midcoast Maine now living in Harlem who described herself as a committed supporter.
A few excerpts from Warren's anti-corruption laundry list, the kinds of applause lines Obama and plenty of other reform-themed politicians have offered over the years, except without a whole lot of soaring rhetoric. Instead, naturally, there were plans:
"End lobbying as we know it." Generous applause.
"No more lobbying on behalf of foreign governments." Wild applause.
"Anyone who wants to run for office will have to put their tax returns online." Unhinged applause.
And also, a nod to those wondering if a white woman—just like Hillary Clinton!—whom the president likes to call Pocahontas had the endurance, the stamina, the savvy, to fight a ruthless likely criminal of an incumbent.
"I am not afraid," Warren promised.
Warren has long been focused on corruption. But the rollout Monday of her most comprehensive platform on that problem to date, starting with a long post on Medium and continuing with her speech, came after a summer that saw her rise in the polls. She had strong debate performances. Her fundraising rebounded. Her ground game started to make waves. The memory of her botched rollout when she somehow managed to piss off seemingly everyone in America by taking a DNA test to clarify whether she had Native American ancestors, as she once claimed, was long gone.
Now she was asserting that yes, she really is going to try and win this thing on a detailed platform of reforming politics in D.C. That means banning members of Congress from lobbying for life. It means banning judges from going on fancy junkets where they might essentially get bribed by industries trying to grift consumers. And it means more obscure tweaks like paying staffers in Congress more so they aren't as likely to work with one eye on jumping to the private sector.
Experts on corruptions I canvassed were impressed by the proposals and their depth. But talking to actual Warren fans—the throngs of college students and other young people on hand—Monday, two things became clear. The first is that there are a lot of former Sanders supporters out there who have started to gravitate to Warren, loving her mix of class rage and policy gravitas.
"In 2016 I was a huge Bernie girl—I was down for Bernie," said Cam Tejeda, a 21-year-old political science major at New York University who grew up nearby. "But if I could find a nice medium between Bernie and Hillary, someone who's not too provocative but also knows what needs to get done, it's her."
For all their rage at capitalism—as documented in poll after poll, as laid plain by the scourge of the student loan system, credit card debt, rent, stagnant wages—young people, or at least a generous slice of them, find the "sensationalism" of Sanders, as one put it, tiresome.
"I'm just super cautious about these people who have these huge goals that are basically unattainable," said Brooklyn Clark, an 18-year-old student from Texas.
In other words, it was fun to flirt with Sanders four years ago, when the alternative was Hillary Clinton, who struck many young leftists as being a caricature of the comprised neoliberalism that had dominated the Democratic Party since her husband was president. But it's been gratifying to land on someone so substantial. Warren, despite feeling the need to reassure the crowd that her long array of aggressive priorities wasn't a forlorn wish list, also seemed to strike many admirers as relatively immune to the charges of naïveté that are sometimes lobbed at Sanders.
She also promised short-term relief, by way of purging corruption, from scourges like overdue student loan balances and other forms of predatory lending that shape the daily lives of many young people.
Not that Warren's was a purely pragmatic, populist approach. There was plenty of talk of "persistent women" (in this case, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a president's cabinet). Warren also brought up discrimination against the LGBTQ and immigrant communities by the Trump administration. And Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party’s national director whose group endorsed Warren earlier Monday and who introduced her, called out "Mike Brown's murder." Many young women watching Warren were also candid about having supported Hillary Clinton four years ago and being excited about the idea of a woman president.
"I mean she has the best policies and stuff, but it's pretty sweet that she's also a woman," Domeyer said.
But there was also a broad-based insistence that supporting Warren, a former Republican, wasn't inconsistent with radical politics. At one point, Warren came close to addressing the conflict between her and Sanders, which is that for all their policy agreements, she sees her goal as saving capitalism, while the self-proclaimed democratic socialist wants to protect people from capitalism. "I get that some people will have more money, so they can own more shoes or clothes than other people," she said. But she thinks that the economy did actually work for working people at one point, decades ago. Things were actually good once. And she promises she knows how to get the country back there.
"When you run a platform based on policy, but with the correct values, rather than based [almost entirely] on values, you can get shit done," Tejeda said, capturing a widespread sentiment among Warren supporters: their candidate's relative pragmatism wasn't a drawback, even if she might leave something to be desired on the programmatic front.
"Revolution is healthy," said Anna Kaufman, 21, an NYU student from California, who cited Thomas Jefferson's famous insistence on "rebellion" every 20 years. "I don't think you have to use the word to be for the revolution. She's revolutionary just in what she's proposing and her candidacy."
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