The Elizabeth Warren 'experience': On the road with the Democrats' anti-corporate, selfie-dispensing candidate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is aiming to reshape the U.S. economy by focusing on social plans for mostly middle- and lower-income Americans. To do so, the Democratic presidential candidate has pitched herself as part folksy girl from Oklahoma, part tough Harvard law professor, writes Susan Ormiston.

Recent Virginia rally was Warren's 141st in a nine-month stretch

Once a special needs teacher, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is now a powerful contender to be the Democratic nominee for president. A Warren rally is a bit like a revival, with homespun tales and bold policies delivered to an audience hungry for inspiration. (Jason Burles/CBC)

"It's all about opportunity," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, warming up her message on stage at a town hall rally in Norfolk, Va., earlier this month.

"My daddy ended up being a janitor, but his baby daughter? She got the opportunity to become a candidate for president of the United States of America," she concluded, by this time almost shouting and nearly drowned out by wild cheering in a crowd of more than 4,000 Democrats.

In her run to be the Democratic nominee, Warren has pitched herself as part folksy girl from Oklahoma, part tough Harvard law professor. She's aiming to reshape the American economy by focusing on social plans for mostly middle- and lower-income Americans.

She is promising free university tuition, universal child care and Medicare for All, paid in part by a wealth tax — a two per cent levy on the top rung of rich Americans, those who've built up fortunes over $50 million US.

"If you've built a great fortune here in America, I guarantee you've built it, at least in part, using workers," she said to the Virginia crowd. "How is it that the middle class has been hollowed out?"

Warren's slogan is "I've got a plan for that," and it's repeated on the T-shirts and buttons for sale at her campaign events. ("Eat the rich" is another.)

"I like her," said Amanda Molnar, a young woman buying up buttons — three for $10 — outside the Norfolk arena. "She's not afraid to say things that will upset people.

"She's not just riding the middle of the line trying to please everyone. She has some really great ideas."

'I've made my principles clear'

The Virginia rally was Warren's 141st in nine months, and momentum is propelling her to the top of the Democratic field of nominees. Earlier in October, several national polls put her ahead of the early favourite, former vice-president Joe Biden.

Warren's message of beating back the influence of corporate America and empowering the less affluent seems to be working.

For a chance at one minute with Warren, supporters will line up for hours. The Warren selfie has become a ritual. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

But success has also made her a target. Her policies are seen by some as too progressive, too radical for her to be the Democrats' choice to fight Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Her opponents have begun to sharpen their attacks. The Urban Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, has said Medicare for All could cost $34 trillion US over 10 years.

"That's with a T," said Republican Sen. John Barrasso this week, poking at Warren's weak spot.

She hasn't released her own costing for a universal health care plan and has avoided saying that middle-class taxes would have to rise.

Barrasso pointed out that during the recent Democratic debate in Ohio, Warren was asked "time after time after time how she would pay for it."

"She ducked, she dodged," he said. "Six times they asked her the question. She refused to answer."

Even fellow Democratic contender Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., attacked Warren for her "evasive" answer on taxation.

"No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this medicare plan Warren is putting forward is going to get filled," he said during the debate. 

While in Virginia, CBC put these criticisms to Warren.

"I've made my principles clear — that is, wealthy people and big corporations are going to see their costs go up, and hard-working and middle-class people are going to see costs go down," she said. 

'There is no status quo post-Trump'

Warren is sharing the progressive space in the 2020 primaries with populist senator Bernie Sanders. On the more moderate side are candidates like Buttigieg and Biden.

Biden, the best-known candidate, is seen by many Democratic strategists as a nominee who could run and beat Donald Trump. But polls are showing a surge in "electability" in some parts of the country for Warren — and Sanders — against Trump.

Former U.S vice-president Joe Biden has been the front-runner in the early stages of the Democratic primary. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"Joe Biden seems to be arguing, 'Let's win the election and go back to a status quo that existed prior to Donald Trump,'" said Jamal Simmons, a Democrat and host of the political show The Remedy on Hill TV. 

Simmons argues there is no status quo post-Trump and that Democrats need to choose a candidate who cannot only beat him but pursue progressive ideas on income inequality, health care, racial divisions and the immigration crisis — "ideas Democrats have been bouncing around for the last three to four years."

Ultimately, they need to "find a candidate who can inspire enough excitement from the Democrats to get them to show up in enough numbers to win [in 2020]."

'The America we used to be'

But is Warren too liberal for America?

"When did liberal become a dirty word?" said Tom Wilson, a Virginia Democrat in his 50s who left the Warren rally inspired.

"'Liberated,' 'freedom,' those are good things. I think her ideas are big. We need big ideas to take us back to the leadership of this world. We need a president to take us back to the America we used to be."

To win, Warren would need more support from the left of the party and to poach some of Sanders' supporters. Simmons said Biden currently has a lock on a large group of African-American Democrats who see him as "a winner," but should Biden falter, some will look for another candidate to back.

The developing impeachment crisis is in many ways pushing the Democratic contest to the sidelines, and the field is still quite large — there will be 12 candidates in the December debate.

It's far too early to assume any candidate will win, but Trump has added Warren to his list of targets for his ad hominem attacks at his rallies, pressing on Warren's ill-advised claim that she was part Native-American, then offering up a DNA test that showed less than one per cent ancestry.

"Can you imagine having Pocahontas as your president," Trump asked rhetorically during a large rally in Louisiana recently. "Now, the real Pocahontas, we wouldn't have minded. But the fake? God, this can happen."

The Warren 'experience'

At her own rallies, Warren rarely uses Trump's name personally, preferring to criticize "the Trump administration" or "the government."

Warren began her campaign on New Year's Eve 2018. She's now in the top tier of candidates, but there are still three months to go before the first primary, in Iowa. (Jason Burles/CBC)

She's peddling energy, inspiration and a ground campaign with $25 million in the bank, not to mention a staff of 600 people and a social media strategy that far outpaces that of Biden, whose campaign is pulling back on online advertising.

Nearly two hours into the rally in Norfolk, after her speech and questions from the audience, Warren quipped, "If anybody wants to, I'll stay as long as you want —we'll do selfies."

Selfies have become a well-worn ritual at Warren rallies, part of what her staff calls "the experience."

"Yes, the core part of democracy," Warren laughed, as she prepared for hours of picture-taking. 

The audience expected it. A young woman wearing Warren-branded socks lined up near the back of a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

"I would just love to have a selfie with the next president," she gushed. "I also have to tell her how much I love her."

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.