It’s late November at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa, a Forties dance hall converted from a World War I tire factory with ancient plumbing and a buzzing neon sign. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is listed on the marquee just above the cage fights and the craft show taking place next month. Hundreds of people have crowded onto the well-worn maple floor: old ladies in NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED T-shirts, college students home for Thanksgiving, young couples with small kids.
But not everyone who has shown up tonight is sold on Elizabeth Warren. (A middle-aged man behind me says he’s choosing between Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg — “I’m going to see who makes me a better offer.”) And that’s why she’s here, at her 169th town hall: to tell her story, answer questions, take selfies, convert the skeptics, and assure her existing supporters that she’s still the right choice — that she can pull this thing off.
All summer and into the fall, Warren was rising steadily in the polls, starring in viral town-hall moments, baiting billionaires, and unveiling dozens of ambitious policy proposals — from canceling student debt to rolling out universal child care. She was not the front-runner yet, but the one who would probably win it in the end, assuming, as many overconfident political observers did, that any minute now the bottom would drop out of Joe Biden’s campaign, and that Bernie Sanders was too old, Pete Buttigieg too young and inexperienced, and the rest of the pack too far behind to catch up. Now, it’s almost December, and the lead she held here for months has abruptly disappeared.
Things started to turn a few weeks earlier, the moment Warren passed Biden in the national poll average. A widely circulated New York Times-Siena poll showed her losing to Trump in head-to-head matchups in battleground states. President Obama made pointed remarks cautioning candidates against getting too bold in their policy proposals. She was dog-piled at the debate, pressured to explain how she would pay for Medicare for All. The plan her team produced neither satisfied supporters nor reassured skeptics.
Each piece of doubt put a little bit more drag on her upward trajectory, compounding uncertainty that she could win in a general election. For the entire race, she has been leading in polls that ask Democrats who they want to be president, but when the question becomes who do they think can beat Donald Trump, Biden pulls ahead.
“The question is, can she put together the message, the energy and the organization, the resources to win,” says Stephanie Schriock of the female fundraising group EMILY’S List, who recruited Warren to run for Senate in 2012. “Because nothing makes you electable until you start winning. That’s it. You gotta start winning.”
The uptempo piano notes clack out of the Val Air loudspeaker with the dulcet voice of Dolly Parton singing “9 to 5.” Warren, 70, jogs onstage and beams out at the crowd. She’s traded in her signature jewel-tone jacket for a navy hoodie with the campaign’s slogan, DREAM BIG, FIGHT HARD, on the back. She launches into the childhood memory that has, over hundreds of retellings, transformed into her political origin story.
Her brothers — eight, 12, and 16 years older — had all grown up and joined the military by the time she was in middle school, when their father suffered a heart attack, lost his job, and the family’s financial troubles began. Their station wagon was repossessed, and it looked like the house would be next. That’s when her mother put on the nicest dress she owned, walked to the local department store, and got a minimum-wage job. The story always ends the same way: Warren’s voice rising as she tells the audience that while that job was just barely enough for her family to stay in their home and cover their bills in the 1960s, “today, a full-time minimum-wage job will not keep a baby and mama out of poverty. That is wrong, and that is why I am in this fight.”
But an entire lifetime elapsed between those events and Warren’s decision to get into politics. In between, she went to college, dropped out, got married, had two kids, completed her degree, began teaching, graduated from law school, divorced, and remarried, to Bruce Mann, a fellow law professor.
“This is somebody that had a life that was not about what was going on in Washington, but whose life was affected by the decisions that were made in Washington,” says Rep. Katie Porter, a former student and mentee of Warren’s at Harvard Law School who flipped a House seat in conservative Orange County, California, in 2018. “Decisions that get made about child-care policy, decisions that get made about opportunities for women in the workforce.”
It’s easy to forget that this is only the third campaign Warren has ever run. Unlike Buttigieg, who has known he wanted to be president since before he knew how to drive, or Biden, stumbling through his third Oval Office attempt in four decades, or Sanders, singularly focused on holding public office since 1971, Warren never really wanted to be in politics. She was drafted.
“She was having a barbecue for some of her students at her home, and I called her,” says former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “She couldn’t hear me — I don’t talk very loud on the phone, you know? So finally I raised my voice and I said who I was, and I wanted her to come to Washington.”
As a law professor, Warren had done years of research showing that most people who declared bankruptcy weren’t deadbeat system-cheats. They were, more often than not, middle-class people who had experienced some kind of tragedy: lost a job, got sick, divorced. Reid wanted her to sit on a bipartisan committee overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Hail Mary to shore up the financial system after the 2008 crash.
Warren’s merciless grilling of Treasury officials catapulted her into the national spotlight — she was articulating the outrage of millions of Americans who lost their homes while bankers were bailed out. She also worked with the Senate to hammer out the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation that would create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency Warren proposed in 2007. When Republicans threatened to block her appointment as the agency’s administrator, Obama made her a special adviser to the Treasury secretary instead.
Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett recalls fielding panicked calls from finance people who were concerned about Dodd-Frank, the CFPB, and Warren — concerns not dissimilar to ones Jarrett says she’s hearing about Warren’s candidacy today. “I think she is a very fair and pragmatic leader, and I just think they should take a deep breath,” Jarrett says of Warren’s critics.
Jarrett was among those who began urging Warren to run for Senate. “She did not jump at the opportunity,” recalls Schriock. “Over many hours and lots and lots of iced tea, we sat down and I made the case.” Warren said she would consider it, but first she was going to California to see her grandkids. Not long after, Schriock got a call from Legoland: Warren was in.
Massachusetts had never elected a woman to statewide office. And there were a lot of people, Schriock remembers, who were adamant that a woman couldn’t win. But Warren took the race by seven and a half points. “People should not underestimate her,” says Reid. “I think some people are doing that, and that’s a mistake.”
If Warren is going to stage a comeback in the 2020 race, it’ll start here in Iowa, where the idiosyncrasies of the caucus system don’t just allow for surprises, they practically guarantee them. The Val Air is a monument to that unpredictability. It was the site in 2004 of Howard Dean’s scream, the guttural yowl that sent the Vermont governor’s bid into a death spiral after his unexpected defeat here. He, too, had been leading an absurdly large field of Democrats competing for the chance to take on a historically unpopular president. “This thing is early,” says Schriock, who worked for Dean’s campaign. “It’s going to be wild.”
After Warren finished her stump speech and answered questions, and after she took more than an hour posing with every last person in the selfie line — squeezing hands, gripping shoulders, making pinky swears — she huddled backstage with a handful of young campaign volunteers, shoring up the faith.
“Every single day that you get out and knock on a door, make a phone call, talk to somebody, you move us just a little bit closer,” Warren tells them. “Every time you pull in somebody, you spark that little bit of hope. Because, ultimately, what this is really about is persuading people that their voices matter enough, their votes matter enough, that it’s worth showing up for, it’s worth getting in the fight. And that, that little bit of hope — your little bit of hope, combined with my little bit of hope, and the hope of people all across Iowa — is what can change this country.”
You walk out to Dolly Parton — have you always been a fan?
Dolly Parton? Oh, yeah. Although I have to admit, my number one is Patsy Cline.
What draws you to Patsy Cline?
You know she only had about a 10-year career? But she was always a woman who stood alone. And just had this voice that kind of — whatever you’re doing, she could reach inside your chest, grab your heart and twist it a quarter-turn.
Did you grow up listening to country?
Yeah — Hank Williams. I thought everybody listened to Hank Williams. That was the kind of music we were around. That, and rock & roll. Remember, I have three older brothers.
I’ve heard two of them are Republicans.
Do you argue about politics?
Well, we have very different views about particular political issues when it comes up. And this has been true for a long, long, long time. When I talk with my brothers, it’s much more about what’s right in the country than what’s wrong in the country. We talk a lot about worry — that young people today have fewer opportunities to succeed than young people had years ago. It’s not true for everyone, but the notion that I could go to a college that cost $50 dollars a semester — that opportunity’s just not out there. That my brothers could go to the military without a college degree, and that was a pathway to a solid middle-class life.
You were a Republican for much of your adult life. Does that give you an advantage to understand conservative voters, to be able to tailor your message—
I would describe it not so much as tailoring as finding the part in the heart where we ultimately, as Americans, agree with each other. Much of the conversation that I now have publicly about corruption — how the rich guys are sucking up all the wealth and leaving everyone else behind — is a long-running conversation I’ve been having with my brothers for decades. They get it. My Democrat brother and my two Republican brothers understand that the rules for billionaires and corporate executives are not the same as the rules for their kids. And they don’t like it. And neither do I.
Your family had financial trouble when you were a kid. Obviously, it’s shaped your political philosophy, but I’m curious how it impacted your personal relationship with money.
I’ve always been afraid there won’t be enough money. Always. I’ve always saved. I’ve always watched the prices of everything. And I’ve always worried about the rest of my family, worried about making sure everyone is OK.
Was your decision to go back to college after you dropped out to get married motivated by a need to feel financially self-sufficient?
You’re right, it has that effect. But it was the other way round. I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since second grade. When I dropped out of school at 19 and got married, I thought I’d given that up. I knew that theoretically I could go back to school, but it would cost money. Finding a commuter college that cost $50 a semester was a door swinging open in a way that I had thought was impossible. So there I was, I could pay for it. And now that I could pay for it, I could be a teacher.
Your dad was the breadwinner before he had a heart attack, and your mom had to go to work to provide for your family. You often describe your mom as encouraging you to get married rather than pursue your education, almost setting you up to end up in the same position she was in.
I think she would have described it as “Be very careful about the man you marry.” That was the pathway to success, not “Go create a path for your own financial independence.” Now, it took a lot of courage for my mother at 50 to take on her first full-time job. But it was never something she was happy about. She didn’t say, “What a great and fulfilling opportunity that was!” She saw it as work born of necessity, because she had to take care of her family and she wanted me to be safe. And to her dying days she still believed that the best way for a woman to be safe was to be married to a man who earned good money.
One of the things that I’m struck by is that, in just the past five years, you went from advocating for incremental changes — I’m thinking of the Buffett Rule, which would have lowered student-loan interest rates, versus the wealth tax, which would wipe out student debt altogether. Did you make a conscious decision to get bolder, or was it a function of the political climate?
I’m actually going to argue with you on the premise of the question. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is big structural change. For a decade, a handful of consumer advocates and researchers had seen what was happening with deceptive mortgages, cheating credit-card companies, and really horrible payday loans. And every one of them had a little piece of the solution. “Let’s change this rule on mortgages. Let’s put in a new protection on credit cards. Let’s do something different about regulating payday loans.” My idea was to build an agency that would fundamentally change the relationship between the government, credit issuers, and tens of millions of customers. The government would act very much like the Consumer Safety Commission and say, in the same way that you can’t sell a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of burning down your house, no one gets to sell a mortgage that has a one-in-five chance of costing a family their home.
Is it hard for you to see what’s happened to the CFPB under Trump?
No. I mean, look, do I dislike his current director? Yes. Because she [Kathy Kraninger] has made clear she is on the side of the lenders, not the consumers. Mick Mulvaney did everything he could to try to hobble the consumer agency. But here’s the great thing about how that agency worked: When it’s got a good strong director, it’s nimble, and can move forward fast, and that’s exactly what it did in the first five years of its existence. And when it’s got someone who is trying to sabotage its work, it holds steady. It hasn’t gone backwards. The rules haven’t gotten easier. The agency still does its supervisional work, which is way out of the headlines. So I think, if anything, what Mulvaney has shown is you can try really hard to break that agency, but it hasn’t happened.
The slate of plans you’ve proposed would be financed by a wealth tax — an idea that wasn’t in the mainstream before you proposed it. What was the moment that made you decide to target accumulated wealth, and what gave you the confidence Americans were ready for this idea?
The truly wealthy in this country aren’t making their money through working and producing the kind of income that ordinarily gets taxed. Instead, they’ve built great fortunes that now have their own money managers and PR firms to protect those fortunes and make those fortunes grow, and, boy, are they growing — they are growing faster than incomes all around this country.
But what was the moment for you, specifically, when you decided to take this on, when you decided this could catch on in America?
I had a conversation with some tax specialists who showed me how much more money there was tied up in great fortunes than in annual incomes. In other words, they showed how much more money a two-cent wealth tax would raise, even though it’s only on the top one-tenth of one percent.
A wealth tax is a tax on accumulated fortunes, not on [the income of] people that are going out and working every day. It’s time for us to look at those fortunes and think about the kind of country we want to be. Do we think it’s more important to keep [the people who own] those fortunes from paying two cents on the dollar or to have the money to invest in an entire generation?
How would you implement your agenda if the Supreme Court blocks the wealth tax? When you were developing the plan, was that a possibility you discussed?
I went at this the other way: I talked to a lot of the country’s top constitutional scholars, and they were confident that the wealth tax fits within Supreme Court precedents and that, if someone raised an objection, [the tax] could be drafted in a way to meet any challenge.
You’ve described yourself as a capitalist at heart — you believe in markets. But you’ve got a plan that would end the market in health insurance, and to a certain extent, student loans. Was your faith in capitalism shaken by the outcomes those markets produced?
I have always understood that some markets just don’t work. We invest in public education because a market for first grade will not get our children educated. We invest in roads and bridges because a market for infrastructure won’t open up the opportunities we need to make this economy grow. So I believe in markets, but there are two important limits. One is, there are some areas that are not market-driven, and health care is one of them. Second, markets without rules are theft. So even in places where markets can work, the government has a role to play in making sure that the rules create a level playing field and that those rules are consistently enforced.
President Obama said recently that Democrats’ plans need to be “rooted in reality.” Do you think that’s a fundamental misreading of this political moment?
I think of the fight I’m waging as very much rooted in reality — the reality that someone crushed by student-loan debt can’t buy a home, or start a small business, or make much traction of any kind in building some financial security. People with young children, or who are considering having babies, are caught right now in a reality that child care is wildly expensive, and often not even available at any price. A plan for universal child care is rooted in their reality.
One of your earliest forays into politics was battling Joe Biden in the Nineties over bankruptcy reform. There was a big difference back then in your two worldviews. Do you have those same differences today?
Our differences are a matter of public record, and I haven’t changed any of my views. The fundamental problem I see in Washington today is the influence of money. The giant corporations who can spread it around, the billionaires who can buy influence, the lobbyists who are there every day to advance the views of those who pay them well to attend every meeting. It’s why my campaign starts around this question of how power is distributed. Our government works great for those with lots of money and not so much for anyone else. And that’s been a problem for a long, long time.
Did you get the sense that he ever grasped your criticism of the bankruptcy bill?
I don’t want to go back and relitigate 15 years ago.
I’m curious whether you think more Americans are in debt today because of that bill that Biden championed.
Let me say it the other way: A lot fewer people can get the help they need today because of the change in the laws. That’s what the research I did with my co-authors [showed]. There’s been so much work on this, too, about families caught in financial hell who can’t get any help because the bankruptcy laws were tightened to the point of suffocation back in 2005.
A year out from the election, head-to-head polling shows Biden beating Trump in some battleground states, and you losing to him. More than 40 percent of those who said they would support Biden but not you also said women who run for president “aren’t very likable.” What do you even do with that information?
I think about the last three years, and the role that women have played in politics. Plain old electoral politics. Look, I went to Trump’s swearing in. I thought it was important. I know others decided not to. I come from a witnessing tradition: I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I wore my Planned Parenthood scarf wrapped around my neck to keep me warm, and watched as he was sworn in. I remember flying back to Massachusetts that night and thinking, “They could take away health care from tens of millions of people by next Friday.” The Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. What have we got left? What are we going to do? And, chewing on that as I went to bed that night, got up early the next morning, and then went to the Women’s March and saw exactly what we could do. We could come together, and we could raise our voices, and we could make change. I spoke at the Women’s March on Boston Common and I realized: This is how we’re gonna do it.
It’s women who have been in the fight for a long time, but it’s also women who are coming into the fight for the first time. And friends of women: men who were completely taken aback by what had happened in 2016. Do you remember the coverage on this? You have to really kind of go back and remind yourself. [After] the Women’s March, everyone says, “Well, yeah, but will they still be here in a month?” And the answer was: Yeah! Now there are more women who are in this, and more people who are turning it into action, not just a protest. You’re seeing all over the internet: You don’t like what’s happening? Get out there and run for office! If you don’t wanna run, find someone who does wanna run and go help ’em. Go volunteer! Go knock on doors. Be a campaign manager. And that’s what happened. And then we had the wins in Virginia in 2017, and rolled into 2018. Women have changed the political landscape. In Nevada, to see a women-majority state Legislature. And women responsible for the election of other women and of good, strong, progressive men. Sure enough, one of the first things that happens in the Nevada Legislature is gun-violence legislation passes. Real change. The wave of 2018 is about a changing democratic landscape. 2019 has given us the first stirrings of that. So the battle now becomes: Is America a democracy that is going to be run by the billionaires and the people who suck up to the billionaires, or are we going to be a democracy built on a grassroots movement, on people who engage and say my personal life is at stake here?
But is there anything you can do to address that underlying dynamic?
I do it every day. I go out and meet people every single day, and shake hands, and talk to people about the things that touch their lives. [I’ve met] more than one couple in the selfie line, where she says, “I dragged him here,” and then he says, “But I’m all in now.” I’ll take that.
Before you kicked off your presidential campaign, you released a video about your family background that seemed like it was intended to answer Trump’s taunts — you took him up on his challenge to take a DNA test. Did the reaction to the video change the way you think about how you would respond to those kinds of attacks from him in a general election?
I’ve learned a lot. I’m grateful for many conversations that people have had with me. Running for president has been about recognizing where I’ve made mistakes and have regrets, and also about how to listen and build the bridges that we’re all gonna need if we are able to create a strong enough movement to repair our democracy and take back our country.
But did it change the way you would respond to him specifically?
Donald Trump has a strategy of turning people against people. He thinks so long as people are arguing against each other that no one will notice that he and his corrupt buddies are stealing both the wealth and dignity of this country. He’s wrong, and 2020 is our chance to prove it.
There is a perception that you made a tactical error on Medicare for All — that this wasn’t your signature issue, but you were under pressure to provide details on how you would pay for it. Do you think you made a mistake?
I’ve spent most of my adult life working on the question of why people go broke. Health care, housing, child care, and sending a kid off to school have created huge pressures on middle-class families. Combine that with largely flat incomes, and it’s pretty easy to see how tens of millions of people across this country are deep in debt and living just one financial bump away from collapse. It’s important to me to talk about all of those issues, and that’s what I’ve done. Not just since I’ve started running for president, but throughout my career. One of the exciting parts of running for president is I get to talk about not just what’s broken, but what we could do to fix it.
What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing the country right now?
That our government works better and better and better for a smaller and smaller group at the top and is leaving everyone else behind. That is shrinking opportunity for tens of millions of people and ultimately undermines our democracy and our entire future.
If you could implement only one of your plans, which one would it be?
It’d be anti-corruption, because then everything else would change.
Is there a specific piece—
All of them, because that’s the thing with corruption: Money doesn’t make itself felt in Washington in just one way. It’s in hundreds of ways, and thousands of ways. It’s the obvious — around lobbying and the revolving door with Wall Street and with the defense industry — but it is also in very subtle ways. The United States Supreme Court has no rules of ethics, so justices can take freebie vacations with groups that will repeatedly appear in front of those same justices to argue cases. That is thinly disguised influence-peddling. Think of it like water that’s flowing everywhere. It’s not like you can say, “Oh, there’s one, and if you stop it here you’ll stop the whole thing.”
One of the things you often say on the campaign trail is that Democrats and Republicans used to work together on climate action—
But then there was so much money spent on misinformation — you mention the Koch brothers specifically. What would it take to unwind or undo some of that misinformation that’s already spread so far?
Part of it is for our leaders to show how they understand the urgency of the moment. The platform of the presidency is enormous. When a president says this issue is not very important — and a president can say that either overtly or just by not talking about it — then there’s plenty of room for other conversations to flourish. When a president shows real leadership — here’s what’s happening, here’s what the scientists say, here are the investments we need to make to protect our future — that is a path toward changing an entire national conversation. It’s not all of it. It’s why I talk all the time about the two parts. We need a leader, but we also need a movement on the ground to make real change.
Do you have any reason to believe that an impeachment vote right now wouldn’t go down on party lines?
I don’t know. I know that every single person in the United States Senate took the same oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States, not to support a party or even an individual president. I have to believe that oath weighs heavily on Republicans who are under great pressure to support a president who has been caught trying to squeeze a foreign leader for favors that don’t benefit the United States, but benefit only himself personally.
What do you think it’s going to take to break down that cynicism and loyalty that Republican elected officials, and also Republican voters, have for Trump?
I think that it’s going to happen in pieces. It will start right now in the run-up to the 2020 election. It’s important to reframe the conversation away from Trump. Donald Trump wants everything to be about him. The 2020 election is partly about Donald Trump, but only partly. It’s about things that have been broken in this country for decades. Donald Trump is just the latest and most aggressive symptom. It’s about talking about what’s broken and showing the people we can fix it. It’s about optimism that the vote counts. That we can make something happen.
And then the second part is to start delivering on that promise. And when we do, that’s when the world really starts to change. When I get to sign the bill that cancels student-loan debt for 43 million Americans, the whole world takes a click in a different direction. Millions of young people, Democrats and Republicans, who have only seen the government as on the other side — as a debt collector — suddenly it’s a government that’s on their side. I think the student-loan debt forgiveness will be a pivotal moment in reframing the tension in this country away from the tired old left-right, and toward the fundamental question of who this democracy works for.
I’m interested in what you do to unwind.
I walk, and I listen to fiction.
What are you listening to right now?
The John Rain series — it’s a good sort of mystery adventure.
Do you count your steps?
I count miles.
How many miles do you usually do?
I’ve averaged 6.6 miles every single day [this year] — some days I get way above that, and some days I fall short because the rest of the team keeps me working on too many other things. And I don’t get to count my steps when I’m doing town halls.
I know you love a Michelob Ultra. Do you have any other vices?
What are you watching right now?
Bruce and I love an hour of good TV. We finished Line of Duty — it’s a British mystery that’s really good.
Is there a book that you’ve returned to multiple times over the course of your life, that’s really special to you?
Sense and Sensibility. I reread it about a month ago.
What do you like about it?
It’s about both the mind and the heart.
I’ve read that you get dressed in four minutes. Are there other things you do to cut down on decision fatigue?
I wear my hair the same way all the time. I buy the same kind of shoes, I buy the same pants, and the same tops, a narrow range of sweaters, and a narrow range of jackets.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen, and if nobody will get physically injured, then give it a try.
What’s one piece of financial advice that you think everyone should know?
Debt is really dangerous — far more dangerous than you think.
Is there anything you wish more people understood about you?
That everything I do — good, bad, and indifferent — comes from the fact that I care. All of it.
Last question: You named your golden retriever after George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. So I have to ask: Bailey’s Building and Loan, good bank or bad bank?
Good bank. I haven’t watched the movie in years—
I think there are those who would argue it’s a subprime mortgage lender—
Actually, I disagree with that. He wasn’t trying to extract value out of those folks. He just used a different method for determining who was creditworthy. In fact, I’m surprised that you asked that question. He didn’t try to do accelerated mortgages that were going to cost people their homes or suck thousands of dollars of value out of every transaction. They were trying to help people build some wealth! It’s why we named our dog Bailey. And Bailey is a very good boy.