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The Unchanged Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren's dealing with one of the nebulous, mysterious things in politics — the idea of momentum — even as she's stayed consistent.

Posted on February 19, 2020, at 2:59 p.m. ET

David Becker / Reuters

LAS VEGAS — “So I was thinking today about being in Nevada back during the financial crash,” Elizabeth Warren opened on Saturday. She looked as she ever does, in black with a red cardigan, but her voice was starting to go, which it would by the end of the day.

This was in a high school auditorium, with more than 400 people in seats the same mint green color as her campaign logo, and a hand-painted sign out front directing people to the event.

“You know,” she said, “I have not been in politics for a long time.”

An hour or so earlier, Bernie Sanders had rallied 1,200 in the cafeteria of a different Las Vegas high school, one with floor-to-ceiling windows that dropped light on the speakers — who told painful stories about how housing and immigration policy can turn a life into a nightmare — and dropped light on the people in American flag tank tops and “FEEL THE BERN” ballcaps, the teens with long hair dyed Bernie blue, the local immigration activists in baby blue T-shirts. An electric mariachi band played. The campaign projected the outline of Sanders' face and glasses in white up on the wall. By the end, after Sanders rattled off the problems with the health care industry, the immigration laws, and Donald Trump, and ticked off the states to be won, starting with this one, people were standing and chanting “BERN-EE, BERN-EE” and one that ended “BERNIE ES PRESIDENTE” in this cafeteria filled with the bright morning.

And then, here's Warren in the darkened auditorium.

She began to tell a story about the hearings she chaired on the housing market collapse. At one, a man named Alfred Estrada testified, which can be read online, about losing his home in the 2000s. One of his daughters had wanted to make a list of her school friends so she wouldn't forget them when they moved. “Here's this man, he's worked all his life, worked for his family, stood there and cried, as he said he swore to his daughter that if they had to live in a van,” she said, “that they would live in a van across the street from the school so that he could keep his daughters in school.”

The throatiness of her developing cold made it seem, fleetingly, alarmingly, like she herself might cry, which would mean everyone else might start crying too.

This, she said, was a reminder about how policy isn't an abstraction. “We talk a lot about what banks do, about what Wall Street does, but the end of the trail on every one of those decisions that somebody makes to rake a little more profit off, to squeeze just a little harder on families, is a live human being.”

She continued on toward the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — you don’t get what you don’t fight for, she said — but that was more or less it. No story about her parents and Sears, or the wealth tax, or anything else that you’ve often heard. Warren as a candidate is wildly consistent; this was the candidate doing something different. She even wound a little circularly into the story — rather than the very tight setups she favors — moving forward and back a bit, touching on her academic inquiry into the mid-2000s mortgage industry, and touching on this now/then dichotomy twice.

“And so I was here. I was in Clark County, Vegas, to hold hearings,” she said.

“People flocked to this hearing to hear about what had gone wrong, how it was that these banks had been allowed to just rip people's homes away from them.”

Warren fits pretty well within the framework of American reformers of the 20th century — Methodist, a little academic, a little populist, a little moralistic; pragmatic on some things, a zealot on others; a person brought late in life into politics, rather than the other way around, and therefore distinct from the average politician. She has, at times, grounded her speeches and interviews in stories about Frances Perkins and Teddy Roosevelt, about suffragists and abolitionists — a line that tells you how she views the cause of consumer protection and corporate influence. She's ended up a lot of Democrats’ second choice, but for the smaller group for whom she is the first choice, she might be a singular American political figure, someone whose premise will endure: that the way you implement a big idea matters.

The last month hasn’t gone to plan, however. This same day, Warren got aboard her press bus to find just the five reporters the TV networks had embedded with her campaign. Fundraising emails suddenly have deadlines. Warren, who never competed on television in the same way as Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, has had to cut ads in some states. It wasn’t all darkened auditoriums; she spoke to 1,000-plus in Reno, and chatted with volunteers in Las Vegas's Chinatown who were practically bouncing with delight to be in her presence. Polling is difficult in Nevada for a variety of boring reasons but it’s very possible that she’ll come roaring back this weekend, just in time for Super Tuesday, and this will just be the precarious inflection point. Or, maybe, she won’t.

What is knowable, however, is that something did change in the last few months, from the cresting momentum in the fall to the more difficult winter, even if Warren has not. There’s been a current of critique along these lines — that she is slow to make changes, and that she is boxed in and contained, by her own volition, into the same material.

Up or down, Warren remains unchanged, committed to the stories she's put together. In debates, at events, she tells a core set of set pieces and gives set-piece answers to many questions. They're usually narratives, mostly rooted in her personal life as a prism to understanding something larger about the economy or regulation, and they often have a paradigmatic bent — implicitly asking you to reconsider the question in a slightly broader context about a reality wrought by Ronald Reagan.

That approach almost certainly helped her rise last year, defining her clearly as someone with populist plans and a different background than you maybe had understood.

It can also produce some slightly jarring moments, even at this same event where she told the long aside about Estrada and the CFPB. The last question of the event came from a woman who’d just been laid off. The letter, she said quietly and not without emotion, was postdated so she couldn’t file unemployment and was living on savings. Her question, then, was what Warren would do so this didn’t happen to others. People in the audience were murmuring.

“So I wanna start by saying how sorry I am this happened,” Warren said.

“But this goes back to the central question about who government works for — we have laws about this. We have a Department of Labor. We have an NLRB and labor regulations against wage theft. So here is my novel idea and that is we have a secretary of labor and a Labor Department that works on the side of labor.”

At this point, a man yelled “yeah,” and people started applauding. Over eight minutes, Warren then moved onto what the twinned personnel and empowered enforcement could do at the Department of Education, the EPA, the Pentagon, and touched on the Great Depression, World War II, the historical moment before us, and if people should cower or fight in times of duress.

All politicians revert back to practiced and familiar material. Over the last few days, Pete Buttigieg has answered the same question on multiple occasions with the same joke; the substance of Sanders’ remarks is eternal. But, particularly in the debates, this strategy of Warren's is clearly on purpose. She is an able speaker in deeper technical aspects of economic issues; she could approach this differently. Consider the New York Times ed board interview where, after a long back-and-forth with Binyamin Appelbaum about trade enforcement, someone jumps in to be like, we're pressed for time, as Warren starts talking about "investor state dispute resolution mechanisms."

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Part of what makes Warren compelling is her true discipline in speaking — and the occasional dissonance between the outer elements and others that must lie beneath. It's as though she's chosen one hue of her personality to emphasize first and above all else, either out of a natural impulse or because warmth and enthusiasm is the path toward fulfillment of her actual goals (significantly more robust federal regulatory enforcement of corporate money and consumer protections). She cannot have, for instance, truly wanted to take photos for an hour after coming in fourth in New Hampshire or affably chat with a man in a Bernie T-shirt on Saturday while she visited a strip mall in Las Vegas's Chinatown with a dozen people with cameras. But that is what she did. And that sort of breezy insistence carries through much of her public communication.

Occasionally, she offers a more chaotic energy — willing to risk rubbing someone the wrong way. See: the flat “no” she delivered in the most recent debate when asked if Buttigieg had given a satisfactory answer on race. See: everything that happened with Sanders on the debate stage in January. See: a few weeks ago, when she sent the following question up to the dais to be read during the impeachment trial. “At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government,” Chief Justice John Roberts then read aloud, “does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence, contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?"

Obviously nobody could see Warren on TV as this was read, but the imagined visual has a true high school vibe, a little immature but actually funny, like Warren got the vice principal to read a dirty joke on the PA. According to a CNN reporter sitting in the Senate gallery, Sen. Lamar Alexander actually made that “oohhhh” noise teens do when someone does something that might get them in trouble.

I offer all this conjecture about Warren because it’s coupled, to me, with what's elusive and mysterious about politics. Democratic voters came around to Warren, then they seem to have faded. Beyond a large rally in New York last fall, Warren never seemed to capitalize on or cement her success from last summer; her campaign, once set into motion, seemed to stay on that one plane. Now, here at the end, most of us remain susceptible to nebulous concepts like momentum, and the sense that once vibrant things can turn flat and hazy, then come back to life anew — with only cascading questions about why. Everything from Medicare for All to polling, to sexism, to AOC, to the lockstep consistency, to some weird aphorism about timing have been suggested as explanations. Is it something else? Is it everything? Is it temporary?

A campaign like this can be bewildering: Nothing much with Warren has changed.

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