Nobody — well, at least before the coronavirus crisis, anyway — would have blamed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren if she had spent most of March sheltering in place on a Caribbean beachfront, sipping a Michelob Ultra and looking up a big blue sky instead of a glass ceiling.
After all, it was only about two weeks ago (even if it feels like two years, or maybe 20) that Warren put a halt to probably the most grueling white-collar job anyone could imagine, running to become the 46th president of the United States. And the 70-year-old former Harvard Law professor ran harder than most, literally sprinting into each rally and then staying deep into the night to pose for selfies with tens of thousands of voters.
Well, going on vacation is what most of the folks who came before her in seeking the White House — most of whom, for what it’s worth, have been men — would have done. Instead, Warren is making a new kind of history — not the kind where she overcomes a nation’s ingrained misogyny to become America’s first woman president, unfortunately — by leaving the 2020 race and yet somehow shifting into an even higher gear.
With the U.S. gripped by its biggest challenge at least since 9/11 and arguably since World War II, Warren has been everywhere — either in person on the nightly TV shows, pushing for a coronavirus rescue that would also rebalance American society back toward the middle class, or at least in spirit, with the two remaining septuagenarian white men vying to become the Democrat to challenge President Trump competing to embrace the Warren agenda.
“When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the federal government responded with a bankers’ bailout,” Warren wrote this week in a CNN op-ed, recalling the tempest that put a once obscure academic on a near-miss White House trajectory a dozen years ago. “The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful. We should learn from the past and meet the challenges of this pandemic head-on, this time to deliver meaningful, grassroots relief directly to American families.”
With Congress and the Trump administration working out the details of a possibly $1 trillion or more bailout package, as a largely shuttered nation slides into recession or worse, Warren has offered an eight-point plan that would condition aid to corporations on real steps both to prevent abuses now but also curb income inequality going forward. Highlights include a ban on stock buybacks — the way many big businesses squandered 2017′s huge tax cut — and promises of retaining current payrolls, a minimum $15 living wage, and worker seats on company boards. On Thursday morning, as I was writing this, Warren was one of four top Senate Democrats to announce a bold plan for the government to make student loan payments during the crisis with an ultimate cancellation of $10,000 or more of each debt.
What’s more, as former Vice President Joe Biden solidifies his big lead in the Democratic race, Warren is skillfully using the so-far-withheld promise of an endorsement as a big stick to prod the Delawarean — whose greatest strength in a 50-year political career has been his ability to adapt — farther left than anyone could have imagined.
Biden surprised the audience at Sunday night’s nationally televised debate with his last remaining rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, by revealing that after a series of conversations with Warren he has endorsed her radical reforms for the consumer bankruptcy system. These would undo much of the harm caused by the 2005 bill shepherded by Biden himself, on behalf of his credit-card company donors back in Delaware. He also announced a plan to make public university education free for the middle- and less privileged classes, much closer to plans by Warren and Sanders.
It’s easy not to notice amid the all-encompassing fog of the coronavirus crisis that what’s happening here is truly remarkable. Warren and Sanders, arguably America’s most ideology-driven political leaders, have pushed the Democratic Party further left than anyone who lived through the bleak Reagan years could have ever imagined. Unless he decides to shamelessly break his promises, a Joe Biden presidency would be one of the most progressive in America history, and the most radical since FDR’s New Deal.
Warren’s boundless energy couldn’t leap the hurdles thrown up against electing a smart woman president, but nevertheless she is persisting to become America’s commander-in-chief of radical change. And she could well retain this power as long as she roams the corridors of the U.S. Senate, which — given her seeming good health — could be a long, long time.
That’s interesting because in 2012 when Warren first ran for and won the Massachusetts Senate seat that was briefly grabbed by the Republican Scott Brown at the height of an anti-Barack Obama backlash, she noted that it was still thought of by many voters in the Bay State as “the Ted Kennedy seat,” because that liberal lion had held it for some 47 years. And since then their careers have indeed paralleled.
Both senators arguably sat out their best chances to win their party’s presidential nomination — Kennedy in 1972 (although he probably would have lost to Richard Nixon) and Warren in 2016. And when each did finally run, some 40 years apart, both were judged less for their ideals and more for problems that — in polar opposite ways — touched on the white-hot third rail of gender politics.
That’s not a comparison. Ted Kennedy’s problem was of his own making — his atrocious behavior in the 1969 Chappaquiddick affair and the tragic death of his young aide Mary Jo Kopechne — and raised legitimate, deeper questions about his character. Warren — as discussed in this space several times — struggled instead against the bitter winds of fear that 2016 had revealed that America still isn’t ready for a woman in the White House, as the risk of four more years of a Trump presidency sent Democrats scrambling instead for the tried and true.
Instead of raising her right hand and remaking history on Jan. 20, 2021, Warren — despite her rise from the Oklahoma working class to become America’s leading expert on bankruptcy law, despite running the best-prepared and most thoughtful campaign in recent memory — fell to earth in the same sub-orbit as so many women in so many fields before her, having flown too close to that man-made (emphasis on the word “man”) glass ceiling. Just one more woman who was up at 4 a.m. to prepare, only to see some dudes take credit for her ideas.
It’s hard to say what’s more depressing — knowing that America won’t give the top job to someone like Warren or the realization among Baby Boomers like myself that we may die before any woman is ever entrusted with the keys to the Oval Office. Many women, naturally, expressed this better than I ever could. Some had to deal with depression like the feminist writer Jessica Valenti when her 9-year-old daughter assured her that she could grow up to be president. “I want her to be able to hold on to that optimism,” she wrote, “because the truth is that I’m fresh out of hope to give her.”
Under those very, very different circumstances, Warren’s predecessor, Ted Kennedy, also had to walk back into the U.S. Senate one morning in 1980 with a similar revelation: That he could never be president. So he rolled up his sleeves and arguably became the most influential and skilled senator of the latter 20th century — passing legislation for Americans with disabilities and children’s health insurance, and fighting for other causes like immigration reform. And when his time was nearly up, he passed the torch to an unlikely future president in Barack Obama.
Now, in just two weeks, Elizabeth Warren is showing America that she’s not only the worthy and rightful heir to Kennedy’s Massachusetts legacy, but that intends to take this to a higher ground. Every failed candidate insists that their political ambition was really about ideas, but Warren is out there on the battlefield proving she actually meant it. Make no mistake, the White House was her easier path toward transforming America toward her vision — but now she’s going to do it the hard way, using her moral authority to lobby and cajole and force the mostly men in power to do what’s right. Just like the boldest women who came before her.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? Hey, for Donald Trump that’s a ridiculous campaign song. But for Elizabeth Warren, that is some sweet music because she is still out here, and she won’t leave until she gets what she needs.