Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Netroots Nation was the day Elizabeth Warren became president of the American left | Will Bunch

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's speech Saturday in Philly felt more like a coronation for the activist left.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren waves to a cheering crowd before speaking at a forum sponsored by NetRoots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on July 13.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren waves to a cheering crowd before speaking at a forum sponsored by NetRoots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on July 13.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

She had them at “hello.”

No, seriously. After applauding performatively for anti-Trump red meat tossed out by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (“We all have a responsibility to fight as hard as we can against this president!”) and former Cabinet secretary Julian Castro (“Instead of breaking up families, we should break up ICE!”), more than 3,000 politically left activists at the Convention Center went wild the instant that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren took her first stride onto the Netroots Nation stage.

People at the confab’s 2020 presidential candidates forum leaped to their feet. Some chanted, “Warren, Warren.” One woman loudly blurted out, “We love you, Liz!” at the senator, briefly blushing to match her red blazer.

Then for the next 25 or so minutes, Warren loved the American progressive movement back.

Already heralded as the woman who “has a plan for that” for everything from college debt to opioid abuse, Warren was freed up to focus less on details than on cutting soundbites (“We have a government that works great — it works fabulously ... for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.”), good humor (saying she supported legalizing marijuana “not just for the mellow folks in the back” but because of racial inequity in sentencing) and — when the subject turned to the human-rights abuses on the southern border — a show of steely resolve.

"You abuse immigrants, you physically abuse immigrants, you sexually abuse immigrants, you fail to get the medical care that they need, you break a law of the United States of America,” Warren said, pledging a Justice Department commission will investigate if she’s in the Oval Office. “Donald Trump may be willing to look the other way, but President Elizabeth Warren will not.”

That declaration was met with another standing ovation — the loudest of the entire afternoon — not only for its promise of restoring American values after a once-unthinkable era of concentration camps but also for the dream that truly motivated the Netroots Nation crowd, a mental image of a true liberal lion occupying the White House in just 557 more days.

With her slam-dunk performance Saturday, Elizabeth Warren became president ... of the American progressive movement, anyway. The lovefest felt like the near climax of a classic rom-com formula that’s played out over the last decade -- girl meets left, girl loses left (in 2016, when she arguably erred in not running), girl wins left. You’ll have to wait for the sequel to see if this story arc can propel the former Harvard law prof to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, let alone next summer’s nomination — but Warren wasn’t winning anything without the moral victory she successfully claimed here this weekend.

It was telling that — with the exception of Gillibrand, Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — the massive Democratic field pretty much surrendered this particular venue to Warren. The current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, whose national headquarters is just a few blocks away in Center City, chose instead to campaign in New Hampshire rather than face what might have been tough questioning of his more moderate stances. California Sen. Kamala Harris spoke to a confab of black sorority members just an hour away in Atlantic City.

But the most palpable absence in Philadelphia was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won over a goodly number of these activists in 2016 by challenging Hillary Clinton as a democratic socialist. Sanders sent campaign staff and top surrogate Nina Turner but didn’t address Saturday’s forum. (He’s now coming here Monday to rally with nurses seeking to save Hahnemann University Hospital.) Maybe it was personal differences with some Netroots Nation organizers, maybe it was the bitter memory of a confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists at the 2015 event, or maybe he didn’t want to call attention to the fact that a lot of his primary voters from three years ago are now swooning for Warren.

Andrea Putnam, a Los Angeles ex-pat living for a while in Philadelphia, worked for Sanders’ campaign in 2016 but told me after the forum that she’s undecided in 2020 and acknowledged that Warren is “rising to the top” of her early list. She talked about an apparent paradox, that “you have to give Bernie credit for changing the conversation that we’re having” around issues like Medicare-for-All or tuition-free candidate — yet that has freed progressive voters to look at other left-oriented candidates who might have a better chance of beating Trump than Sanders, “a curmudgeon.”

“I think she [Warren] emulates more actively, and maybe more youthfully," Sanders’ positions (Sanders is 77; Warren just turned 70), said Putnam, who also praised the Vermont senator for walking a tightrope of somehow “softening” her campaign presentation yet also giving primary voters the impression that if she gets on a debate stage with Trump “she can hold her own.”

Likewise, Nancy Kleinberg, a 73-year-old Narberth woman who became a full-time activist with the Indivisible movement after Trump’s election, said she’s been very focused on electing state and local candidates but that for one afternoon she was totally wowed by Warren. She said the candidate is dismissing any concerns she’d be bowled over by the incumbent.

“This really made me feel like she is absolutely strong enough to take on Donald Trump,” Kleinberg said. “She was authentic ... but I was impressed by everything. I’m thrilled!” She added that “she’s great at tying her life [story] into what she believes in.”

The elephant in the room was the question ever on the lips of the American punditocracy — whether a candidate progressive enough to win over a crowd like Netroots Nation will be too far left to win a general election.

Warren tackled that head-on, saying Saturday that polls showing majority public support for expanding access to health care and college and a higher minimum wage means “the progressive agenda is America’s agenda and we need to get out there and fight for it ... We have a chance to realign politics in this nation!”

Speaking ahead of the candidates, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said his unapologetically leftward stances and authenticity helped him win big in 2018 in a Rust Belt state that Trump had won easily just two years earlier, proclaiming that “elections aren’t about some ‘electability’ question. They’re about the question, Whose side are you on?”

In May, I wrote a “tweetstorm” laying out how Warren could become the biggest nomination threat to Biden and possibly beat him. Only Warren can unite two critical primary voting blocs — 2016 Sanders voters shopping for a newer progressive, and suburban women who’ve been the backbone of groups like Indivisible and who still resent Sanders for challenging Clinton. I predicted a tipping point would come when Warren passes Sanders in the early polls — exactly what is happening now.

The threat to her scenario of becoming “the Biden slayer” is Harris, who right now seems slightly better positioned to win critical black support if and when the former veep falters. Warren has made inroads with black women activists but that has yet to filter down to rank-and-file African American voters. During her 24 hours in Philadelphia, the Massachusetts senator threw herself into that project, hosting a private lunch with key black female influencers like Feminista Jones.

“I think more people like me spreading the word, spreading the knowledge, we can get more people engaged,” Munira Edens, a 33-year-old Philadelphia activist with the group One Pennsylvania, who’d earlier asked Castro a tough question about housing policy and gentrification, told me. Edens is still very much undecided about 2020 but by 5:20 p.m. on Saturday many at Netroots Nation were not.

Even as candidate Inslee was ripping the president (“We need to make Donald Trump a blip in history ...") from the big stage, hundreds of attendees were already streaming out of the ballroom. They’d gotten what they came for. Elizabeth Warren had completed them.