Elizabeth Warren Gets Off the Mat

The onetime co-front-runner delivers her most direct response yet to the haters, skeptics, and Buttigiegs.

Warren, seen from the side as she gestures with both hands and speaks from a lectern to a seated group of college students.
Elizabeth Warren in Manchester, New Hampshire on Thursday. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

On Thursday, Elizabeth Warren gave the kind of speech that becomes a Big Speech by self-definition because campaign operatives tease it as one and because it includes new “jabs” at rival candidates that are guaranteed to catch the attention of draaaaaaama!!!-oriented idiots such as myself.

The Warren campaign’s need for such a narrative-resetting event has been getting steadily more urgent since the October debate, when moderators and rival candidates got all over her case for not explaining how she’d fund single-payer health care. Pete Buttigieg has eaten into her support among smartypants white-collar voters, especially in Iowa, while Michael Bloomberg got into the race and spent four hundred trillion dollars on TV ads more or less because he’s worried that Warren (or Bernie Sanders) will win and raise his taxes. Warren’s rivals are (discreetly, at this point) accusing her of being an angry ideologue more interested in imposing her disruptive leftist theories than in Listening to Ordinary Americans, and in that characteristically murky presidential-campaign meta style, her poll numbers are suffering while voters and pundits speculate back-and-forth to each other as to whether the charges are true in a way that would damage her electability.

So she’s changed some things. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported, Warren’s stump speech now emphasizes that she would like to expand access to Medicare before addressing the tricky question of private insurance. She’s taking more audience questions at her appearances, which allows for one-on-one interactions that, in theory, should undercut the idea that she hates normal people and would be happy to see them suffer for the sake of her terrible Plans. She’s benefited from, and encouraged the press in its pursuit of, news cycles about Buttigieg’s high-dollar donors and tenure as a corporate consultant at McKinsey.

And then, on Thursday, she delivered remarks on the campus of New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College (which, as it happens, is both the site of a February Democratic debate and the target of a big lawsuit filed last month by some monks). There, Warren made the case that the purpose of her vaunted proposals for “structural change” is not to personally humiliate CNBC billionaires but to improve day-to-day economic life for nonbillionaires. And she argued that that the buddy-buddy relationships other Democratic candidates (whose names went unsaid, but which likely rhyme with Schmiden and Schmabuttigieg) have with wealthy donors will prevent them from making the same improvements.

For all that she’s been shat upon for being insufficiently unifying, Warren also presented her candidacy in such a way as to make clear that, in theory, it should have broad appeal—not just to democratic socialists, and not even just to the white working-class voters who tend to favor “populist” economic ideas like taxing the rich, but to the kinds of people who care about GDP growth, business investment, entrepreneurship, and the other concepts that the Republican Party used to occasionally celebrate before it shifted its exclusive attention to posting “deplorables” memes and committing crimes with Ukrainians named “Igor.”

Note, for instance, the reference to “new factories and new product lines” in this section introducing Warren’s ideas for changing the structure of corporations in a way that would make wage growth and long-term stability more attractive than short-term profitability and shareholder payouts:

At the beginning of the 1980s, large American corporations sent less than 50 percent of their total earnings to investors. Within 30 years, they sent 93 percent of their earnings to investors.

Trillions of dollars that could have gone to workers and to long-term development—to new factories and new product lines—instead went to short-term payoffs to investors. Trillions that could have gone to workers, instead went to investors. Wages and productivity used to grow together. As workers produced more, they got paid more. But that ended by 1980, when productivity continued to rise but wages flattened out.

Warren concluded this section of the speech by arguing that her reforms “don’t cost taxpayers a dime” and claiming that they will “produce more jobs, more growth, more investment, higher wages, and stronger American companies that can compete and win.” Another riff noted that low wages and high costs for housing, health care, and child care are not just stressful to those who have to deal with them but preclusive of the kind of consumer-goods spending that gets the economy juiced up and ready to party. “Low demand drags down productivity and longer-term growth,” Warren said, sounding suspiciously like a non-socialist.

The speech made even more direct connections between theory and practice in a section about corporate consolidation and monopoly:

So today, in market after market, a handful of big players dominate. Four giant companies control the entire market for beef. Two companies control more than 60 percent of all mattresses sold in America. Two companies own more than 90 percent of all retail drug stores. Hospitals, agriculture, drug companies—the list goes on and on. …

Consolidation hurts our economy. Without competition, monopolists can charge whatever they want, so prices go up. Concentration also undercuts workers’ bargaining power, so wages drop. And as the biggest companies grow more powerful, entrepreneurship declines.

Warren went into detail about how the cost of hearing aids was propped up by regulations that require them to be distributed through doctors, then took credit for having been, with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the primary co-sponsors of a bill that will make the devices more widely available for over-the-counter sale next year at lower cost.

Then, of course, were the jabs, digs, and snipes at Biden and Buttigieg and their strategy of celebrating the wisdom of the heartland working class while personally courting the donations of (and adopting positions that appeal to) CEOs, directors of hedge funds, and the like. (The Warren campaign, like the Sanders campaign, accepts donations of all legally allowed sizes but doesn’t do private fundraisers or give personal access to big donors.) Like this:

And anyone who is running for President and claims to want to help small businesses, raise wages, increase entrepreneurship, or promote economic growth and innovation, can’t just suck up to the people who are making huge profits by insulating themselves from competition. They can’t just offer a few small business tax credits or loan programs and ignore concentration. They need to tackle concentrated markets and the power of monopolists—even if it annoys some Big Tech CEOs.

Hmm, are any of the candidates Warren is running against buddies with a Big Tech CEO?

In a further allusion to both her rivals and the popularity of her wealth tax proposal, which polls well even among Republicans, she complained that a “thin slice of folks at the top … tag any attempt to reform the rigged system as ‘divisive’ and ‘extreme’—no matter how many Americans agree with it.” And after an entire speech’s worth of enumerations of the the ways in which making things better for most people would, by necessity, involve a degree of disunity with the short-term self-interests of the extremely rich, Warren said: “Voters will not trust a candidate who won’t make a single difficult decision that might cut down on the access and influence of wealthy donors. And voters will be right.”

Strong stuff, yeah? Yeah, seems like it. But will the press pick up her message? Will she able to cut it into sound-bite-size pieces at the debate next Thursday in Los Angeles? Will voters listen? Will they be convinced? Will a judge agree with the monks of St. Anselm that they should be consulted before the school’s trustees make changes to its bylaws? If I knew the answers to such questions, I’d be making millions in the betting markets instead of writing for a website. But I do know that, by setting up next week’s debate with a speech that puts Buttigieg and Biden on the defensive while drawing attention back the positive parts of her agenda, Warren is once again demonstrating that she is thinking methodically about how to win over a plurality of Democratic voters without compromising the basic ideas of her candidacy. If she loses this race, it’s not going to be because she didn’t give it her best shot.