Elizabeth Warren Tries Out Presidential Pitch in Cincinnati

The Massachusetts senator talked up economic policies she says will benefit America's working and middle classes at a campaign event at Bogart's

May 11, 2019 at 4:27 pm
click to enlarge Elizabeth Warren at a campaign town hall May 11 in Cincinnati - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Elizabeth Warren at a campaign town hall May 11 in Cincinnati

You probably wouldn't usually go to Cincinnati's cavernous music venue Bogart's at 11 a.m. for an hour-long talk about economic policy, but more than 1,500 prospective voters supporting or curious about Democratic presidential primary contender U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren did Saturday.

Minus a couple flubs, Warren brought enough energy to fill the room, showcasing a wonky but neatly-packaged policy platform aimed squarely at voters disenchanted with the nation's economic and political structures and a controversial Republican administration.

The Massachusetts senator, a former law professor and public school educator, will need all that energy and polish plus some to fight through a field of more than 20 contenders in her party's primary and take on President Donald Trump — with whom she has sparred viciously at times — in 2020.

Local Republicans say they're not impressed.

"Elizabeth Warren has a vision for Ohio that is not a healthy vision for Ohio," Hamilton County Republican Party Alex Triantafilou said at a small protest event across the street from the campaign event. Triantafilou said Warren's vision would be detrimental to the local and national economy as he touted Trump, who he says has boosted Ohio's economic health. 

But a significant number of Democrats see it differently.

Currently, polling shows Warren is fourth in the primary behind front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

At this early stage  —  her campaign launched in February and the primaries are still a year away — Warren came ready with a single-word slogan ("persist!"), a 30-second elevator pitch that boils down to three main talking points ("attack corruption, restructure a couple core pieces of our economy, restore our democracy," she told the crowd toward the end of the event) and more detailed policy proposals that seem primed to compete with one of the most popular and left-leaning primary contenders, independent Sen. Sanders.

Warren isn't quite as bold as Sanders or other contenders on some issues — she has hedged on single-payer healthcare or a Medicare-for-all model that is becoming increasingly popular with Democratic candidates in the primary, and the issue received scant mention at today's rally — but many of her economic policies seem aimed at Sanders' progressive voter base.

On other issues, Warren aligns with the rest of the party. She's concerned with protecting abortion rights, she told the crowd today during a question and answer session. That's a big issue among voters in Ohio and other states that have recently seen a wave of increasingly strict abortion laws passed by Republican state legislatures.

Warren also touched on foreign policy, advocating withdrawing United States forces from Afghanistan and other countries where it has been engaged in battles with terrorist groups.

But for the most part, Warren, who helped conceptualize and establish the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, stuck to the area she has long been active in: domestic economic policy.

Warren has long been focused on economics and its effect on the middle and working classes — a fixation she attributes to her time growing up in a moderate-income family in Oklahoma.

After her father had a heart attack that meant he had to take less-strenuous, lower-wage work, Warren told the crowd at Saturday's event in Cincinnati, her mother put on her best dress, walked into Sears and got a minimum-wage job to avoid losing the family house to foreclosure. The family's subsequent experiences — and her own as a working mother — have informed her policy positions since, she said.

"Back when I was a girl, a minimum wage job would support a family of three," she told the crowd. "Today it won't keep a momma and baby out of poverty. That is wrong and that is why I'm in this fight."

That claim was a bit of a stretch — Warren's family still had two incomes and minimum wage in 1962, the year after her father's heart attack, was the equivalent of $9.75 an hour in today's money. But the point landed with the crowd.

Warren's big-picture economic policy proposals include the creation of a two percent tax on wealth over $50 million, which she says would pay for universal childcare measures, universal public preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds, tuition-free higher education and student debt forgiveness up to $50,000 for most borrowers.

She has also proposed breaking up some of America's largest corporations — Facebook, Google, large banks and other powerful economic enterprises — so that they aren't so dominant in the American economy.

Warren also has proposals to root out corruption she says is rampant in American politics, especially under Trump.  Warren's version of draining the swamp would "do away with lobbying as we know it" in the federal government, reform campaign finance laws and take other measures she says will get money out of elections.

The message Warren was selling the crowd: We're going big.

"This is our time to change the course of American history," she told the crowd at the end of the event as the room erupted in cheers. "Dream big. Fight hard. And let's make this the America we can believe in."

For the most part, supporters at the event seemed to buy it, rewarding Warren with loud cheers and chanting her name. That was even after a campaign worker addressing the crowd referred to Ohio as Iowa — where the campaign has been spending much of its time lately — during the opening minutes of the event.

Introductory remarks by Cincinnati State Rep. Brigid Kelly went smoother, and the candidate and campaign staff made sure to lead the crowd in chants of "O-H-I-O" throughout the rally.

"I thought it was great," said Samantha Shattuck, a contractor at the EPA office in Cincinnati. "She's my No. 1. I'm a policy person, and I feel like she's speaking my language. I would have liked to hear more about climate change and everything that's going on with the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the attacks on our environmental laws right now."

Warren did devote a few minutes to discussion about climate change, though it wasn't a focal point of her talk.

Others attending wondered about Warren's ability to get elected against Trump — the primary concern among Democratic voters in recent polls.

"I think she ranks No. 1 for me — but there might be some ties," laughed attendee Laila Ammar. "Kamala Harris excites me, too. But those are two candidates who people say aren't very viable right now. I'm not excited about that."

Ammar said she learned a lot about Warren's backstory — her time as a special-needs teacher, especially — that made her like the candidate more. Others echoed that.

"She understands where real people live," attendee Larry Jost said. "That's what's good about her."

Others at the event felt confident Warren was the toughest candidate in the field for what will surely be a knock-down, drag-out fight with Trump after the primary. Warren has tussled with Trump since the 2016 election. The president calls Warren "Pocahontas" due to previous claims she made about having indigenous ancestry. Warren has fired back — and occasionally misfired.

A video she released last October revealing DNA test results showing she likely had some Native American ancestry offended many indigenous groups, who say she politicized their identities and misunderstands the cultural and community ties that go into identifying as indigenous. The move, polling suggests, has made some Democratic and independent voters slightly more hesitant about her as a nominee.

Some at the rally, however, liked that Warren is willing to stand up to Trump while also bringing policy ideas to the table.

"She's a real fighter," event attendee William Meyers, a psychologist and author, said. "She's not fragile at all. The tax issues and corruption are very important to me. Overturning Citizen's United (a U.S. Supreme Court case that loosened campaign finance rules) is also really important to me. Her policies are the best of the field."

But Warren's not the only one he likes in the primary. Meyers said he's also keeping an eye on Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who he said he values for her similarly tough stance against Trump.