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Elizabeth Warren Is Good at Her Job

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Elizabeth Warren has a rare talent for distilling political messages. In 2011, as she was running for the Senate seat that she won the next year, the former Harvard law professor delivered the kind of concise, pointed rationale for public investment -- and the taxation to support it -- that the White House had been striving to master for the previous three years. 

Speaking inside a supporter’s home, her remarks captured on a crude video that has since been viewed more than a million times, Warren addressed a prosperous, albeit entirely make-believe, business owner who was presumably questioning his tax burden:

You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. 

Now, look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless -- keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

In his speech accepting the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama reprised Warren’s theme, and with good reason. As colloquial political philosophy goes, Warren’s address made as good a case for the liberal social contract as you're likely to hear.

Warren didn’t run for president in 2016. If she had, there's a strong chance she would have eclipsed Bernie Sanders as the champion of the left, while also rallying the party agnostics who don’t much like Hillary Clinton but don’t want to damage her, either. Warren might have secured the nomination by now.

Warren balked. Yet she’s clearly determined to play a role in the campaign. She’s been using her rhetorical skills to bait Donald Trump, engaging in the sort of taunting, schoolyard Twitter war at which Trump excels. (Credit where it’s due.)   

Tuesday, Warren went further. As Greg Sargent noted in the Washington Post, she began assembling the building blocks of a sustained character assault on Trump. In sync with the Clinton campaign, she seized on a 2006 Trump quote in which he expressed optimism that the housing market would crash so that he could profit from it. But Warren made more of it. It was an example, Warren said, of a “small, insecure money-grubber” who is ever eager to make a quick buck off the misery of others. Then she cited Trump comparing paying taxes with "throwing money down the drain."

As Sargent pointed out, she used this as evidence of Trump reneging on the social contract, an act made more contemptible due to Trump’s inherited wealth and advantages. In effect, Warren carried forward her argument of 2011.

Warren’s talents will be used this year. The only question is how. There are three ways the Massachusetts lawmaker might prove pivotal.

  • First, as Clinton’s vice presidential nominee. As a liberal woman from the northeast, Warren wouldn’t balance the ticket -- but that may be a plus. Clinton is a struggling candidate with shaky support. Warren wouldn’t complement her so much as fortify her, serving as a fire-breathing 60-something Louise to Clinton’s less dynamic Thelma. We’ve had two men on a ticket more than a few times. A Warren nomination would be a double-barreled announcement of change.

  • Second, as Clinton’s Bern whisperer. Bernie Sanders supporters are a natural constituency for Warren, and it’s easy to imagine Warren serving as a bridge for them to trudge the unhappy last mile from Sanders to Clinton. Sanders no doubt intends to deliver his voters himself, with strings attached. Warren is there in case his ego gets entangled during the transfer.

  • Third, as Clinton’s premier attack surrogate. Warren has already formulated a crisper, more penetrating attack on Trump than Clinton has voiced. In the coming months, she’ll refine both the argument against him, and her delivery. She’s good at this. Meanwhile, she keeps drawing fire from Trump, who is incapable of ignoring her.

Of course, if Clinton were to do the unconventional and choose Warren as her running mate, Warren could fulfill all three of those roles. But one way or another, it looks like we’ll be hearing a lot from Warren on the campaign trail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net