And her growing popularity suggests others are coming around, too.
As the Democratic presidential campaign began, I was deeply skeptical of Elizabeth Warren.
My first objection was that she appeared to have parlayed possible Native American heritage to gain academic jobs (Harvard Law School listed her as Native American beginning in 1995). That offended me, and I knew it would repel huge numbers of voters.
Second, I thought she shot from the hip and, with her slight political experience, would wilt on the campaign trail.
Third, I thought she was a one-note Sally, eloquent on finance but thin on the rest of domestic and foreign policy.
So much for my judgment: I now believe I was wrong on each count, and her rise in the polls suggests that others are also seeing more in her. Warren has become the gold standard for a policy-driven candidate, and whether or not she wins the Democratic nomination, she’s performing a public service by helping frame the debate.
Let’s examine my misperceptions. First, The Boston Globe conducted a rigorous examination of Warren’s legal career, and it is now clear that she never benefited professionally from Native American associations.
“The Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools,” the newspaper concluded.
Then there’s the concern about political naïveté and inexperience. Warren first ran for office only in 2012; even Pete Buttigieg has been in elective politics longer.
It’s reasonable to worry about her electability, partly because last year she won re-election in Massachusetts as senator with a smaller share of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton had received two years earlier in the state. In contrast, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota hugely outperformed Clinton.
I worried about a tendency to shoot from the hip when Warren misread an article and in 2016 wrote a Facebook rant denouncing a supposedly greedy Trump-supporting investor, Whitney Tilson. In fact: Tilson opposed Trump and agrees with Warren on most issues; indeed, Tilson had previously donated to Warren.
The unbalanced screed resembled a Trump tweet and made me wonder about Warren’s judgment. But Warren later apologized, and she has been more careful since. Tilson told me that he thinks the rant was not part of a pattern but perhaps reflected a sleep-deprived moment.
More broadly, Warren has improved tremendously as a politician. Early on, she sometimes came across as a stern Harvard professor eager to grill you about an obscure tort case. She’s now much better on the hustings. Forget the tort case and Harvard Law; she’s an Oklahoma gal who wants to have a beer with you.
Finally, I was manifestly wrong on Warren’s policies. She has been a geyser of smart proposals, including one I particularly like for universal child care. This would resemble the outstanding child care program operated by the U.S. military and would benefit both working moms and at-risk kids.
Warren also has a range of other proposals, pertaining to everything from election reform to housing, antitrust to corporate governance. Then she offers a wealth tax to help pay for social programs.
One of America’s biggest problems is the collapse of the working class and the lower middle class, with suicide at a 30-year high and drug and alcohol abuse causing life expectancy to fall. Warren confronts that crisis head-on both with her personal story and with sharp policies to boost opportunity. Her 2017 memoir, “This Fight Is Our Fight,” is that rarity of campaign books: a decent read.
Warren’s proposals might or might not succeed, but they are serious, based on work by top scholars. She is a believer in a market economy, regulated to keep it from being rigged, and in corporations that contribute to the well-being of all. And while she’s no expert on foreign policy, her instincts on avoiding war with Iran and showing concern for Palestinians seem good ones.
At her best, Warren is also brilliant at shaping the narrative. In 2011, she explained why taxing the rich isn’t “class warfare.”
“There’s nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” she said in a clip that went viral. “You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the 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 the rest of us paid for.”
She ended: “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 it forward for the next kid who comes along.”
That’s a conversation we need to have in America, and I’m glad Warren is getting attention so that she can make her case.
Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.