Elizabeth Warren — The Quiet Revolutionary Who Could Challenge Hillary Clinton in Democrats' 2016 Race
Not many political "rock stars" inspire audience members to knit, but, even by Washington's sedate standards, the darling of America's new left is a quiet revolutionary.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard professor turned Wall Street scourge, is one of a clutch of unlikely radicals giving hope to those disenchanted with mainstream Democrats.
Hours before a rare public appearance last week, one of the largest rooms in Congress begins slowly filling up with an odd mix of groupies: policy wonks, finance geeks, Occupy activists, and, yes, the type of political conference attendee who brings their knitting in.
Warren proceeds to calmly recite numbers that could inspire even librarians to storm a few barricades. The Wall Street crash has cost the US economy $14tn, she says, but its top institutions are 30% larger than before, own half the country's bank assets and are in receipt of an implicit taxpayer subsidy of $83bn a year because they are deemed too big to fail.
"We have got to get back to running this country for American families, not for its largest financial institutions," concludes Warren, before noting how little President Barack Obama has done to achieve that.
When the same message was delivered to union leaders in September, she had them standing on their chairs. But for the first time since the banking crash, the argument is connecting at the ballot box too. Mayoral elections in Boston and New York two weeks ago saw leftwing candidates with similar messages about economic inequality win by surprising landslides.
Meanwhile, Terry McAuliffe, the former Clinton fundraiser who epitomises the business-friendly Democrat mainstream, saw his substantial poll lead in Virginia all but evaporate under attack from populists on the right.
Whereas the Tea Party has worked relentlessly since the financial crash to recast the Republican party as a perceived challenger to Wall Street, Democrats such as Obama and his potential successor Hillary Clinton rely heavily on financial donors and have veered away from confrontation. But the popularity of senators such as Warren in Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown in Ohio has combined with recent mayoral election wins by Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston to raise hopes that the left could yet exert the same pull on Democrats.
"The challenges the Democratic party has faced since 2009 have largely been a result of the public's perception that the party isn't clearly enough on their side," argues Damon Silvers, policy director for union umbrella group AFL-CIO. "Republicans have exploited that very skilfully, even though Republicans are totally owned by the financial class."
"What's happening now is the emergence of politicians – De Blasio and Walsh being recent examples – that are just not interested in that type of politics," adds Silvers. "And those people are being successful. They are stepping into a political vacuum that is all about authenticity in relationship to issues of inequality and the power of financial interests."
Though the similarity only goes so far, the shared interest of America's new left and Tea Party conservatives in challenging the economic status quo also shows how figures such as Warren might attract broader support beyond traditional Democrat voters.
One self-confessed Warren groupie is David Collum, a Cornell University chemistry professor and amateur investor, whose enthusiasm for free market economics previously led him to endorse libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul. Collum has been exchanging regular emails with Warren since before the crash and says she captured his imagination because her brand of intelligent populism transcends traditional political boundaries.