By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (MCT)
Her father was a janitor in Oklahoma City and her mother stayed home and cared for the four kids. When the youngest and the only girl came along unplanned in 1949, some belt tightening was needed. It would be needed again, when her father had a heart attack and her mother, vowing not to lose the house, took a minimum-wage job at Sears.
No one in the family had been to college. Her three brothers joined the military. But Elizabeth Warren won a debate scholarship to George Washington University. And though she let an early marriage derail it two years along, she got back on track and rose to become a Harvard law professor specializing in bankruptcy, a prominent White House official and now a U.S. senator. She’s been described as the nation’s top authority on the beleaguered American middle class.
It’s one of those rags to riches stories that have long earned America bragging rights as a place of opportunity for anyone who works hard enough and shows enough drive. That is why Elizabeth Warren is worked up now, why she gets indignant at the paucity of rules to ensure “nobody steals your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.” Why she decries the lack of public investment in education and infrastructure, the hostility to a minimum wage, the disappearing power of unions to ensure a decent pension and a balance between worker and employer clout.
And it is why Warren draws large, cheering crowds when she speaks, as she did Sunday at a Des Moines, Iowa, campaign event for Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Enough people seem hungry to hear from someone who gets it, has lived it and is passionately and unabashedly willing to name it. The 65-year-old Democratic senator from Massachusetts has a striking ability to tell a personal story about how government can help build opportunity, by supporting a decent minimum wage, investing in public education, safeguarding social security and backing college loans. The America that gave her a fighting chance also invested in roads, highways and electrical grids and in an educated workforce that would allow small businesses to get launched and repay the debt in good jobs. It invested in scientific research.
“I’m the daughter of a janitor who ended up in the U.S. Senate because I was in an America that was building a future for all its children,” declared the former Republican.
But then came the ’80s, disdain for public investments, and deregulation. Instead of shared wealth, we got “trickle-down” economics. The cops on Wall Street were fired, allowing banks to feed off consumers through sub-prime mortgages, inflated hidden fees and penalties on banking, and solicitations to high risk investments. Yet while people who invested and lost their life savings went into free fall, the government made sure the banks couldn’t fail, no matter how much wrong they did.
In 2008, Warren was named to head a Senate congressional panel overseeing the $700 billion bank bailout. She took the job seriously enough to investigate the bank failures and demand accountability from Treasury Department officials who had been doling out the TARP money without monitoring how it was used, or taking action against those that misused it. Warren helped the Obama administration create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to guard consumers against abusive lending practices. But industry lobbyists, with the backing of members of Congress, opposed her heading it, and she was bypassed. “It would be her immense knowledge of banking practices that would make her such a dangerous and natural foe to Wall Street,” wrote Suzanna Andrews’ in the November 2011 Vanity Fair.
But it was people, not banks, at whom Republican Joni Ernst, Braley’s Senate opponent, aimed her derision in recently disclosed remarks. She decried “a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them.” She said it would take “painful” education to wean people away from their dependency, while government “will just give away anything,” rather than let the poor eat from food pantries.
“No one should work full time and still live in poverty,” Warren told the hundreds who came to see her in Des Moines. It’s a message I would urge my libertarian-leaning friends to take to heart. Whatever might aptly be said about the overreach of government into people’s personal business, governments have a responsibility to at least make sure the deck is not stacked in favor of big business, and that those in poverty have a chance.
We can discuss later the dilemma many Democrats will find themselves in should Elizabeth Warren heed calls to enter the presidential race and end up facing Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary. For now, let’s just heed her reminder that it matters who gets elected, and every vote counts. Minnesota’s Al Franken, as she pointed out, won his Senate seat by 312 votes.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr
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