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Elizabeth Warren Makes Her Bid for History

Photo: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

During one of her biggest campaign rallies to date, Senator Elizabeth Warren taught her supporters a history lesson. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, not far from where they stood in Washington Square Park, 146 women and girls once perished in a fire. It was not an act of God, Warren explained, but a preventable tragedy. Oily factory floors fed the flames and the women had no way to escape. The factory owners had locked the door to prevent the workers from stealing cloth.

Some climbed out the windows, looking for a faster exit. “A woman jumped, and then another, and then another. They hit the ground with a sickening thud,” Warren said. “Bodies piled up. Blood ran into the gutter. Dozens more were trapped inside.” It is a pivotal moment in American labor history, if not the usual stuff of a campaign stump speech. For Warren, though, it was a springboard, a way to introduce the anti-corruption platform she’d launched that morning. Factory owners did not reform practices of their own free will; in Warren’s telling, they initially relied on corruption to grind the gears of progress to a halt. Conditions only changed because advocates like Frances Perkins forced them to do so. It’s an intelligent framing, and one that is by now common to Warren; the marriage of policy to a memorable story is one that can galvanize voters. The Triangle story in particular serves a dual purpose. Warren, standing atop a platform made from Frances Perkins’s old barn, is making a bid for progressive history. She’s aligning herself with Perkins, who eventually became FDR’s secretary of Labor, and thus, the first woman in the presidential line of succession.

declared, “overprepared.” But Warren’s Washington Square speech also highlighted the differences between the two candidates. Clinton leaned into pragmatism and alienated the left, but Warren’s other rallying cry, for “big structural change,” isn’t very Clintonesque.

said after winning the Pennsylvania primary. “And it’s one of the many reasons that being American has always been such a blessing.” The problem, as many of her left-wing critics pointed out at the time, is that if being American has ever really a blessing, it has only been a blessing for some. America’s past is littered with factory fires and bigger, darker tragedies. Its present is often just as ugly. Clinton’s rhetoric, in tandem with policies that clung to an incremental vision of progress, only made her sound aloof. Her reliance on wealthy donors and her friendly relationships with Wall Street interests might have been typical for Democrats, but weighed her down even further.

report, alienated veterans of the Obama administration by criticizing them for their handling of the recession. She promises change, or at least norms we can believe in. And for a lot of people, that’s enough. The Working Families Party endorsed Warren the morning of the rally, and she’s consistently moved up in the polls. She often ranks directly behind Joe Biden, the front-runner, and she’s at least pulled even with her nearest ideological competitor, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. That’s real momentum, but will it last?

according to Morning Consult, 29 percent describe former Vice-President Joe Biden as their second-choice nominee, and 28 percent listed Warren. Biden supporters narrowly prefer Sanders to Warren. Warren supporters, meanwhile, prefer Sanders to Biden — again, by a slim margin. Warren can’t inspire the nostalgia that powers the Biden campaign; her chances, instead, may be defined by her ability to persuade Sanders voters. And that could prove difficult. Sanders, in 2016, expanded the boundaries of the possible. It’s largely because of him that Medicare for All moved from fringe policy to recurring debate topic. He still leads with younger voters, and he’s released a series of detailed and generous proposals to shore up labor rights, expand affordable housing, and implement a Green New Deal. To pundits, this is all evidence that Sanders occupies a far-left lane. Voters, however, seem to see things differently; to them, Sanders-style populism may stand on its own, a force not easily reducible to a left versus right binary.

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