Sen. Elizabeth Warren has followed a circuitous path to the largest stages of American politics. Raised in Oklahoma by a family of modest means, she won a college scholarship but dropped out to get married at 19. Later she got her degree, then a law degree, and ultimately became a Harvard Law School professor and a leading authority on the economic struggles of American families.
Along the way, she came up with the idea that eventually became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created as part of a new regulatory bill enacted after the 2008 Wall Street crisis. Republican senators announced they would block President Barack Obama from placing her atop the bureau, so in 2012 she won a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat for herself.
Heavily favored to win a second term this fall, Warren has moved to the front ranks of Democratic presidential prospects to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. The 69-year-old Warren sat down with CNBC editor at large John Harwood at a cafe in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to talk about Trump, the American economy and the political path forward for the Democratic Party. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.
Q: Let me start with a question about the predicament the country's in right now. There's some people who look at what happened in Helsinki, what happened with NATO and the G-7, the Mueller investigation and say, "well, we have a president who's very unusual, eccentric, but the government's running on a separate track from the president." Other people are more alarmed, who think that we're actually in a national security emergency at the moment. What do you think?
A: So I see the behavior of the president is deeply problematic. He attacks our allies and cuddles up to dictators. And by attacking our allies he not only distances us from them, he also is basically teaching our allies they can get along without us. Does the dollar have to be the reserve currency? You know, that's of enormous value to America. But if you've got an unstable leader, everybody else starts to back up and say, "Wait a minute, I want to rethink that."
A: Look, I don't know. All I can do is measure what he does. And when he stands up and attacks our intelligence agencies and attacks our law enforcement officers, and then defends a country that has launched a cyberattack on the United States — and indeed, seems to go, "wink-wink, nod-nod" — then boy, he is not serving the interests of the United States of America.
Q: The fact that I’m asking you that question is an indication of how people's nerves have gotten jangled. When you think about what you and fellow Democrats need to do in response, do you see more of an imperative to calm and soothe, or fight?
A: There are two things Democrats need to do. One is to be really clear about what we stand for. And the second is to be really clear that we're willing to fight for it.
We believe there's value in each of us, and that government can be a real force for good on health care, on helping our kids get an education, on building the infrastructure we need to build, on fighting back this horrible opioid crisis, on investing in medical research. These are the things we can do together. Right now this government under Donald Trump, and under the Republicans for a long time now, has been about making government more for the richest and most powerful in the country.
Q: Part of the differences that you guys have — I’m talking about internally within the Democratic Party — is policy, part of it's attitude and demeanor. Do you hit the gas, or do you reassure people with the idea of a broader appeal?
A: The heart of this really is the distinction between us and the Republicans. When the Republicans are saying, "let's do a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to billionaires and giant corporations," Democrats are saying, "whoa, whoa, whoa, if you think there's $1.5 trillion to spend, let's invest it in making health care more affordable in America, let's invest it in fighting back against the opioid crisis, let's invest it in the infrastructure."
Now look, we're Democrats, we're going to talk about pieces of that in lots of different ways. But I think at core, Democrats are together.
You know, I came to politics really late. I had a whole 'nother life. But I came to it, in many ways, because this is personal for me. I grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck family, All three of my brothers went off and joined the military. I was the baby. I wanted to do just one thing in my life: I wanted to teach public school. I've wanted to do that since I was in second grade. I used to line my dollies up and teach my dollies. I was tough but fair.
By the time I got ready to go to college, my folks didn't have the money for an application for me to go, much less the money to send me. I got a scholarship, I quit, I got married at 19. But I found a commuter college that cost $50 a semester, and I hung on for dear life.
That was my shot. I got that shot because America invested in kids like me. And here I am, the daughter of a janitor, who ended up as a public school teacher, a university professor, and a United States senator because America invested in kids. That opportunity's not out there today.
Q: So that's what makes you a U.S. senator who, rather than smooth things over, wants to fight.
A: You bet. Because kids like me, that door's only going to open once for them, and it needs to open now. It doesn't need to open 10 years from now or 20 years from now; it needs to open now. I feel this urgency of the moment. That's why I’m in this fight, and you bet, I’m willing to fight for what I believe in.
Q: You are more polarizing than some. Do you embrace that?
A: That's funny you'd say that. I don’t see it that way. I see it as wherever I go people know what I fight for. And a lot of folks agree with me, and even a lot of folks who don't respect the fact that I’m pretty darn clear about it and pretty straightforward.
Q: But you recognize that, say, with businesspeople, with Wall Street you're a very polarizing figure?
A: I get that there are a lot of folks who like having the power and the riches they have, they like being able to tweak their little pinkie and the United States government does just what they want. They like being able to get regulations rolled back or not enforced. I totally get that. And I get that I push hard against that, that I may be a threat to them on that. But my view on that is, don't call me the polarizing figure; they're the ones who want to take advantage of this country. They're the ones who want to cheat. They're the ones who want to say that their personal wealth, their power is more important than building an America that works for everyone.
Q: President Obama gave a speech in South Africa the other day, talking about the explosion of income inequality and the structural forces that caused that to happen. He was talking about the people behind that, people who are leading major corporations. He said it’s not that they're all motivated by malice, they're making rational choices in the system we have. It sounds as if you think there’s a good bit of malice.
A: They know what they're doing. They know that they are advancing the interests of themselves and people similarly situated over the interests of others. Is it every one of them, is it every moment, is it personal? That's not the point. The point is when the giant banks get together and they start rolling back , pushing Congress to roll back the regulations on Wall Street, they make it just a little bit more likely that if anything goes wrong that taxpayers will be called on to bail them out. But when they do that, then it's less about what's in their hearts, it's about what they're actually doing to this country.
Q: You don't think capitalists are bad people?
A: I am a capitalist. Come on. I believe in markets. What I don't believe in is theft, what I don't believe in is cheating. That's where the difference is. I love what markets can do, I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity. But only fair markets, markets with rules. Markets without rules is about the rich take it all, it's about the powerful get all of it. And that's what's gone wrong in America.
Q: Are you very concerned about the deficit as you think about what Democrats might want to do? Medicare for all, for example, very expensive.
A: Of course I worry about the deficit. But I also worry about how we build a future. And right now we're choking off the future for young people. We're choking off the future for hardworking families who are watching the cost of their health insurance go up. The Republicans just added to our deficit, they made the deficit go bigger. We need to reel that back in, and that means we need to rewrite those tax laws.
Q: You've talked about how you grew up on the jagged edge of the middle class. Donald Trump appealed to people on the jagged edge of the middle class. How do you think he's doing for them? What would you do for rusted-out factory towns, coal towns?
A: He made big promises to a lot of people who've just gotten the short end of the stick over and over and over. And he not only hasn't delivered on those promises, he's literally turned in exactly the opposite direction. He delivered huge tax cuts to billionaires. He has helped deregulate for big corporations. He has made it easy for the rich and the powerful to get richer and more powerful.
For me, what this would all be about is investing in all of America. And the best place for me to start is infrastructure.
Q: The level of the deficit now is not as big a problem as lack of infrastructure?
A: Let's be clear: You roll back some of those tax cuts, you can bring down the level of the deficit. My view on this issue, make those investments in infrastructure. It creates good jobs right now, and more to the point, it builds a future for our children and for our grandchildren.
Q: We also have tremendous racial polarization in our politics. That has made it difficult for Democrats to attract votes from some of those people. I remember a conversation I had with President Obama a few years ago. He said when those working class white voters recognize what Obamacare is going to do for them, they will come around. That has not happened. Those racial strains are what the president plays on with you with “Pocahontas.” How do Democrats overcome that?
A: Donald Trump identifies a real problem in America, and that is a lot of folks are hurting. And then he takes a turn and says, "it's the fault of those people, people who don't look like you, people who don't sound like you, people who don't worship like you, people who are not the same color, who didn't speak the same language." What he wants to do is set working people against working people, black working people against white working people.
Q: How can you make that case better than Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or John Kerry?
A: I can't look backwards at how anybody tried to make the case. All I can say is, I live this. I know this in my heart. This is what is etched on my heart. We can build a government that works for us, a government that works for people who get out every day and try to build something for themselves and for their families. And if — if government is on their side instead of on the side of the billionaires, instead of on the side of the giant corporations, this country knows no limits. It is an optimistic story of what we can do to gather, but we've got to have government on our side.
Q: President Obama's coalition, very heavy on young people, very heavy on nonwhites. Hillary Clinton was not able to motivate those people with the same success in 2016. Some people are making the argument that to really energize that coalition, Democrats need to go down a generation and have someone younger — one of the 40 or 50-somethings who are looking at running for president.
A: I don't know. I think you need a political pundit to look at that one. All I know is why I’m in this fight. I’m going to fight as hard as I can…
Q: Could you do it?
A: Look I’m in the fight right now. Right now we better stay focused on 2018.