Elizabeth Warren On 2020 Campaign And Need For 'Big, Structural Change' In an ongoing series, The NPR Politics Podcast is hitting the road and interviewing 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. In this episode, Asma Khalid and Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters sit down with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to ask about why she's the best pick for president. This series is produced in collaboration with NHPR and Iowa Public Radio.
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Elizabeth Warren Gets Personal On The Trail

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Elizabeth Warren Gets Personal On The Trail

Elizabeth Warren Gets Personal On The Trail

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE [MARCH AND TWO-STEP]")

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. All summer, we've been taking you on the trail to meet the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) ...Persisted. Nevertheless, she persisted. Nevertheless, she persisted. Nevertheless...

KHALID: This is a collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, which is why I met IPR's lead political reporter Clay Masters in a ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hey, Asma. Welcome back to Iowa. It's been a while.

KHALID: Thank you. It has been a while. The last time I was here was back in January when we saw each other. That was right after Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, had announced her exploratory committee to run for president.

MASTERS: That's right. So we are in the historic Surf Ballroom. This is in Clear Lake, Iowa. And we're here for the Wing Ding.

KHALID: Wing Ding dinner...

MASTERS: That's right.

KHALID: ...Presumably because they do have chicken wings.

MASTERS: They serve chicken wings. I can see them...

KHALID: I saw them. Where are they?

MASTERS: ...In big pans.

KHALID: The chicken wings were in aluminum tins on folding tables behind us. And around the corner was a stage in what looked like this old high school gym. This entire shindig felt like a pep rally. Almost every candidate was there with their own cheering squad. Mayor Pete Buttigieg just left the stage, and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was up next.

MASTERS: It's a chance for people to hear the stump speeches from the presidential candidates and, one after the other, get a chance to see what kind of a large field there is.

KHALID: Yeah. And you know, we're here to talk to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was a former Harvard law professor.

MASTERS: Yep. She was a teacher. She talks a lot on the stump about growing up in Oklahoma - you know, more in the middle of America; not too far away from Iowa. She's really trying to push her big structural changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: We've had enough of an America where the government works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. 2020 is our chance. We can make this government work for all of America. Let's do this, Democrats.

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

WARREN: Dream big. Fight hard. Let's win.

KHALID: We sat down with Senator Warren at her hotel right off the highway. She rolled up in an RV. We were going to ask her about it. But right when we started recording, a bunch of motorcycles rumbled up next to the window.

WARREN: Oh, just in time.

KHALID: Oh, is there really?

MASTERS: Yeah.

KHALID: All right. Well, can you hear them? Or are they all right?

MASTERS: OK.

WARREN: Just give them a second.

KHALID: A second later, the bikes went quiet, and we got started.

MASTERS: Notice you rolled up in an RV - have you always been a...

WARREN: Woo-hoo (laughter).

MASTERS: ...Recreational vehicle woman? Or...

WARREN: You know, this is really about being in Iowa, democracy, rolling across the state. But it's fun. I got to say, this is a pretty cool way to get out and talk to people.

MASTERS: Was it a choice for the RV and not a larger bus?

WARREN: (Laughter) You know, I love the RV 'cause, you know, it's kind of got all the right outfitting. But the best part is the sign on the back. We have a huge sign that says, honk if you want big structural change. And so as we're cruising down the highway, not only do we get cars that come by us and honk and people wave, last night when we were on the - on the highway, we had truckers coming by. And they were - they were really on the big air horns, and that was fun.

KHALID: All right. So we're going to dive right in. I want to start talking about guns. And this is a subject that's on the mind of a lot of Americans...

WARREN: Yep.

KHALID: ...Because of the mass shootings recently, both in Ohio and Texas. You're out with a new plan that includes some ideas that are ideas that we've heard a lot about from politicians over the years, whether that's stricter background checks or an assault weapons ban. But there's also some proposals in there that are around some more restrictive ideas, like holding gun industry CEOs personally liable and increasing taxes on gun manufacturers from, say, 11% all the way up to 50%.

Politicians have not been able to pass incremental, generally sometimes agreed upon changes to gun reform. So how would you build consensus to get these ideas passed?

WARREN: So here's how I think about this. We need - we need to approach guns and gun safety differently. It's not just - oh, here's one idea; let's go fight about this one idea - and here's a lot of things that we have talked about - universal background checks, get assault weapons off the streets. I'm all in favor of those. But we're approaching it as if it's one and done or three and done and then we can all go back to the old ways. I don't think that's the right way to look at it.

The way I look at this is we need to set a goal. I want to see us cut the number of deaths by 80%. And - and let me just remind you where we were back in 1965, when five people died for every million miles traveled on our roads. We decided as a country that we wanted to have better safety for people who travel. And some of it was obvious - seatbelts - right? - there - there was a pretty obvious - safety glass so the stuff didn't shatter and slash people to death. Some of it hadn't even been invented, like airbags and automatic braking systems. But we made that commitment, and we have cut deaths on our roads by 80%. I want to do the same thing around guns. So...

KHALID: But Senator, how do you do that? How do you build the consensus? I think...

WARREN: So...

KHALID: ...Many people would agree - right? - that it's a good goal.

WARREN: Well - but you've got to start with goal. I haven't heard anybody else talk about a goal. What I've heard them talk about is, here's one thing we'll do and one thing we'll do and one thing we'll do, and then we'll quit.

No, we need a goal. And that means we need a process for getting to it, so we've got two major ways we approach this. The first - a president should do everything she can by herself. And I will. And part two is we need to change Congress. The filibuster helps the NRA maintain control in Congress. So when I'm president, here's my plan - to get rid of the filibuster and to put in place sensible gun legislation proposals that it's going to take Congress to enact and get out there and fight for them. That's how we make change.

MASTERS: Under this current president, you've chafed over too much executive power from him. I mean, what is the proper balance of power among the...

WARREN: Well...

MASTERS: ...Branches?

WARREN: ...Can we start with - I've chafed when he's used power illegally? You've got to use it within the law. The point is, on gun safety, there's a lot we could do within the parameters of the law. And that's exactly what the president should be doing. The president is charged with safety in this country, with helping protect the American people, to be there on the side of the people.

You know, much of what I want to see is supported by huge majorities in this country. So the question you have to ask yourself is, in a democracy, when overwhelming numbers of people support a change in legislation year after year after year - sustained support for it - why doesn't it happen?

And the answer is corruption. It's the NRA and - let's be clear - the gun lobby, the gun manufacturing industry that supports the NRA, not so much about the rank-and-file members. It's about the money in this. It's about the connections. It's about the lobbying. It's about the campaign contributions. It's about the fact that it's the gun lobbyists that are calling the shots in Washington.

What needs to change? We've got to have the courage. We've got to have a leader who's willing to stand up to the gun lobby and say no more and to take away one of their principle tools, which is the filibuster.

KHALID: I am curious if there are things you feel you can do now - as a sitting senator - in the fall, when Congress comes back, to address gun violence? I do think there's a sense that people want immediate action.

WARREN: Of course we want immediate action. You know, we can continue to pressure the president because he could take action right now. And he's clearly feeling some of that pressure because he's at least talked about it. Now, we can't let him off the hook just talking about it; he's actually got to step up and do something because at the same time he talked about it, he then turned around and did a bow to the NRA and said, oh, but the NRA is still going to call the shots. But you know, he had to talk about it. That's - that's what democracy is about. You get in this fight, and you keep pushing.

Same thing on Mitch McConnell in the Senate - we've got two bills that have already come out of the House that would have some sensible gun legislation. It's to stay after Mitch McConnell. Bring it to a vote. Make everybody get out there and put their names on the record. And this is going to be about pressure. You know, it's the reminder how power works in America. Yeah, the president has a lot of power. Yeah, Mitch McConnell has a lot of power. But I'll tell you this. People have a lot of power, too.

KHALID: You recently said that the president was more than a racist, that he was a white supremacist. And Democrats talk a lot about the need to unite the country after a really polarizing period that the nation has endured, you know, in recent years. How do you do that if you're using language or labels that some people, some of his supporters, do feel alienated by?

WARREN: Well, I think we just have to be honest with what's happening. Come on. This is a man who is president of the United States - refers to people in Charlottesville who are white supremacists as fine people; a man who says he doesn't want any more immigrants coming here from shithole countries; a man who describes people who flee for their lives from Central America as mounting an invasion on our country; a man who has used racist language and racist imagery over and over and over; and most of all, a man who winks and nods at the white supremacists and who in turn is embraced and celebrated why - by the white supremacists. You know, when the white supremacists called Donald Trump one of their own, I tend to believe them.

MASTERS: So what's your role in bringing down the temperature - I mean, the role that you play in changing the dialogue in this country?

WARREN: I think it's to talk about what's broken in Washington - why it is that this democracy isn't working; why we can't get gun legislation through, for example; why it is that we can't get a wealth tax through; why it is that our kids are struggling under a trillion-and-a-half dollars of student loan debt. And what happens? Donald Trump and the Republicans give a trillion-and-a-half dollars away to bazillionaires (ph) and giant corporations. Why is it, in this country, that we can't make real investments in housing and child care? Why? Because this democracy is not working for the people.

KHALID: Senator, you've made the economy - economic patriotism a central part of your campaign. And you have criticized Donald Trump on trade, most recently saying that he has a tariff-by-tweet strategy. You recently came out with a trade plan of your own that is quite protectionist. It would require draft trade agreements to be published online for public comment, which your critics say would make it very hard, if not impossible, for trade deals to be formed. They say - your critics say that when you speak about trade, you sound more akin to Donald Trump than Barack Obama. Is that true?

WARREN: So I'm really stunned to hear you call sunlight protectionist - that it is protectionist not to let the giant corporations whisper in the ears of our trade negotiators and do exactly what they want and then ram through legislation without people in Congress really even having much of a chance to read it, much less debate it and talk about it with the American people? Since when did that become protectionist? I thought that's what a democracy was all about. And do keep in mind - Donald Trump is all about tariffs because he's into tariff by tweet. Right? He has no trade policy. He is into chaos. So I want to change that. So I start by saying, who are we going to have at the table to negotiate these deals? And the answer is we're going to have the people who are most affected. I want the unions at the table. I want small business owners at the table. I want small farmers, the independent farmers right here in Iowa. I want them at the table when we're hashing out our trade deals.

And part two is everybody wants to get to the American market. If you want some special trading deal, not just the standard under the world, you know, WTO, just the - you want a special trading deal, then here's what it's going to take. You've got to meet some basic standards in your home country, like not using prison labor or not letting people dump all kinds of pollution in the river and poison in the air and not - having some rules in place against corruption. Because when we try to compete against countries that haven't raised those standards, our products become more expensive and more jobs move everywhere else.

MASTERS: And speaking of trade, in rural Iowa, you know, for the last 12 years that I've been reporting in this part of the country in the Midwest, I can't count the number of times myself or colleagues of mine have done stories about small towns not being able to attract doctors and not being able to attract educators. I know you were a teacher once. How do you make people want to stay in the small towns in the Midwest? How do you make them want to keep their kids there or come back? What is the - is there a disconnect that's being out there between what's happening in the agricultural sector and the small towns or the micropolitans of the states like Iowa?

WARREN: So I see this as just one more version of whose side Washington is on. So let's pick health care. Right now, the government is on the side of the giant hospitals that want to merge, that want to swallow up little hospitals - oh, and they make lots of promises. Oh, we're going to expand coverage. Everybody's going to be covered. And then when it's all died down, they just close the hospital. They say, we're not making enough money. We're going quit. So a big part of my plan - my farm plan starts with health care. I'm out there to fight against these giant conglomerates. I'm willing to stand up against the assumption that mergers always go through. In fact, in the case of hospitals in rural areas, my presumption is on the other side. You don't get to merge unless you can really demonstrate how this is going to help serve more people.

KHALID: Remember those bikers that rumbled by in the beginning. Well, they made another cameo appearance.

We have a whole entourage of little Harley Davidsons coming by...

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: ...In the parking lot.

WARREN: I see the Harleys.

KHALID: So we paused the interview to let them drive back out to the highway. When we picked back up, we ask Senator Warren about her faith, that infamous DNA test and what she can't let go of. All that after a quick break.

And we're back. And with the Harleys gone, we were ready for part two of the interview.

MASTERS: Part two (laughter).

WARREN: Part two.

MASTERS: Right.

WARREN: Oh, is this going to be fun?

MASTERS: Yeah (laughter).

WARREN: Part two - OK, I'm ready. Do I change my shoes for part two or anything?

MASTERS: No. I think you can keep those on, Senator.

WARREN: OK.

MASTERS: Thank you, though.

KHALID: By the way, she was wearing sneakers. This part of the conversation was really relaxed. Senator Warren put her foot up on the chair and her hand on her knee. And we talked about how her life has affected her politics. So Clay asked her...

MASTERS: What is a time from your childhood that shaped how you see government?

WARREN: Oh, it's probably when my daddy had a heart attack, when there was no money coming in, when we lost the family station wagon, when my mother used to cry every night, when I learned words like mortgage and foreclosure and when my mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home and was truly terrified, pulled on her best dress and put on her high heels and walked to the Sears and got a minimum wage job. And that minimum wage job saved our home. And more importantly, it saved our family.

And it was years and years and years later that I understood that's a story about government because when I was a girl, a full-time minimum wage job in America would support a family of three. It would pay a mortgage. It would cover the utilities. And it would put food on the table. Today, a full-time minimum wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty. That is wrong. And that is why I am in this fight.

KHALID: We've been asking many of the candidates about their faith. How has your faith evolved from when you were a Sunday school teacher in Texas to being a Harvard law professor to now being a U.S. senator?

WARREN: I don't know that it's evolved. It's just a part of who I am and has been since I was a little girl. I've taught Sunday school. I've occasionally had a chance to preach from the pulpit in some of the churches that I've visited. I read the Bible. I think a lot about what it means to be a moral person in America today. I truly believe that we are called on to see the value of every human being and not to sit back and reflect on it but to act. Matthew 25 - for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was in prison and you visited me.

It's not just about having a good heart. It's about getting up and doing what needs to be done.

KHALID: Senator, there's been a lot of talk this election cycle about race and racial strife in the country. And you waded into some of that racism debate when you announced your DNA test to prove your Native ancestry. You have since apologized for sort of the way that that was interpreted and what that implied. But that misstep, that decision, will be criticized if you become the nominee by the Republicans. I'm sure President Trump will take many opportunities to do that. How do you respond to people who say that that incident proves perhaps that your judgment on race may be off?

WARREN: The fundamental question we face right now is, what kind of an America are we going to build going forward? You know, like anyone who's being honest, boy, I admit that I've made mistakes, and I have regrets. And I've done my best both to apologize and to learn from them but most of all to be a good partner, to be a good partner going forward, to think about in as deliberate a way as possible what's broken and what we can do to fix it. So think, for example, about education. We have an education system, higher ed, that right now just slams all of our kids but particularly slams African American kids. African Americans are more likely to have to borrow money to go to school, to borrow more money while they're in school and to have a harder time paying it when they get out on the other side. And that means that much of what happens in higher ed is actually exacerbating the black-white wealth gap in America.

So how do you think about that? Well, here's how I do it. I've proposed a two cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1%. What we can do with that wealth tax is universal child care, universal pre-K, raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher. But when we focus on college, it's more than just universal college. It's tuition-free technical school, community college, four-year college. But it's also increasing the Pell grants, both the eligibility levels and the number of dollars available, so more kids see themselves as able to do that, as having a real shot, at being able to move to where the university is that specializes in the area they want to be in. That's part of it. Part of it is, in my plan, to put $50 billion into historically black colleges and universities that helps level the playing field.

MASTERS: The way that we end the NPR POLITICS PODCAST is we ask what is something that you can't let go of, politics or otherwise, from the week before. What is something, Senator Warren, that you can't let go of this week?

KHALID: Ideally, not politics since we just spent a half hour talking about politics.

(LAUGHTER)

WARREN: Well, with the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, with the reminder of the shootings that happen every day, I can't let go of the number of mothers that I've held who've cried, who've talked about children they lost. I'm so inspired by the people who've come off the sidelines, who stood up and said I'm in this fight. I never thought I'd do politics, never wanted to but no more. No more of this. We will not be an America where we put our children in bullet-proof backpacks. But it's going to take fighting back against the corruption in Washington, fighting back against the gun industry, fighting back against a filibuster that works in their favor, most of all, fighting for a democracy that works.

MASTERS: Senator Warren, thank you.

WARREN: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: Yeah. Thank you so much.

WARREN: Appreciate it.

KHALID: After we ended the interview, I had one more burning question I had been wanting to ask the senator. She has this iconic look. Everywhere she goes, on the stump, at a debate, in our interview, she wears a black top, black pants and a monochrome blazer or cardigan - usually in jewel tones. For us, it was teal. So I asked if it was intentional that she basically wears the same look everywhere she goes. And before you all scream sexist, just listen.

MASTERS: I had to make a note that, like, I will not ask this question.

KHALID: Whatever. Clay was like, I want to ask this question. Because you have the black camisole look - I think is a very cool look and it's, like, a different colored blazer. Is that, like, a conscious decision or do you just...

WARREN: Yeah, it's easy.

KHALID: It's just easy. It's like, you don't have to think about...

WARREN: Do you know how long it takes me to dress in the morning?

KHALID: Yeah.

WARREN: Four minutes.

KHALID: Did you catch that? Only four minutes to get dressed. Warren has gotten a reputation as the candidate who has plans for just about everything. Turns out, she's even got a plan for how to efficiently get dressed in the morning. This is the latest episode in our ongoing series where we are taking you on the campaign trail to meet the 2020 Democratic candidates. Check out our podcast feed for more conversations with candidates like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. We'll be back as soon as there is more political news that you need to know about. I'm Asma Khalid. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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