BERLIN, N.H. – The environmental activists are here. The animal-rights warriors are here. The seniors who seek to meet every presidential contender are here. Heck, the candidate’s dog is here. This is less a town meeting than a revival meeting.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the one plus ultra of American liberalism, is in fighting form on this cold Saturday night: End lobbying as we know it. Stop the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. Scrutinize the Supreme Court. Change the rules of the economy.
The crowd roars its approval. The questions become ever more arch. The candidate grows ever more animated. The dog seems pleased.
But make no mistake: Warren has a formidable message for a fraught time, particularly in places like this, in the far reaches of New Hampshire’s Great North Woods, where unemployment is more than 1 1/2 times the state’s rate, where many of the storefronts are boarded up, where the poster offering assistance for those addicted to OxyContin, Percocet and heroin appears three times on the bulletin board in the basement of City Hall – and where Hillary Clinton ran stronger than she did in the rest of the state, which is enjoying something of an economic boom.
There aren’t many voters way up here, 60 miles from Canada and twice as far from Washington as from Ottawa; at last count only 5,291 were registered. But this area – a gritty world apart from the white-chapel-and-manicured-town-green picturesque photo shoots of Ye Olde New England in Yankee Magazine – is a testing ground for the Warren ground game, which has the potential to be more formidable than that of any of her rivals in the nation’s first primary.
She’s from Massachusetts, which has produced six New Hampshire primary winners since John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. Her vast legion of supporters in the Bay State is girded to pour over the border to canvass neighborhoods in the southern part of New Hampshire, where Boston television is a prominent part of civic culture and where Warren is a well-known figure.
And she, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won New Hampshire in 2016 by a large margin, is a double-threat – a vocal, detailed and passionate critic of both President Trump’s policies and of the swamp that he deplores. Indeed, Sanders – who this time may seem the more stale offering (and of course, is four years older than he was last time, now 77) – possesses the regional neighborly familiarity Warren has and is her biggest threat.
But that struggle is for another day. On this evening, Warren is doling out the old-time progressive Democratic religion with a fresh approach, teed up for her by Paul Grenier, Berlin’s mayor, whose plea to “end this national tragedy and truly address the problems of the middle class” provides the opening act for the Warren Traveling Salvation Show. “Our country’s in real trouble,” she says. “The solution will run through New Hampshire.”
And so Warren is running through New Hampshire as if she is running for governor and not for president, an Aimee Semple McPherson of the left, not Pentecostal but political, with a calling and a mission – “making change,” as she puts it, “so that America never elects a person like Donald Trump again.” All that plus the specific policy positions and proposals that the matinee idol of the moment, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, failed to display when he barnstormed through all nine counties of New Hampshire late last month.
“Today a minimum-wage job will not keep a momma and a baby out of poverty,” she says. “It is wrong, and that is why I am in this race.” She is only getting started. “I don’t want a government committed to increasing the profitability of giant international corporations but (that) works for average Americans.” That theme runs like the Merrimack River through her appearances. “Washington is a place that works great,” and here she pauses for effect, “for giant drug companies.” Now comes the clincher: “It just doesn’t work for people who are trying to get a prescription.”
Like Trump, Warren is an alluring target for her ideological and partisan rivals, her support for the Green New Deal, and her advocacy of high inheritance taxes, rendering her vulnerable to taunts that she is outside the American mainstream. And her reluctance to accept big campaign contributions – a profile she calculated would redound to her benefit among voters skeptical of business and finance – instead has landed her behind the Democratic competition in fundraising and led to the resignation of her finance chief. The first primary may not be New Hampshire after all, but the fundraising sweepstakes.
Even so, the president fantasizes about running against her. Maybe that’s a dream misplaced. She’s more supple, more engaging, than his last opponent. If he were to hover menacingly behind her in a debate, as he did with Clinton, Warren would be more likely to turn a devastating phrase, or to turn around and ask him what the heck he was doing.
“She’s tough, but I don’t know that toughness is the most important quality for campaigning against the president,” says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in western New Hampshire. “She has to keep a divided Democratic coalition together and get the independents who voted for Democrats in 2018 – and the question is whether, if she is nominated, she is too far left for the country.”
That, too, is an issue for Sanders, and especially relevant because here in New Hampshire, voters who identify as independents are eligible to vote in the Democratic primary. Thus the two left-leaning contenders might take comfort in – and perhaps ironically employ in their own efforts – two of the most famous sentences in American political history: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The speaker, of course, was Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ 1964 presidential nominee. He lost 44 states. But the only county he won in all of New England was here, in New Hampshire.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.