Sen. Warren: The 2020 candidate who's shown true courage

As Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Biden leads 2020 Democratic field by 15 points, followed by Sanders and Warren Warren introduces bill to cancel student loan debt for millions Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission MORE (D-Mass.) announces her intent to run for the 2020 Democratic nomination, it’s a good time to start thinking about the candidates and about the reporting on the candidates. 

Regardless of which party or who you support, it’s important to remember that talk is cheap and too often meaningless if not misleading. For example, candidate Trump was the most anti-Wall Street candidate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. 

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But President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE has embraced Wall Street, sycophantically sucked up to its CEOs, put Goldman Sachs in charge of the nation’s economic and financial policy at the White House and Treasury and delivered on its wish list of special interests.

When evaluating candidates, therefore, it is imperative to look at what they have actually done and who (if anyone) they have stood up to, publicly, forcefully, clearly and, ideally, repeatedly. 

Ask yourself, have they truly taken on powerful special interests in the country who put their interests above the public interest and your interests? 

That takes fearlessness and courage and, as Robert Kennedy said:

“Few [people] are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”

“[D]isapproval,” “censure” and “wrath” from “fellows,” “colleagues” and “society” is simply not what most people will even risk, much less endure, but often that is what is required for necessary, meaningful and fundamental change. 

Think of civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, health and safety laws, and even environmental protections. 

Think of that when someone says, for example, that Sen. Warren “has become a divisive figure,” as the Boston Globe editorial board recently said. That conclusory characterization ignored the more important part of the story: how that came to be (assuming it’s true) and what does that really mean?

Love her or hate her, Sen. Warren has been courageous, fearless, relentless and successful in taking on the influence of the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street, one of the most powerful — if not the most powerful — politically connected and wealthiest industries in the U.S. 

As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the Congress, “[The banks] frankly own this place.” From opposing their attempts to crush people in bankruptcy and pushing what became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to holding Obama and Trump regulators accountable and fighting for financial stability, she has consistently stood up for Main Street families over Wall Street’s profits for many years.

In doing so, she has refused to play by the unspoken rules of Washington, which dictate tolerating egregious hypocrisy, using euphemisms and never challenging the powerful and well-connected, especially including those well-known to enrich themselves in the most unsavory ways. 

That is usually because those people and the institutions they represent contribute literally billions of campaign dollars. 

In stark contrast, Sen. Warren has directly and clearly called out Wall Street banks and bankers by name. She has also pointed out the rapacious, predatory conduct by too many in the industry as well as their mendacity. 

Anyone taking on such powerful institutions is inevitably going to be attacked, mocked, ridiculed and fought every step of the way. Wall Street benefits enormously from the current system, and they are not giving up anything without a ferocious fight. 

This will not come only from those institutions themselves; they use their billions of dollars to impact not only politics and public policy, but also media, academia and virtually all aspects of the influence industry. Thus, Wall Street’s surrogates and purchased allies, often hiding behind anonymous quotes, will be piling on as well.

Thus, if Warren is “divisive,” she didn’t choose to be divisive; she chose to stand up for people without a voice against those with megaphones and megabucks who do not like or tolerate those who challenge their position, power and influence.  

She has paid a price, too: The industry’s political allies denied her the leadership of the CFPB. So, disagree with her means, methods or positions, but ignore the name-calling, pejorative characterizations and editorial judgments masquerading as facts and analysis. Focus on what she and the other candidates have done.

Importantly, this doesn’t just apply to those who oppose Wall Street's biggest financial institutions, although getting economics and finance right is fundamental to most other progressive priorities. 

Speaking truth to power by standing up to the big drug companies, corporate America, the power of money in politics, the fossil fuel industry, the cigarette manufacturers and other entrenched special interests are equally important. 

Taking on powerful special interests of all types that pollute and corrupt the Washington law and policy-making process all count when evaluating a candidate for president.

But, don’t be fooled by those candidates who position themselves as fighters for what everyone in their party already agrees on. For example, while fighting for global warming policies might be brave in Trump’s Republican party of climate deniers, it’s the unanimous view of Democrats and takes no courage. 

That doesn’t mean it’s not important and shouldn’t be a priority (it definitely should be), but it doesn’t tell you much if anything about what that the candidate is made of or who he or she will really fight for when president.

As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something.” We all need 2020 candidates who have “stood for something.”

Dennis M. Kelleher is president and CEO of Better Markets, a Washington-based organization that promotes the public interest in financial reform, financial markets and the economy.