Warren Criticizes Trump's Handling of Trade War, Talks Student Debt During N.H. Swing

May 20, 2019

Sen. Elizabeth Warren shaking hands with voters in Portsmouth's Market Square.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

During her latest swing through the Granite State this weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren stumped in Rochester, Bedford and Nashua, and spoke to guests at the Rockingham County Democrats summer clambake.

The senator from Massachusetts also sat down for a brief interview with NHPR inside the Portsmouth Book & Bar, where she touched on topics ranging from student debt to international trade.

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Senator, you’ve certainly spent a lot of time campaigning here in New Hampshire. Can you give an example of a conversation you’ve had with a voter that’s informed your views on a specific policy issue facing the country?

Yes, right here in New Hampshire, the first time I think I was here, I had someone walk up to me holding out her hand, tell me her name, and say, I have $42,000 in student loan debt. And at that same event, I had someone come up who was a public school teacher, who said my second and third jobs, I spend the entire paycheck on my student loan debt.

People who talk to me about never being able to get out of debt. And that meant when I got the chance, I want to talk about how it is that we can actually cancel student loan debt for about 95% of the folks who have it. It would be life changing for people all across New Hampshire, and all across the country.

Being from a neighboring state, many voters in New Hampshire certainly are familiar with you. But there are others who probably only know you through this caricature that President Trump has created through his tweets of what you are. How do you try to break through those perceptions?

And how it is that America has become a country that works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top?

It’s one person at a time. That’s the benefit of being in a place like New Hampshire. You really get to meet people, shake hands, look at them eye to eye, and also, just tell them a little bit about who I am: I grew up in Oklahoma, I have three older brothers, all of whom went off to the military. Me, I wanted to be a public school teacher. And by the time I graduated from high school, my family didn’t have the money for an application to college, much less send me off for four years.

And it is a twisty path for me, but ultimately it was a commuter college that cost $50 a semester, and I became a special needs teacher. I’m somebody who’s lived my dream. And the rest of this is all about really trying to understand what’s happened to working families in this country. And how it is that America has become a country that works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top? And I’ve been in this fight for many years now, just trying to level the playing field. It’s not about handouts, it's about everybody having a chance to make it.

You bring up your life story. It’s been well reported that for a while you were a registered Republican, who held more conservative views. Can you just describe the evolution of your politics and what drove it?

I grew up in a family that was not political. My folks voted, my mother actually worked at the polls on Election Day, but I couldn’t tell you what political party they belonged to, and when I was a young mom trying to keep my family together and finish my education and get my first job, it was never about politics for me. I’ve always been in the policy end. That is, working on this question about how our economy works, and how it is that government keeps favoring those with money, those who can hire armies of lobbyists, more than anyone else.

And then the big change for me was over families going bankrupt. I had been doing work on why families ended up in bankruptcy: medical debt, job loss, divorce, death in the family, got cheated by a mortgage company, a credit card company. And the Republicans, spurred on by the banks, wanted to see the bankruptcy laws changed to make it harder for those families to be able to get themselves upright again. And I’ll be blunt: they had a lot of help from some Democrats. But there were Democrats who were fighting it, and they became my allies and that’s when I became a strong Democrat and got more and more into this fight, recognizing it's not enough just to talk about what’s broken: sometimes you really got to get in there and fight for how to change it.

So there are parts of this economy that you would say are not working. You describe yourself as a Democratic Capitalist. What part of the economy, though, what sectors of the economy, what pieces of the American economy are working, because surely we are in a time when the top level statistics would say things are okay?

Listen, if you are already a multimillionaire, this economy is working great for you. If you already have a huge stock portfolio, woo hoo, this is your economy. The problem is that these statistics about how GDP is going up and how the stock market is going up, they aren’t the lived experience of millions of families across this country. For most people, wages have barely budged for a generation. And yet, the cost of housing is up, the cost of childcare, wow, through the roof. The cost of sending a kid to school is astronomical. So expenses go up on core things, things families can’t cut back on: health care, health insurance, and the squeeze is on. That’s where most families are living.

And frankly, families are living with the reality that the combination of student loan debt that’s now being passed from generation to generation, that there kids are going to have a hard time even doing what the parents did, much less doing better. That’s not the America of our dreams, that’s not our best America. Our best America is one where we invest in all our kids.

President Trump has launched what he’s calling a trade war with China, and one of his top stated concerns is protection of intellectual property for American companies. Do you agree with him that’s an issue that China needs to be confronted on, and if so, how would you do it?

China is a bad actor, there’s no doubt about that. And I have long been a critic of our trade policy with China and with other nations. But to have a real impact on a country like China, you need to play your hand strong, not weak. And that means you need to get your allies together.

So right now what President Trump has done is he’s launched a trade war against China, but at the same time, he’s also raising tariffs against Canada, against our European allies, against South Korea. You don’t fight a multifront war. We need our allies to be with us. We need to work with our allies and then together, the United States and Canada and the Europeans and the South Koreans put maximum pressure on China. That’s how you affect real change.