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Warren pitches ‘economic patriotism’ to protect US workers, with echoes of Trump’s ‘America First’

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.(Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

DETROIT — At a rally in Warren, Mich., a week before the 2016 election, Donald Trump railed against American automakers that had moved their factories abroad — a pitch that helped him become the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state in 28 years.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when it was Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, standing in front of hundreds of people on a concrete floor in Detroit and making a strikingly similar argument. She took companies like Levi’s and General Electric to task for shifting parts of their production overseas as she pitched a $2 trillion plan to spur the research, manufacturing, and export of clean energy technology in the United States.

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“These giant corporations, they’re not loyal to America, they’re not loyal to American workers,” Warren said, as members of the crowd cheered and even shook their fists. “Those giant corporations, they may not care about American workers, but I do.”

Beginning in a city that has become shorthand for the decline of American manufacturing, Warren’s visit to Michigan on Tuesday — the first of her presidential campaign — was a potent backdrop for the launch of her new initiative to intervene more forcefully in the economy to shore up American jobs, a proposal she calls “economic patriotism.”

But that plan, as well as her campaign event here, also highlighted that some aspects of Warren’s economic populism have echoes of Trump’s “America First” economic nationalism, and underscored how the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has distanced itself from the more globalized trade policies of the Clinton and Obama presidencies.

“I think there are parallels in terms of the emotion, that leaves people feeling aggrieved,” said Stanley Greenberg, the pollster who famously wrote about disillusioned “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, Mich., in the 1980s and who said Warren’s policy-packed defense of America’s economy could work here.

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“I think she’s taking the case further, in terms of reform and economic policy, and so I think it’s the right course for getting Michigan,” Greenberg said.

In a campaign that has been defined by a debate over whether Democrats can beat Trump by winning back voters who deserted Hillary Clinton for him in 2016, or by exciting new voters, Warren’s Michigan swing is a reminder that she is trying to do both.

Her visit here was clearly tailored to address the economic struggles of a state that narrowly backed Trump in 2016. But she has also spent extensive time on the campaign trail discussing black voters’ economic struggles in Southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama and she brings up the discrimination minorities face wherever she goes.

Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University, said Warren was making a localized pitch to Michiganders — similar to how President Obama touted the auto industry bailout when he campaigned here in 2012.

“Protect American jobs is obviously a very long-running, successful message in Michigan,” Grossman said, adding that Hillary Clinton had not done enough to emphasize it in the 2016 campaign.

On Tuesday morning, Warren released a 2,473-word Medium post laying out a detailed plan to take new actions to protect American industries, emphasizing that she wants to protect workers, not corporate interests.

“If we can aggressively intervene in markets to protect the interests of the wealthy and well-connected — as we have for decades with bailouts and subsidies — then we can damn well use all the tools at our disposal to protect the interests of American workers,” Warren wrote.

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Warren has previously opposed trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, favored by Democrats like Obama. In her Medium post, Warren called for more active management of the US dollar, calling the value of American currency an important factor undergirding the nation’s trade deficit and “weak export levels,” an issue over which Trump and his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, have also expressed concerns.

Warren, however, made an effort to distance herself from any of Trump’s rhetoric in response to a question from the Globe.

“My plan is a real plan to build American jobs,” Warren said, “my plan is not about how to help the biggest and most powerful corporations get even bigger and more powerful.”

In the post, she said tariffs — Trump’s favored way of attempting to erase other countries’ competitive advantages — are a potential way to boost American workers and industries, but said “our principal goal should be investing in American workers, rather than diminishing our competitors.”

Warren also called for using federal research dollars to create domestic jobs, increased export promotion, and restructured worker training to protect American jobs. And she proposed transforming the Commerce Department and other agencies into the Department of Economic Development.

But she did not dwell on those details during her appearance in Detroit, instead using it to promote a second plan she released on Tuesday to help combat climate change.

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At a time when some labor groups have criticized far-reaching climate proposals like the Green New Deal, saying they could hurt the economy, Warren cast her plan as a matter of economic as much as environmental health, and said it was a key plank of her “economic patriotism” plan that would create more than a million jobs.

“This environmental catastrophe bearing down on us may be the biggest challenge yet. How do we beat it?” Warren asked. “We invest in science, in innovation, and American workers.”

Then Warren added a local plug: “We’re talking about manufacturing, we’re talking about real expertise, we’re talking about Detroit.”

For Joyce Olmsted, a retired computer programmer from Ypslianti whose father worked for Ford, that call was welcome.

“Even though she talks about the power of some big companies, she’s also for entrepreneurship,” Olmsted said. “She’s not necessarily anti-big-business.”

Warren’s “green manufacturing” plan, which she also posted on Medium Tuesday, came hours after former vice president Joe Biden released a sweeping climate plan of his own, underscoring how central the issue has become to Democratic presidential candidates seeking to set themselves apart in a crowded field.

Warren described her plan as “part of how I’ll implement my commitment to the Green New Deal,” describing the ambitious — but nonbinding — statement of climate-related goals from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

It has three prongs: $400 billion in funding for clean energy research, a $1.5 trillion commitment from the federal government to purchase domestic clean energy products, and a $100 billion “Green Marshall Plan” that would help other countries purchase clean energy technology from the United States. Warren cited an analysis from Moody’s Analytics that said her plan would be paid for with a tax she wants to levy on corporate profits, and by ending federal oil and gas subsidies and closing some corporate tax loopholes.

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Other candidates have also made climate change a major piece of their presidential campaigns. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, laid out a $5 trillion climate plan in April as an early major proposal of his presidential campaign. And Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington who has staked his candidacy around the issue of climate change, went on a walking tour in Detroit — in what his campaign called the nation’s most polluted ZIP code — just hours before Warren began her own event.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.