She may not be at the top of the polls, but without question, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is dominating the “ideas primary.” In the age of tweet and Trump, Warren is betting that voters want substance. Though she’s often grouped ideologically with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Warren has gone far beyond the core agenda derived from his 2016 challenge, issuing a new policy plan virtually every week. Warren’s bold structural reforms seek to transform a system she sees as rigged for the wealthy and well-connected—one many voters view the same way.
Warren’s reforms are not baubles displayed to reflect the style of the day. Like Sanders, considered the frontrunner until recently, she puts forth a coherent and radical explanation of why this economy does not work for working people, and her agenda stems from that. Unlike former vice president Joe Biden, the current favorite, she understands that Trump is only “the latest and most extreme symptom” of a broken system, not its cause, and reversing his misrule is not enough. “Tinkering around the edges” won’t get it done. The middle class has been “purposefully hollowed out”—and people of color systematically discriminated against—by the “wealthy and well-connected,” who have rigged the rules to benefit themselves, not just in the economy but in the democracy as well.
All Democratic contenders must react to the core progressive agenda that Bernie Sanders and left activists have pushed to the center of Democratic debate, including proposals for Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a Green New Deal. Warren now stands comfortably with Sanders on the left, but her focus has been more on new rules than on new social investments. She identifies four major areas for fundamental reform: corruption, democracy, economy, and social justice.
To shutter the predator’s ball that is Washington politics, she’s introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislation since Watergate. Designed to jam the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, the act would instate a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress, presidents, and agency heads; outlaw foreign governments from hiring lobbyists altogether; prohibit members of Congress from trading stocks—and then some.
With her keen eye, Warren observes that our most basic democratic right is not sealed in the Constitution: She calls for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote—because, tellingly, there is none. She pledges to unravel voter-suppression laws, end partisan gerrymandering, and overturn the Citizens United decision that opened the sluice gates to big corporate money in politics. Not surprisingly, Warren was the first presidential candidate to call for convening impeachment hearings against Donald Trump.
Her economic reforms feature a signature proposal—the Accountable Capitalism Act—to give workers 40 percent of the seats on the boards of large corporations, as well as prohibit companies from making political contributions without the approval of 75 percent of their boards. She’s fearlessly called for reviving and renewing antitrust laws to break up monopolies, focusing on big banks, big tech, and big agriculture—a formidable lineup of entrenched interests. She offers her own version of “lock ’em up,” calling for the prosecution of corporate and banking CEOs who trample the law.
While her passion is clearly in righting the rules that govern the economy, she also adds bold commitments in social provision. She’s detailed a plan for universal child care, which would build on Head Start to create well-funded public day-care centers staffed by skilled, professional caregivers. In a $1.25 trillion 10-year plan, she complements Sanders’s plan for tuition-free four-year public schools with a commitment to write off a significant portion of the $1.5 trillion in existing student debt, potentially eliminating all student-loan debt for more than 75 percent of borrowers.
Her proposal for publicly-owned lands commits to terminating fossil-fuel drilling and mining with an executive order, making national parks free to all, and recruiting 10,000 young people and veterans into a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps.
Warren has avoided Sanders’s missteps in 2016, complementing her class-based analysis and agenda with a focus on the systemic oppression of people of color. Her careful intent shows with reforms such as her housing legislation, which proposes to build 3.2 million new housing units and offer federal assistance to any first-time home buyer living in an area that was redlined or segregated. Her commitment has drawn attention: “She is not running away from this conversation about race and class and gender and the intersection of that,” said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter fund. “To me that distinguishes her.”
Warren plans to pay for all this by insisting that the corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. Her marquee proposal here is an “ultramillionaire” wealth tax on large fortunes over the $50 million mark, levied on all forms of wealth—stocks, bonds, retirement funds, and real estate here and abroad. Even at a marginal rate of 2 percent, the plan would generate an estimated $2.75 trillion in revenue over 10 years from 75,000 households. This also enables her to remind voters that the primary source of wealth for most middle-class families—their homes—is taxed each year in the property tax, while the primary source of wealth of the very rich—their investments—is only taxed when sold or transferred, if then.
Warren is one of few candidates whose legislative record establishes her credibility as a champion for reform. She integrates the story of her hardscrabble upbringing and remarkable rise into her passion for her agenda. She proved her independence with her willingness to challenge the Obama administration’s bailout of the banks and her successful drive to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which helps protect consumers from getting fleeced by credit-card and banking frauds.
In her 2020 campaign, she has also audaciously announced that, like Sanders, she would walk the walk on big money in politics by refusing all PAC funding and forgoing high-dollar fund-raisers. She’s combined this with the decision to field a large staff—over 160 strong—running ground operations in early primary states. She isn’t foolish. She transferred over $10 million from her Senate account as a ballast while seeking to build up her small-dollar contributors. With Sanders and Beto O’Rourke bringing in significant sums from small donors, however, she faces formidable competition. In the first quarter, she’s raised about as much in small-dollar contributions as she has spent.
Warren is often compared to Sanders, but when put in contrast, their differences are revealing. Sanders’ political roots trace back to the original populist movement and to FDR with his Economic Bill of Rights. His social-democratic domestic policy focuses on public provision, while Warren identifies as a “capitalist to [her] bones.” She draws more from Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive movement of the early 20th century, which focused on trust-busting and curbing monopoly power in the early industrial age.
In terms of foreign policy, Warren is more conventional and cautious than Sanders, who is a bold critic of US interventionism. Warren was an early and ardent promoter of Russiagate, often seeming to echo the establishment’s revival of a new Cold War. While the famously independent Sanders has always been an outsider, Warren, a Republican from 1991 to 1996 (which is hard to comprehend) is more of an insider, using her brilliance and persistence to drive change.
Will her strategy work in a crowded field, with Democrats focused on who can best beat Donald Trump? Warren remains mired at about 7 percent in early polls, but those are always misleading, reflecting name recognition and the media flavor of the week. Voters are just beginning to get to know the candidates, much less make commitments. Trump’s Rasputin, Steve Bannon, has complimented Warren, noting that “some of the stuff she’s been saying has been very smart” (while risibly claiming credit: “I kind of say she’s lifting from our playbook”). He thinks Trump calling her Pocahontas, mocking her claim to have some Native American heritage, has been telling. (Trump probably doesn’t realize that Pocahontas is credited with saving the lives of John Smith and other English colonizers in Jamestown.)
It is possible that voters will file Warren as a sideshow, an impressive candidate of ideas, but not the one to face Trump in the center ring. And of course, we have no idea how anyone will fare on the crowded debate stage. I suspect, however, that Warren’s audacity will mobilize more and more support over time, and she will emerge as a significant contender in the early primaries. It is already clear that her campaign is framing an agenda that will inform the Democratic Party debate in the coming years, no matter how she fares in the current race.