Elizabeth Warren’s Theory of the Case
Suddenly, Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign is getting a lot of attention. When nineteen Democratic candidates converged on Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, for a dinner and a speakers’ forum, the Massachusetts senator and former Harvard Law School professor was one of the standouts, Politico reported. A poll of Democratic voters in the Hawkeye State for the Des Moines Register, Mediacom, and CNN showed Warren moving into third place, just one percentage point behind Bernie Sanders. “Warren is experiencing something unusual in the crowded Democratic field: momentum,” Michael Scherer wrote, in the Washington Post.
To explain Warren’s surge in the polls, the obvious place to start is the plethora of policy proposals she has unveiled. In the past six weeks alone, her campaign has published plans to promote green manufacturing and tackle climate change, end the opioid crisis, provide debt relief to Puerto Rico, insure that sitting Presidents can be indicted for criminal wrongdoing, reduce corporate influence at the Pentagon, and guarantee women access to abortion. These are on top of Warren’s earlier proposals to provide universal childcare, cancel student debt and abolish tuition fees at public colleges, invest five hundred billion dollars in affordable housing over ten years, break up the tech giants, eliminate the Electoral College, insure that major corporations pay taxes on their profits, and introduce a new tax on the ultra-wealthy.
At a time when many of the Democratic candidates are still settling on their campaign themes and at best unveiling one or two big policy proposals, the ambition and level of detail in Warren’s plans have put her at an advantage. Her Web site now features two calculators that people can use to figure out how much money the student-debt and childcare proposals would save them. (For example, a person with a hundred thousand dollars in debt who earns seventy-five thousand dollars a year would save fifty thousand dollars from the loan-cancellation plan.) The slew of wonky ideas from Warren’s policy shop has even spawned a campaign slogan that the candidate uses in her stump speeches which is emblazoned on T-shirts and bags for sale on her Web site: “Warren Has a Plan for That.”
Clear policy ideas are an essential part of any campaign, but they don’t guarantee success. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton put forward dozens of them, including universal preschool, a Medicare “buy-in” for those fifty-five and older, a public option inside Obamacare, the abolishment of tuition fees at public colleges for students from families with middle incomes, and a substantial tax hike on the richest 0.1 per cent. For whatever reason, Clinton struggled to tie them all together in a comprehensive message that resonated outside Democratic strongholds.
This isn’t the place to rehash the 2016 campaign. But one takeaway from that searing experience is that running a Presidential campaign isn’t like operating a store, where people come in and buy the goods they want. It’s more like being a prosecutor in a complicated trial: you have to provide an over-all theory of the case that ties things together and wins over the jury. From the beginning, Warren has been attempting to do this.
In February, she kicked off her campaign in the former textile town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where, in 1912, female millworkers walked off the job to protest low wages and harsh working conditions. Warren opened her speech with an account of the strike. Then she shifted focus, saying, “Today, millions and millions and millions of American families are also struggling to survive in a system that has been rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected. Hardworking people are up against a small group that holds far too much power, not just in our economy but also in our democracy. Like the women of Lawrence, we are here to say enough is enough!”
Warren went on to detail some of the features of an economic system she said that was “rigged,” including stagnant wages, rising health-care costs, declining rates of intergenerational mobility, corporate tax cuts, and subsidies for corporate polluters. “To protect their economic advantages, the rich and powerful have rigged our political system as well,” she went on. “Today our government works just great for oil companies and defense contractors, great for private prisons, great for Wall Street banks and hedge funds. It’s just not working for anyone else.”
To those unfamiliar with Warren, it may seem like she borrowed some phrases from the Sanders campaign of 2016, but she’s been using this sort of language for years. Warren made her academic reputation as an expert on how bankruptcy laws affect middle-class families, and, after the great financial crisis, she was the driving force in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the Trump Administration has been busy downsizing. Tearing into big businesses and feckless bankers comes naturally to the former schoolteacher from Oklahoma. As I noted in January, “in many ways she is a modern version of a prairie populist, inveighing against the trusts, the plutocrats, and their corrupt political allies.”
In the midwest last week, Warren criticized General Electric, Levi’s, and other companies for shifting production abroad and shuttering American factories. After unveiling yet another plan—“A Plan for Economic Patriotism”—she attended a town-hall meeting with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, where she said that the people of Fort Wayne, Indiana, “understand that leaving it to a handful of giant multinational corporations to build our economy just isn’t working. You know, those big corporations, they don’t have any loyalty to America. They don’t have any loyalty to American workers. They have loyalty to exactly one thing, and that is their own profits. And what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to have a government that doesn’t say, hey, whatever it is that the giant multinational corporations want, let us help you. . . .we need this country to work for working people. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
The lambasting of footloose corporations echoed some of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and it earned Warren praise from an unexpected source: Tucker Carlson, of Fox News. But the policy prescriptions that Warren unveiled are very different from the tariffs and other protectionist measures that Trump has introduced. They include expanding worker-training programs and providing more apprenticeships, giving more financial support to exporters, beefing up subsidies for research and development, and using the federal procurement budget to promote key U.S. industries. Warren would also consolidate the Commerce Department and other federal agencies, such as the Small Business Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office, in a new Department of Economic Development, whose mission would be “to promote sustainable, middle-class American jobs.”
Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary, pointed out that these proposals, together with Warren’s $1.5 trillion plan to boost green manufacturing, amount to an effort to create an industrial policy based on the German model. You can argue about whether this type of approach would work in this country, but simply to dismiss it as un-American would be a mistake. For many decades now, the Pentagon has effectively been operating an industrial policy through its vast outlays on armaments and its substantial research budget. Perhaps not coincidentally, American companies now dominate a number of industries that do a lot of business with the Pentagon, such as aerospace, defense, and telecommunications.
In any case, Warren’s latest plan is another illustration of how her campaign is trying to fashion a coherent response, not just to Trump but to the deep-seated problems that helped give him his opening. Having been on the receiving end of the President’s jibes often, Warren’s contempt for Trump and her eagerness to get rid of him are indisputable. After a redacted version of the Mueller report was released, she was one of the first Democratic candidates to call for impeachment. But, in addition to positioning herself as someone with the toughness to confront and beat Trump, Warren is asking Democratic voters to keep an eye on the broader picture. As she explained back in February, “the man in the White House is not the cause of what’s broken, he’s just the latest — and most extreme — symptom of what’s gone wrong in America.”