Co-published by Newsweek
Elizabeth Warren returned to her high school gymnasium in Oklahoma City last month for a town hall. Wearing a signature sweater as bright red as the state she was visiting, she hugged and high-fived audience members, and cracked jokes about her brother, who was in the audience. She also recalled a childhood that introduced her to money anxiety when her father lost his job after suffering a heart attack.
One in a series of United States of Inequality stories to examine the track records of leading presidential candidates on issues affecting income distribution and social mobility.
All this added a certain warmth to the themes that have defined her campaign: the “corruption” in Washington, a broken system that favors the well-to-do and the need for “big structural change.”
“When you see a government that works great for those with money and it’s not working so well for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple, and we need to call it out for what it is,” Warren told a cheering crowd reportedly numbering about 2,000.
On debate stages, in town halls and in selfie lines, Warren has—perhaps more than any other candidate— been offering herself to voters as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ideological heir.
The candidate who describes herself as “capitalist to my bones” has positioned herself as the system’s radical savior. The harsh medicine that it will need to thrive.
But is this historical moment ripe for far-reaching change, and is she the one to lead the charge? Assuming she can recover her lost polling momentum, will her ambition for big structural change be enough to surmount the big structural barriers that have for more than a decade blocked even modest congressional efforts to raise the federal minimum wage?
Warren has been described as a skilled political operator who is able to both rally the public in support of her agenda and to forge trusting relationships with her Democratic colleagues. If, some observers allow, she lacks the passionate and multiethnic working class following of Senator Bernie Sanders, she’s more effective than her rival on the left at making her legislative priorities a reality. (Warren’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the candidate.)
Warren’s biggest achievement, winning the battle to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, predates her election to the Senate, but her leading role in that campaign showcased her pugnacious political style. Warren is a “real student of power,” says Ryan Grim, Washington Bureau chief for the Intercept. “She’s going to identify the people who are in her way and she’s going to figure out ways to cause pain for them.”
Eight years ago, when she was a Harvard Law School professor and an expert on bankruptcy, Warren wanted the planned policing agency independent enough to stand up to the powerful financial service industry it would be regulating. She demanded it be run by a sole director, as opposed to a commission. She also wanted it to have budgetary authority.
Warren did not hesitate to leak details about policy differences with senators to the media and “whip up populist hostility toward whomever was standing in her way,” according to Grim, who covered her for the Huffington Post during this period. In the heat of the fight, Warren said that she would rather have Congress vote against establishing the agency and see “plenty of blood and teeth on the floor” than enable the creation of a weak agency.
That approach paid off for consumers. Between 2011 and 2017, the agency that oversees the lending practices of banks, credit unions and payday lenders returned $12 billion to 29 million consumers in canceled debt and refunds.
Her combative approach—and her proposed wealth tax—help explain the raft of Wall Street Democrats who oppose her. In 2018, Warren called out party colleagues who voted for a bipartisan effort to weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the financial reform legislation authorizing the CFPB. In a 24-minute speech on the Senate floor, she accused them of “ly[ing] down with the banks,” and posted the vote tally on Facebook, where – according to Splinter – she then had 3.1 million followers.
But retired Congressman Barney Frank—the “Frank” in Dodd-Frank and an old-school liberal—says Warren is also a team player. “By and large she’s been very supportive and helped other members” of Congress, says Frank, who describes her as gifted at explaining complex legislation, someone who knows when to push and when to compromise. “I think she’s been a better legislator than Senator Sanders.”
Warren’s legislative achievements are respectable, if not extraordinary, and include 15 substantive bills, many involving expanding benefits for military personnel or veterans, that were eventually folded into other bills, according to her office. When it comes to moving bills, “Senator Warren has been doing as well, if not better, than Senator Sanders in the short time that she’s been in the chamber,” according to Alan Wiseman, a Vanderbilt University political economy professor who is co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.
There remains, however, the question of how to move from winning small but tangible victories – such as her bipartisan bill that made hearing aids more widely available over the counter–to universal child care, her wealth tax and adding workers to corporate boards. She will need large majorities in both houses of Congress – especially in the Senate, an institution that gives outsized power to the small and more conservative states. A president can make a significant impact with executive action and has especially wide latitude in developing trade policies. But major legislation needs 60 votes to surmount the filibuster.
Abolishing the filibuster “is the only way we can enact policy [favored] by a majority of Americans, but not [by] a majority of Republicans,” says Tom Bellino, a 34-year-old Warren volunteer as cerebral-seeming as his candidate. He was one of several holding signs that read “Persiste” at the California Democratic Convention in Long Beach in mid-November, an event Warren very publicly skipped.
Warren’s support for ending the filibuster differentiates her from Sanders, who has said he will shepherd the passage of Medicare for All through a muscular use of the budget reconciliation process, which, if successful, would require only 51 votes. “He sees the value of the filibuster to prevent the Republicans from doing all sorts of nasty things,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Grim points out that even a Democrat-run Senate is its “own institution,” not likely to bend to the whims of a Democratic president. Then there is the challenge of centrist Democrats who might resist Warren’s far-reaching agenda. “Ending the filibuster is very hard to see accomplished. And so is doing Medicare for All through [budget] reconciliation. It’s like you really do need a political revolution to get that stuff done.”
“Political revolution” is, of course, out of Sanders’ lexicon. It’s the notion of a massive bottom-up movement that makes the politically impossible plausible. As Warren campaigns, her idea of what is possible, when it comes to the politically thorny issue of health care, has evolved on the fly, which has arguably cost her support, particularly since she is the candidate whose brand is “to have a plan” for every policy challenge.
Last November she shifted from supporting Medicare for All to advocating a two-phased approach intended to build support for a single-payer model (in which the federal government would provide health insurance for every person in the U.S.), by first creating a federally based plan to compete with private insurers and expanding access to Medicare. Her polling numbers plummeted from a high of about 27 percent approval in October’s RealClearPolitics’ average of polls to nearly 15 percent in early January. To Barney Frank, however, her evolution on health care was positive and represented an example of her ability to listen and course-correct.
For some voters, that lack of consistency has been a cause for concern. “It just seemed like she was kind of sliding around on it,” said Rosemary Kaul, a retired photojournalist and Sanders supporter who said that Warren’s movement on health care was not disqualifying. “Maybe she’ll get the nomination and if she does, I say more power to her.”
Even with a phased-in approach to health care, Warren’s agenda is plenty ambitious, and her vision for achieving it is rooted in movement-building. It’s a point she made clear last September at a 20,000-person rally in New York’s Washington Square Park, near the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire. That tragic conflagration, Warren noted, had been witnessed by the future New Deal labor secretary, Frances Perkins.
“So what did one woman—one very persistent woman—backed up by millions of people across this country get done?” asked Warren, invoking Perkins’ role in supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ushered in laws that governed how banks were regulated, how employers related to the workforce and how people saved for retirement. By 1945, roughly one-third of working adults would be union members, up from 11 percent in 1917. Today the unionization rate stands at a meager 10.5 percent. Inequality is at a level not seen since the 1920s, with three men holding combined fortunes worth more than the total wealth of the poorest half of Americans.
As unequal as the economy is now, conditions were more dire on the eve of Warren’s successful push for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 came on the heels of the Great Recession, a time when unemployment stood at 10 percent, double the pre-recession norm. Now the unemployment rate is even lower than the pre-recession rate.
“There were people out in the street,” recalls Paulina Gonzalez, the executive director of the San Francisco-based California Reinvestment Coalition, one of the organizations that advocated for people affected by foreclosures. “Millions of people lost their homes. There was a massive movement calling for regulation of banks and protection for American families.” Still, the number of people out of work then was less than half of what it was during the Depression.
Robert Creamer, a Warren supporter who is a partner at a D.C.-based consulting firm, Democracy Partners, sees the Trump presidency as another kind of emergency, fueled by rising economic inequality and frustration with a broken system. Concern about the issue is widespread, with more than 70 percent of Americans—and 62 percent of low-income Republicans—agreeing that the economy unfairly favors the well-to-do, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.
In Creamer’s optimistic telling, Warren’s nomination to the top of the Democratic ticket would ensure that “Trump is not remembered as the most misogynistic, bigoted, dangerous and unqualified president, but rather the guy who sparked such a progressive backlash that we have the most progressive period in modern American history.”
But some supporters have more modest aspirations for a Warren presidency.
Back in May, before Warren’s surge in the polls, a half-dozen supporters gathered at a “Win with Warren” event around bowls of chips in the cramped living room of an in-law unit in South Los Angeles.
These early enthusiasts seemed aware of the many challenges that Warren would likely face in Congress to achieve her agenda. Still, they wanted someone willing to fight hard and who would not compromise too soon or too easily.
One of those in attendance was Josh McPherson, a kennel attendant and new father who thought President Obama had been too quick to cooperate with Republicans. But his expectations for radical change have been dampened by decades of gridlock in Congress. Still, he liked Warren’s bold proposals. “When you are moving a pile of dirt you can either move it with a shovel or a spoon,” said McPherson, who fits the profile of a struggling millennial. At 32, he lives with his parents because he and his partner are unable to afford the city’s steep rents.
McPherson was drawn to Warren because of her support for universal child care and the Green New Deal. He likes Sanders, but views Warren as more pragmatic. “I do like a candidate who is at least willing to compromise on certain policies if it means that the ball gets moved forward even a little bit,” he said recently.
However, it’s not simply that Sanders backers believe in transformative change, while Warren fans are incrementalists. In spite of her favored candidate’s talk of revolution, Sanders’ supporter Kaul has modest expectations of what either Sanders or her second choice candidate, Warren, could accomplish in Congress. Like McPherson, she wants a candidate who will enter the Oval Office with “strong beliefs.” That way, “At least they can get some of it done,” Kaul said.
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