the national interest

How Elizabeth Warren Is Dominating the Democratic Presidential Race

Senator Elizabeth Warren. Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren is often bracketed with Bernie Sanders, a fellow folk hero of the party’s progressive activists, and a competitor for much of the same support base she will need to win the nomination. But Warren is not attempting to out-Bernie Bernie. She is trying to co-opt his support without copying his platform. The Massachusetts senator has made a series of unusually early moves that, taken together, suggest a well-designed strategy to compete across the spectrum of the Democratic Party without risking her viability in a general election.

Sanders made the unusual gambit of proudly identifying himself as a “socialist” even though he does not advocate public ownership of the means of production. That is a reasonably safe thing to do when you’re running in one of the most progressive states in the country, or competing in a Democratic primary. It’s much riskier in a general election, given that the country as a whole still dislikes the socialist label quite a bit:

Warren has taken the opposite tack, defending her agenda as a plan to save capitalism from its excesses. She has called herself “a capitalist to my bones” (or, at other times, her “ankles.”) “There are so many people right now who argue against these reforms and other reforms, who claim they are pro-business,” she told Franklin Foer, “They’re not. They’re pro-monopoly. They’re pro–concentration of power, which crushes competition.” It is also notable that Warren has directed some of the messaging for her early moves at economic liberals like Foer and Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, who would have a more skeptical view of Sanders-style socialism. She even touted her plans in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

You might think such rhetoric would alienate Warren from progressives. But what she probably recognizes is that, while identifying as a socialist did not harm Sanders in the primary, it does not account for his support. People who supported Sanders in the primary actually had views on the size of government that were the same as, or slightly more conservative than, those of Hillary Clinton supporters. So what accounted for his enthusiasm? Sanders tapped into a deep vein of good-government progressivism. Contrasting himself with Hillary Clinton, who was mired in scandals about donor access, Sanders presented himself as authentic and idealistic.

Warren is shrewdly co-opting that appeal to openness and authenticity, and the importance liberal voters place on appearing to have nothing to hide. She has opened up her academic records, disclosed her tax returns, and (reversing previous practice) made herself accessible to Capitol Hill reporters. Her academic disclosures have already paid a major dividend. The Boston Globe investigated her hiring history, and found — contrary to accusations that have circulated on the right since the beginning of her political career — her occasional categorization as Native American resulted in no hiring preference. (Trump and his allies will obviously continue to mock her as “Pocahontas,” but Warren has a knock-down defense, and the mainstream media will not take the accusations seriously.)

Warren is running on a progressive platform that, if enacted, would sharply curtail political and economic inequality. But unlike Sanders, she is building a profile designed to compete for swing voters also, rather than solely to inspire progressive activists. The distinction can be seen in her rhetoric, policy substance, and choice of emphasis.

Over the last month, Warren rolled out two foundational campaign proposals. The first is a sweeping package of corporate reforms, called the Accountable Capitalism Act, the primary centerpieces of which would be to disincentivize stock buybacks and require firms with at least $1 billion in revenue to reserve 40 percent of the seats on their board of directors for workers. (The latter measure is called “codetermination,” and it has been used for decades in Germany, which has a highly productive corporate sector.)

Her second proposal, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, would impose lifetime lobbying bans on many federal officials, ban members of Congress and federal judges from owning individual stocks (they could instead invest in broad mutual funds), and require presidential candidates to release their tax returns, among other reforms.

Neither of these bills is what you’d call modest or incremental. Indeed, they would both represent highly ambitious plans that would be difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to pass even in a Democratic Congress. What stands out about both ideas is the coherent strategy they reflect not only to distinguish Warren from other Democrats, but to position her effectively against Donald Trump.

First, they directly attack the most glaring political weakness of Trump and his Republican allies: the nexus of corruption and self-enrichment that has defined the Trump era. Trump is enriching himself and his family in office, and Republicans are allowing him to do so because he signs policies that enrich them and their donors — in some cases, through literal graft, and in other cases through routine Republican policies like corporate tax cuts, deregulation of polluters, exploitative for-profit colleges, Wall Street, and other wrongdoers.

Second, they are all popular issues. Huge supermajorities support disclosing presidential tax returns and bans on lobbying by former officials. One poll found public support for electing workers to corporate boards by a 30-point margin. The poll’s wording may have tilted the result — it asked about “allowing” workers to elect members to corporate boards, rather than requiring the firms to reserve seats for workers. Still, people tend to respond more favorably to policies that impose rules on corporations than to policies that impose costs through general taxation.

Third, neither Warren’s corporate reforms nor her political reforms carry any fiscal cost. The weak spot not only of Sanders’s policies but of the entire progressive agenda is that they are difficult to finance solely by raising taxes on the rich. And when they require taxing the middle class, even popular social policies get unpopular fast.

Warren, like many Democrats, has endorsed single-payer coverage, but she simultaneously proposed her own plan with more achievable methods to expand health-care access and affordability by building on Obamacare and protecting it from Republican sabotage. Progressives favor single-payer insurance as a blue-sky proposition, but nobody has really figured out a way to enact it without raising taxes on the middle class or opening up the attack that people will lose their employer-sponsored insurance (and have to be sold on the true but difficult-to-sell case that a new government plan will be better). Warren is establishing a platform she can run on that she can truthfully portray as both enacting transformative change and avoiding sacrifice by the middle class.

I have some reservations about Warren as a candidate and as a policy-maker, which I will lay out in a separate story. But her moves so far have been extremely impressive. My colleagues Rebecca Traister and Gabriel Debenedetti have made it perfectly clear Warren is, for all practical purposes, already running for office. She is building a national profile to position herself to win a primary and a general election, without sacrificing one for the sake of the other.

Earlier this year, I often told people I had no idea at all who would win the Democratic nomination. In a potentially huge field, it is still impossible to predict the outcome with much confidence. But at this point, Warren’s early moves position her as a clear front-runner.