Almost every day Elizabeth Warren comes out with serious policy proposals. They’re rarely even baby steps down the road to socialism, but most of them would make this country a better place. But lacking a media-friendly history of being a skateboarding “punk” rocker or a stint with McKinsey — and you might think, not being a man — she can’t get any attention for them. She can’t get out of the mid-single digits in the polls, and PredictIt, the political betting site, puts her chances of winning the nomination at 7 percent. She’s having trouble raising money; she lagged Mayor Pete in the first quarter funding haul even though he was a nobody who’d just entered the race.
Warren’s politics aren’t exactly mine, but this is sad.
I developed a serious respect for Warren about twenty years ago, well before she was famous. She was a law professor at Harvard who’d done a lot of work on why people file for bankruptcy. In 1989, she, the sociologist Teresa Sullivan, and fellow law prof Jay Westbrook, published As We Forgive Our Debtors, a detailed study of 1,500 bankruptcy filings in three states. Warren et al found that bankrupts were not driven by fraud or a simple unwillingness to pay — they were just broke, deeply in debt, and had no other options. That contradicted the assertions of the credit industry, which blamed the long rise in bankruptcy filings on the 1978 revisions to the bankruptcy code, which they saw as too debtor-friendly. It was too easy to wipe out debt, and the creditor class wanted to change that. I read the book and interviewed Warren and Sullivan as part of my research for a piece I wrote for the Nation in 1992 on the boom in going bust.
Interestingly, as Politico reported, that bankruptcy research sparked her transformation from a fairly conservative Republican into a liberal Democrat. She went into the research convinced people who filed for bankruptcy were all cheaters, but discovered they were actually quite miserable. She told the magazine that revelation was “worse than disillusionment” and more “like being shocked at a deep-down level.”
I continued to cover bankruptcy, and a few years later, when I got a radio show in the mid-1990s, I began calling on Warren for interviews. The topic had salience throughout the decade, because of rising consumer indebtedness and the bankruptcy filings that inevitably followed that rise. But attention increased when, late in the Clinton years, the creditors’ lobby succeeded in getting Washington to pay serious attention to tightening up the bankruptcy code — making it much harder for people to file. A tightening of the code passed both houses of Congress and was the last piece of legislation sent to Bill Clinton for his signature. He and the administration were all for it, but Hillary, after being briefed on the topic by Elizabeth Warren, convinced her husband to veto the bill. (Warren tells the story to Bill Moyers in this video.) It came back a few years later, and George W. Bush signed it. By then, Hillary had evolved. She supported it and encouraged its passage — though, in classic Hillary fashion, she didn’t cast a vote on the bill. (Joe Biden did — a yes.) It was going to pass, so why leave a possibly embarrassing stain on your record if you’re planning to run for president?
So, I had good reason to keep in touch with Warren throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as I covered bankruptcy reform in print and on the radio. I was impressed not only with her brains and expertise, but her warmth and human decency too. She was always generous with her time and passed along excellent gossip on which Dems were selling out to the credit card lobby. We haven’t spoken since she got famous, but my admiration lingers.
She is not problem-free. The whole story of her Native American ancestry is an embarrassment, from the daft claim in the first place to her preposterous bumbling of its unraveling. Trump clearly got under her skin with his “Pocahontas” taunts, not a good feature in a candidate potentially running against a master of psychological terrorism.
There are some blemishes in her substantive political positions too. There was the video of her running away from questions on Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, an operation that killed over 2,000 Palestinians and wounded over 10,000. She also said of that invasion that the Israeli military has the right to attack Palestinian hospitals and schools if “Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to” them, and was skeptical about withholding aid to Israel if it didn’t stop its creeping takeover of the West Bank. Her position has shifted some since, calling on Israel to show “restraint” in its treatment of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border.
On other foreign policy issues, she’s reliable liberal — not a warmonger, but not one hot to dismantle the imperial machine either. She did vote for a monstrous military funding bill in 2017, one that authorized considerably more spending than Trump had requested, a bill that Sanders and seven other Senators voted against.
Warren is slippery on Medicare for All. She’s co-sponsoring Bernie Sanders’s Senate bill, but is avoiding questions on whether she’d like to put private insurance companies out of business. She’s also introduced her own bill, something of an Obamacare 2.0, which basically just tightens regulations on the insurance industry but spares them from deserved execution. She rather incredibly tweeted, in a classic waffle, that as much as we need Medicare for All, “there’s no reason private insurers can’t provide coverage that lives up to the high standards of our public health care programs.” But there’s a very good reason they can’t: they’re for-profit entities that think of payments for patient care as “losses.” That’s not a figure of speech; that’s the term from insurance accounting.
On the other hand, she’s good on taxing wealth, seriously jacking up business taxes (business is now enjoying its lowest tax rate, around 12 percent of pretax profits, since the 1930s), punishing misbehaving CEOs, and protecting consumers from usurious moneylenders. Her criminal justice proposals — demilitarizing the police, decriminalizing weed, eliminating racial disparities in sentencing — are humane though hardly transformative. She says nice liberal things about the environment now and then, including the Green New Deal, but she’s stopped short of a full endorsement. (Like forty-two other Senate Dems, she merely voted “present” when it came up for a vote.) She rarely talks about climate or other environmental issues.
Warren seems most interested in finance and consumer protection, which are not nothing. But she’s not at all interested in expropriating the expropriators. Rather, her economic philosophy looks to be organized around increasing competition and fighting bigness — breaking up monopolies, not socializing them. She wants markets to work better, not subdue them. As Warren’s biographer, Antonia Felix, points out, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which was created largely on her initiative as part of the Dodd–Frank bill in 2010, was meant to make markets more transparent. Better information means more effective competition: liberal thinking about markets in a nutshell. As Felix writes, “Her opponents had framed her as a radical, hysterical leftist who wanted to destroy the markets, when she was actually a fervent capitalist who believed in safety nets.” That’s better than what we have but it doesn’t really get the blood moving.
Still, she deserves much better than she’s getting. She should certainly be getting more pixels than that twit Beto.