Vox writers are making the best case for the leading Democratic candidates — defined as those polling above 10 percent in national averages. This article is the the second in the series. Our case for Bernie Sanders is here; our case for Joe Biden is here; our case for Pete Buttigieg is here. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s most viral debate moments feature blistering rebuttals to challengers who dare emphasize presidential constraint or political limits. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she snapped at former Rep. John Delaney in the July debate. “I don’t get it.”
But the next Democratic president will be limited by Senate Republicans, as well as a political system that amplifies the voices of the rich and the connected. Warren offers the best shot at a transformative presidency even if those limits remain in place, and she’s got the clearest plan for attacking those limits head-on.
The case for Warren over her competitors is threefold. She understands America’s problems better than anyone else in the field, in part because it’s her research and analysis that now forms the base for much of the policy debate. She understands how to focus and wield the powers of the regulatory state better than anyone else, because she’s actually done it, and because it’s core to her political project. And she is, far and away, the candidate with the clearest plan for making ambitious governance possible again.
Warren is the only Democrat running for president who has built, or directly managed, a federal agency. That gives her a form of experience that is unique in the Democratic field but central to the work of the president. As my colleague Emily Stewart wrote in her excellent retrospective on Warren’s work setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “the real action in any administration is executive in nature: knowing what regulatory buttons to push, which enforcers can really go for blood, who to put where, and how to manage them.” And Warren does.
Campaigning in the age of television frames the presidency as a communications job, which, sometimes, it is. But those powers are overstated: Presidents are rarely able to dramatically change public opinion, and their interventions are as likely to hurt legislative efforts as help. By contrast, campaigns understate both the power and the difficulty of leading the world’s most powerful and consequential bureaucracy, and the next president will face a particularly hard version of that job, as Donald Trump has driven out a tremendous amount of civil service talent and demoralized many of those who remain. Warren has proven herself the candidate with the right skills and vision to rebuild.
It’s what’s behind the plans that matters
The consensus at the end of the Clinton administration was that the American economy was going great — household incomes were up, imports from China and Mexico had made consumer goods cheaper, the internet was bringing informational plenty to the masses.
It was Warren, in her 2004 book The Two-Income Trap, who recast the state of the American middle class. Those rising incomes? The result of families sending women into the workforce, which meant they now needed to pay for child care and had fewer options for rescue if anything happened to the primary breadwinner. Those cheap consumer goods? They didn’t make up for the rising cost of housing, health insurance, and child care. And that informational plenty? It hadn’t stopped predatory industries from bilking ordinary Americans.
“America has had more than twenty years to observe the effects of a deregulated lending industry, and the evidence is overwhelming,” Warren wrote. “It is time to call the experiment a failure.”
Warren wrote this amid a seemingly booming economy, in an era when a biography of then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was titled Maestro. If her analysis sounds obvious now, it’s only because she was proved correct, and what were once controversial arguments have become conventional wisdom.
This is not a normal résumé for a presidential candidate. Most politicians don’t even read the briefing books the experts hand them. It’s extremely rare for a leading politician to be the expert who did the foundational work the briefing books rely on.
Warren’s career is thick with acts of extraordinary analysis. Some of them, like The Two-Income Trap or her academic work on bankruptcy, are well known. Others attained less fame but are central to Warren’s view of power and corruption, and set her apart from her competitors. There is one in particular I think about often, for its insight into both how America’s political and economic systems get tilted toward the powerful and how Warren herself wields power.
In 2010, the Roosevelt Institute held a conference at which Warren spoke, and the think tank released an e-book, with the stirring title “Make Markets Be Markets.” Warren was, at this point, pushing for the creation of a consumer protection agency. Willing a new federal agency into being is the kind of political project that can take generations. Congressional chairs and even US presidents spend their careers fighting, and failing, to achieve more modest institutional reforms. Warren faced yet longer odds. Her power was informal. She wasn’t a US senator, a Cabinet secretary, or the president. She controlled no committees, commanded no voting blocs, owned no budgets, was the key vote on no legislation.
But Warren, first in her fight to block the bankruptcy bill and then in her effort to build a new agency for consumer protection, had noticed something important: A lot of the players who seemed most powerful in Washington wielded their power informally. They were lobbyists and fundraisers, captains of industry and presidents of locals banks. She had become obsessed with how their power worked, the byways and darkened corners in which it pooled, the schemes and incantations that turned neutral processes, dull forms, and obscure meetings into its handmaidens.
Warren’s speech to Roosevelt was a brilliant analysis of one such form of power: complexity. The banking industry, she argued, had constructed a “complexity machine.” They “want to make it all very complicated so only the experts can understand it.”
Bank of America’s credit form was a case in point. “In 1980, Bank of America’s credit card agreement was 700 words,” she said. “If you write big, that’s a smidge over one page long. Their credit card contract today? Thirty pages, by the time you add up all the inserts. And 30 pages of dense, unreadable legalese.”
These baroque contracts weren’t a regrettable necessity forced on banks by regulators and lawyers; they were a tool banks used to exercise power over consumers, regulators, and even politicians. The complexity machine kept consumers from understanding what they were signing up for, regulators from understanding what banks were doing, elected officials from thinking they understood the financial industry well enough to govern it. In each case, it tilted power to those with resources and expertise.
“Faced with impenetrable legalese and deliberate obfuscation, consumers can’t compare offers or make clear-eyed choices about borrowing,” Warren wrote. “Creditors can hire an army of lawyers and MBAs to design their programs, but families’ time and expertise have not expanded.” But it wasn’t just families getting screwed. It was regulators getting confused or corrupted, and the global economy getting torched.
It’s an argument Warren has continued making to this day. In August, she told New York magazine, “the smart boys, as the economy is tumbling over the edge, only wanted to talk in terms of reverse double-half-nelson derivatives and said, in effect, ‘The rest of you aren’t smart enough to understand this. We the elite will take care of this.’ And they were wrong.”
There’s an old parable popular among conservatives called “Chesterton’s fence.” It comes from G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing, and it goes like this: A reformer stumbles upon a fence cutting across a road. “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away,” he says. The answer, Chesterton replies, can only be, “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.”
In Washington, this is a powerful tactic the forces of the status quo use to foil reform. Lobbyists bury members of Congress in ominous arcana. Bankers warn regulators that this or that change will send credit markets crashing to the ground. Industry insiders rush through the revolving door into positions of power, then tell their new colleagues that if only they understood markets, they’d know they couldn’t do that, touch that, change that. The fences are always there for a reason.
But Warren understood why the fences — or, in this case, the contracts — were there. She understood them better than the people who had designed them. She understood them well enough to state their purpose simply and clearly. She became the go-to explainer at a moment when complexity was tanking the global economy.
In 2009, she was invited on The Daily Show to explain what the hell was happening. After she finished, Stewart broke character, on-air, to thank her. “That is the first time in probably six months to a year that I felt better,” he said. “I don’t know what it is that you just did right there, but for a second, that was like financial chicken soup for me. That was ... thank you. That actually put things in a perspective that made a little bit of sense.”
Warren was the expert uncowed by the complexity machine, who understood the financial system fully enough to bulldoze fences and build new roads. Warren’s campaign slogan — “I have a plan for that” — is a vehicle for a subtler message: Warren understands “that,” whatever that is, well enough to have a plan to fix it.
The complexity machine isn’t merely an illusion; the world really is complex. Ignoring that complexity is one sure route to presidential failure. Being intimidated or confused by it is another. Success requires mastering it. And Warren is the candidate who has shown, again and again, that she can do that, and that she can help the rest of us do it, too.
The consumer protector
In 2007, Warren published an article in the journal Democracy titled “Unsafe at Any Rate.” It began with a paragraph that would ultimately reshape financial regulation in the United States:
It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time. Why are consumers safe when they purchase tangible consumer products with cash, but when they sign up for routine financial products like mortgages and credit cards they are left at the mercy of their creditors?
Warren conceived of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an academic and managed, through sheer force of persuasion, to see it passed into law before she won her first election. That part of Warren’s work has passed into lore, and I won’t dwell on it here. What is less well known, but in some ways more relevant to the work of the presidency, is the extraordinary job she did setting up the CFPB as its first director.
“She did an effective job starting up that organization by almost any measure,” Jake Siewert, a former senior adviser in the Obama Treasury Department who now heads corporate communications at Goldman Sachs, told Vox. “Even the people who hate the CFPB think it’s too effective.”
I reported on Warren’s construction of the bureau, and what impressed me most in those years was something that is rarely discussed in politics but is of deep importance to the presidency: her skills as an organizational leader.
I have never covered an agency where the morale was as high, the sense of mission as clear, and the collection of talent as impressive, as the CFPB under Warren. During those years, I spoke with CFPB employees ranging from senior leadership to midlevel lawyers to junior communications staffers, and you couldn’t make it three minutes into those conversations without getting some aphorism from Warren, or anecdote about Warren, quoted back to you. Her ability to inspire not just loyalty but a sense of mission in her staff was unique.
“When we got started on the CFPB adventure, there was no reason that you’d say this law professor will be very good as a chief executive,” says Raj Date, whom Warren attracted to serve as deputy director. “But she was! From a skill set and capability view, it’s all there.”
Warren’s work on the CFPB gave her something rare among political candidates. One is interest in, and experience with, the federal bureaucracy itself. She understands the regulatory process, how it works, who has access to it. She knows which meetings matter, where power sits, which explanations for why something isn’t possible or isn’t happening are merely stalling tactics. She has seen, firsthand, the entry points that lobbyists and special interests use to hijack the process, the difficulties of collaboration among agencies.
What’s more, Warren’s political project is regulatory in nature: She wants to change how markets are governed so there’s more true competition, more information empowering and protecting consumers, and more broadly shared gains. When Warren says she’s “a capitalist to her bones,” this is what she means: She believes in the power of properly regulated markets, and she intends, as president, to properly regulate them.
The president has far more direct control of regulation than redistribution, and as such, much of what Warren wants to do — from using antitrust enforcement to break up monopolistic firms to simplifying consumer financial products to cancelling student loan debt to cracking down on the risks too-big-to-fail banks can run — can be done through powers the executive branch already holds.
The next Democratic president is likely to face a Senate where Mitch McConnell remains majority leader, and even if Democrats manage to take back the gavel, the most optimistic outcome is a slim majority with the hinge vote being West Virginia’s Joe Manchin or Alabama’s Doug Jones — and that’s before taking the filibuster into account. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the president’s primary power will come through their control of the executive branch. Warren is the candidate who would be most interested in, knowledgeable about, and effective at wielding it.
“Personnel is policy”
The next Democratic president will also be dealing with an executive branch gutted by the Trump presidency. Civil servants have been leaving at an accelerated pace, and crucial agencies, like the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, have hemorrhaged talent.
That’s why something else that Date told me is of particular importance: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who’s a better recruiter.” You hear that a lot from people who’ve been recruited by Warren, or watched her recruit others. One former CFPB official described the agency’s hiring process this way: “They used the meeting with Elizabeth Warren to basically make it so you couldn’t say no.”
When I asked Warren what people didn’t understand about the powers federal agencies wielded, that was her answer. “Personnel is policy here,” she replied. “The tools are already embedded in the agencies. It’s just going to take somebody to pick them up and use them.”
The tricky thing about this part of Warren’s worldview is that no candidate would really argue with it. They all agree that personnel matters, that choosing good people and managing them well is important. But there’s a difference between knowing it and prioritizing it, between saying it and doing it. For Warren, putting the right people in the right jobs — and, just as importantly, keeping the wrong people out of those jobs — is an obsession, and she spends her political capital accordingly.
A strange facet of the 2020 primary is that it has inverted Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s reputations. Today, Sanders is seen as the revolutionary willing to challenge the Democratic establishment, whereas Warren is attacked by the left as a technocrat of suspect progressive credentials. But during the Obama years, it was Warren who had a reputation for being willing to challenge, and even foil, a Democratic administration, while Sanders was known as an ideological gadfly but fundamentally a team player. This played out primarily around Warren’s intense attention to personnel.
From the beginning, Warren thought Obama had picked the wrong people. She was a sharp critic of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers. “I believe the recovery should have been from the ground up, and people with Geithner’s and Summers’ background would never see the world that way—they just don’t see it that way,” Warren later told Politico.
As head of the congressional oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Warren regularly raked Geithner over the coals for treating financial institutions too gently and homeowners too diffidently. Their confrontations became a subgenre on YouTube, with videos with names like “Elizabeth Warren: Classic Takedown of Geithner” racking up hundreds of thousands of views.
This kicked off years of struggle between Warren and the Obama administration. The Obama administration supported creating a consumer protection agency as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms but balked at having Warren run it. At one point, Obama pitched Warren on building the agency under Geithner’s supervision. She didn’t bite. “I was not going to set that agency up asking Tim Geithner every day, ‘Mother may I?’” Warren said. “It just wasn’t going to work.”
The enmity went both ways. In his memoir, Stress Test, Geithner wrote that Warren “was better at impugning our choices—as well as our integrity and our competence—than identifying feasible alternatives.”
Ultimately, Warren was the first acting leader of the CFPB, but in the face of unified Republican opposition to her appointment, the Obama administration encouraged her to run for Senate in Massachusetts, and named one of her deputies, Richard Cordray, to the post instead (Republicans also blocked his confirmation).
Warren won her Senate seat, and continued her personnel-is-policy crusade from the chamber, shining her spotlight on obscure positions or officials whose influence outpaced their renown. These were the kinds of appointments that, in the past, few but lobbyists would even know were happening. But in Warren’s analysis, these positions were crucial, and she was furious to see financial insiders and sympathizers populating them.
She went to war with the Obama administration over its nomination of Antonio Weiss, a Lazard banker, to serve as undersecretary of domestic finance, ultimately forcing the nomination’s withdrawal. “I believe President Obama deserves deference in picking his team, and I’ve generally tried to give him that,” she wrote. “But enough is enough.” She lashed out at Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen over the deregulatory bent of the institution’s powerful general counsel, Scott Alvarez.
These were, for Warren, fights that operated on two levels. The first was simply that she thought these jobs were going to the wrong people, and she was tired of it. In a Huffington Post op-ed, Warren launched the kind of attack that senators rarely aim at presidents of their own party:
In recent years, President Obama has repeatedly turned to nominees with close Wall Street ties for high-level economic positions. Jack Lew, who was a top Citigroup official, now serves as Treasury Secretary. The President’s choice for Treasury’s highest international position, Nathan Sheets, also comes from Citi. For the number two spot at the Federal Reserve, the President tapped Stanley Fischer, another former Citigroup executive. A Bank of America executive, Stefan Selig, was put in charge of international trade at the Commerce Department. The President’s two recent picks for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — including his choice for Chairman — are lawyers who have spent their careers representing big financial institutions ... It’s time for the Obama administration to loosen the hold that Wall Street banks have over economic policy making. Sure, big banks are important, but running this economy for American families is a lot more important.
But the deeper level was that Warren needed to establish herself as a credible threat to the Obama administration on appointments, because she wanted them to worry about her reaction when they considered whom to appoint next. This, she had seen, was how you wield power: You didn’t just need to be heard, you needed to be feared.
She leveraged that reputation in 2014, when the Hillary Clinton campaign saw her as a potential challenger for the Democratic nomination. It’s hard to remember that era now, but Warren, not Sanders, was the populist left’s next great hope. There were multiple Draft Warren organizations, and though Clinton was seen as a much stronger candidate than is now remembered, Warren was the entrant her team most feared. That gave Warren power, and as recently reported documents show, she used it, repeatedly, to push Clinton on personnel.
During a meeting at Clinton’s home in Washington, Warren caught Clinton “off-guard” by pushing hard on appointments, and followed up with a list of people she wanted Clinton to hire, or at least consult:
The list, recompiled by POLITICO based on the accounts of those involved, included a hodgepodge of sometimes obscure liberal academics and economists including MIT’s Simon Johnson, UConn’s James Kwak, Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, Vanderbilt’s Ganesh Sitaraman (policy director for Warren’s 2012 campaign), University of Chicago’s Amir Sufi, U.C. Irvine’s Katie Porter and Vermont Law School’s Jennifer Taub. The progressive think-tank types included Demos’ Heather McGhee; public servants who had clashed with the Obama administration included former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chair Sheila Bair and longtime Senate aide Elise Bean. AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers represented unions.
The common thread among most of the names: They had been critical of the Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis, as Warren had.
There was also, Politico reported, “an informal blacklist of Clinton allies that Warren and outside partners would resist if nominated for jobs in the Clinton administration, which included BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.”
The pressure campaign, which Warren continued throughout the election, was effective on both of her levels. On the first level, many of the people she endorsed were tapped to advise Clinton, and they were slated for key administration jobs if Clinton won. On the second, deeper, level, Warren got in the Clinton campaign’s head on personnel questions generally. They worried about her reaction to key hires even before she weighed in. “It was kind of a pain in the ass to be thinking about her all the time,” recalled a Clinton presidential planning official.
Warren has been thinking for a long time about the kinds of people she’d appoint to these positions, the way she’d manage them, and the way she could turn that personnel into power. This is, again, the kind of focus that presidential campaigns don’t reveal, but that successful presidencies require.
Systemic problems require systemic solutions
In that June interview, I asked Warren what she’d try to pass first as president. A health care bill? Climate change? The wealth tax? No, none of those things.
“The best place to start is with the corruption package,” she replied. “And the reason for that is that the rich and the powerful have been calling the shots in Washington forever and ever and ever, it feels like. I mean, many, many decades. They’re not going to just say, ‘Oh, well, okay. Now you need a wealth tax. Now you want to make these other investments.’”
Presidential campaigns are a festival of fanciful legislative promises, and Warren’s, to be sure, is no different. But what separates Warren’s campaign from the pack is a systemic theory to change the political economy of Washington — to transform the institutional context in which every piece of legislation is considered, in the hopes of changing what can actually pass.
Warren’s theory of this centers on her anti-corruption package, which would, among other things:
• Impose a lifetime ban on lobbying for presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges, and Cabinet secretaries
• Impose multi-year lobbying bans for federal employees
• Ban “pre-bribes,” the large bonuses companies give to their corporations to incentivize them to serve in the federal government
• Ban corporate lobbyists from taking government jobs for six years
• Ban large companies from hiring any employee of an agency they’ve lobbied for at least four years
• Expand the definition of “lobbyist” to include anyone paid to influence lawmakers;
• Ban lobbyists from making or bundling political contributions, or hosting fundraisers for politicians
• Impose higher taxes on corporations that spend more on lobbying
I’m less confident than Warren is that this form of corruption is at the root of Washington’s most frustrating outcomes. Partisan polarization, in my view, plays a larger role than financial corruption.
But Warren has also been the field’s leader in proposing ways to make majoritarian governance possible again: She’s argued for the abolition of the Electoral College and the need to make states of DC and Puerto Rico, and, unlike Sanders or Biden, she supports the outright elimination of the filibuster. She is, in other words, the Democrat who has thought the hardest, and proposed the clearest approach, to making a successful presidency possible.
Even within the context of the current system’s limits, Warren shows unusual attention to political economy. Her path on Medicare-for-all has been telling in this regard. She began by endorsing Sanders’s bill and, in key debates, explaining and defending it with force and specificity.
In fielding the questions and attacks, she recognized that a few were particularly potent: How will you pay for it? Will you raise middle-class taxes to do so? And how will you pass it, given Democratic opposition in the House and Senate, and polling data and past experience that suggest the public won’t trust the government to change the health care system that dramatically, that quickly?
So first, Warren came out with a plan that showed how she’d pay for it without raising middle-class taxes, at least if you bought her economic assumptions. Second, she came out with a sequencing plan: First, she would pass a bill, using the 51-vote budget reconciliation process, to expand Medicare’s benefits and open the program to everyone over age 50; expand Medicaid eligibility; strengthen the Affordable Care Act; and create a public option with generous benefits, universal eligibility, automatic enrollment, and free coverage for anyone under the age of 18 or making less than 200 percent of the poverty line.
Warren’s reasoning here was clear and compelling: Unlike Medicare-for-all, this could plausibly pass quickly, and the immediate benefits people received would build confidence in, and support for, passing the remaining pieces of Medicare-for-all in the third year of her presidency.
Warren’s careful navigation of the Medicare-for-all debate has widely been considered a misstep for her campaign, as her admission of the political realities alienated single-payer diehards who don’t want to admit the need for any initial compromises, while her endorsement of Sanders’s underlying bill and her specificity on financing opened her up to attack from the moderates. But what’s actually happening here speaks to Warren’s strengths: She’s developed a more politically realistic proposal and path than what Sanders offered, and a more ambitious and compelling vision than what the moderates have proposed.
The truth of the Medicare-for-all debate is that it is extremely unlikely any president will pass a single-payer bill, but Warren is the only candidate to propose an even glancingly plausible strategy. As has been a hallmark of her campaign thus far, she’s taken the systemwide barriers to passing single-payer seriously, and has worked to come up with answers. Presidential campaigns reward uncut political optimism pumped right into the electorate’s veins, but carefully navigating a system designed to frustrate change is what a president actually has to do.
The best person for the job
Warren went from being a public school teacher in 1970 to a Harvard Law professor in 1995. She published The Two-Income Trap in 2004. She was named to the TARP oversight board in 2008. She became director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010. She won her Senate seat in 2012. And now she’s a few good breaks in the primary away from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. She has had an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation political rise, and it speaks to her once-in-a-generation combination of political talents.
That isn’t to say Warren would be ready for everything the presidency could throw at her on day one. While her foreign policy experience compares favorably to that of, say, Obama or Bill Clinton when they ran for president — she serves on the Senate Armed Forces Committee — she doesn’t have Biden’s longtime relationships with foreign leaders. But then, no president is ever fully prepared for the job, because no human being can possibly hold expertise on everything the US presidency requires.
What Warren’s career has shown, however, is a crucial meta-ability given the vast challenges posed by the presidency: She has repeatedly proven her ability to master complex topics, comprehend impenetrable systems, run tricky bureaucracies, recruit and retain excellent staff, build unexpected alliances, persuade the public of what she’s learned, and turn those learnings into power and policy.
The case for Warren, then, is clear: She is simply the best person for the job.