Warren = Bernie? Not so much
“Fight.” It’s the signature word of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s short but consequential political career.
It’s in the title of both of the books she has published as a senator: A Fighting Chance and This Fight Is Our Fight. In her speech declaring her presidential candidacy in February, Warren told the crowd, “This is the fight of our lives” and, “I’ve been in this fight for a long time.” Her 2020 campaign asks voters to “Join the Fight.” Kate McKinnon-as-Warren on “Saturday Night Live” explained, “That’s the only f-word I know.”
But Warren used to be on the other side of the fight she is now waging. For many years before she entered politics, the woman now at the forefront of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was a Republican.
County governments in New Jersey and Texas, where Warren lived in the 1970s and ’80s, could not locate Warren’s voter registration records, and the senator herself is circumspect about her political past. But records from the time Warren spent living in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts make clear that she was a registered Republican for at least several years of her midcareer adult life. It was not until 1996—when Warren was 47 years old and a newly minted Harvard law professor—that she changed her registration from Republican to Democrat.
Warren has acknowledged her Republican past before, but she does not often discuss it, or else downplays it. In a recent interview over tea at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said she assumes the first time she registered as a Democrat was 1996, but added, “I’m not even 100 percent sure what I was registered as.” According to Warren, in the six presidential elections she voted in before 1996, she cast her ballot for just one GOP nominee, Gerald Ford in 1976. She does not talk about her Republican past in either of her books or as part of the biography she recounts in her stump speech; the information often comes as a surprise even to Beltway politicos and longtime Warren allies.
“I was just never very political,” is how Warren explains her Republican years. “I just never thought much about the political end.”
Friends and colleagues agree that Warren wasn’t much of a political activist in her youth or the early part of her career. But Warren’s intellectual journey is more complicated than the apathy-to-activism route she often presents.
Some on the left have already pointed out the less-than-progressive stances in her 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, including the rejection of a “quasi-socialist safety net to rival the European model.” But a review of Warren’s early scholarship and interviews with more than 20 friends and colleagues from her high school years through her academic career reveal a longer conservative track record that has not been fully explored. Warren’s conservatism centered not on social issues like abortion or gay rights, friends say, but on economic policy, the dominant focus of her academic work and now her presidential candidacy.
Katrina Harry, one of Warren’s best friends in high school in Oklahoma, remembers that she and Warren “talked politics a lot, taxes and welfare and such, and I was just a flaming liberal back then.” Harry adds, “Liz was a diehard conservative in those days. … Now we’ve swapped—a 180-degree turn and an about-face.”
“Liz was sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude,” says law professor Calvin Johnson, a colleague of Warren’s at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, who was also her neighbor and carpooled with Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann.
Warren herself says that in her early academic work she was merely following the dominant theory of the time, which emphasized the efficiency of free markets and unrestrained businesses, rather than holding strong conservative beliefs herself. Still, she acknowledged in our interview that she underwent a profound change in how she viewed public policy early in her academic career, describing the experience as “worse than disillusionment” and “like being shocked at a deep-down level.”
Her conversion was ideological before it turned partisan. The first shift came in the mid-’80s, as she traveled to bankruptcy courts across the country to review thousands of individual cases—a departure from the more theoretical academic approach—and saw that Americans filing for bankruptcy more closely resembled her own family, who struggled financially, rather than the irresponsible deadbeats she had expected.
It wasn’t until Warren was recruited onto a federal commission to help reform the bankruptcy code in the mid-1990s—and then fought for those reforms and lost that battle in 2005—that she became the unapologetic partisan brawler she was in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, serving in the Senate and, now, stumping on the 2020 campaign trail. “I realize nonpartisan just isn’t working,” she recalls of that second conversion moment. “By then it’s clear: The only allies I have are in the Democratic Party, and it’s not even the majority of Democrats.”
The fact that Warren likely has spent more of her voting years outside the Democratic Party than in it distinguishes her from her 2020 primary opponents. She and Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, share many policy objectives and an inclination to rail against the powerful. The Vermont senator, however, largely decided what he believed 50 years ago and has been remarkably consistent ever since. Warren is ever-evolving, questioning her own assumptions and hungry for new information—even today, as she sets the pace of the 2020 policy debate with detailed new proposals on childcare, taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, and a call for a new era of trust-busting in sectors from tech to agriculture.
“Her worldview is very informed by data,” says Angela Littwin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was Warren’s student in the late ’90s and became a mentee of both Warren and Westbrook. “What changed [Warren’s ideology] was the stories of ordinary people filing for bankruptcy. That speaks really well of her that she was presented with information contrary to her worldview and adopted it.”
In 1980, one of Warren’s first papers as a full-time professor at the University of Houston took on one of the most divisive political issues of the time: utilities. A decade of energy crises and nearly unprecedented price hikes had made government-sanctioned monopolies a popular target for populist politicians. As Arkansas state attorney general in the late ’70s and then again in his gubernatorial campaigns in the early ’80s, Bill Clinton made utility companies the poster boy for corporate greed and political corruption. In the 1982 gubernatorial race, Clinton attacked his Republican opponent as “soft on utilities, tough on the elderly.”
In her paper, however, Warren argued that utility companies were over-regulated and that automatic utility rate increases should be institutionalized to avoid “regulatory lag,” in spite of consumer advocate concerns. “Eliminating regulatory lag will end the need for frequent rate hearings, and will, thus, reduce the administrative costs of regulation,” she wrote. On the other side of the debate were consumer advocates, whose arguments she described then as “fallacious” and based on “unscrutinized, long-accepted conventional wisdom.”
Warren has no chance against Trump and I doubt that she even believes she does. My opinion is that she is only running to siphon off votes from Bernie. The kids like to say that they were for Bernie last time, but since Liz and he are basically the same policy wise they are going with her this time.