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The Heart and Mind of a Democrat

Elizabeth Warren and the quaint notion that policy matters
by Hamilton Fish

Feb 4, 2019 | Election 2020, Politics

Illustration by 
Edel Rodriguez

On the last day of 2018, Elizabeth Warren became the first woman and the first of the presumed Democratic front-runners to signal her intent to run for president.

“The anti-Warren narrative was written before the Massachusetts senator even announced,” observed Natasha Korecki in Politico. Anyone trafficking in analysis lite on the 2020 race—which at this point means just about everybody—has already heard parts of the conventional rap on Warren. “Shrill” and “scoldy” top the gendered litany.

When South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham unleashed a verbal tirade laced with bigotry against a female witness and the Democratic senators in the Kavanaugh hearings, he was rewarded in Republican circles for standing up to the opposition. Warren denounced the Republican tax bill for favoring the rich and chastised the cronyism of bankers and their lobbyists, and her reward has been to be called “hectoring” and “schoolmarmish.”

Warren has also predictably attracted her share of ridicule from the conservative Twittersphere, where right-wingers have floated the suggestion that she is taking antipsychotic medication. An unflattering Instagram feed of her drinking a beer on New Year’s Eve garnered a fair amount of scorn. Granted, the video was from her home, and it is true that after her husband made a brief cameo appearance, she did thank him for being there—in their home—and told him she loved him. (Even Trump has picked on her for this, in a ridiculing Tweet he posted on Jan. 13). So OK, she needs to work on spontaneity and maybe rethink live-streaming from her kitchen. She isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not many of us are. Who running for president from the baby-boomer generation, other than Trump, does unscripted video anyway? And check the polls if you’re wondering how that’s working for him.

Before being too hard on her for a plucky stab at Instagram stories, it’s worth remembering that Warren is hardly a newcomer to digital communications. As early as 2005, she was writing Warren Reports, a widely read blog on middle-class economic issues at Josh Marshall’s TalkingPointsMemo.com, where she famously took Biden to task for his corporate-friendly vote on a bankruptcy bill. And she was her folksy, unguarded self in those days too, never more so than when she wrote, “It is a pleasure to blog with you.”

Following her recent announcement, there were several pieces on “electability,” which Matt Taibbi of RollingStone.com rightly called “useless.” New York magazine’s contribution was titled “Elizabeth Warren and the Democrats’ Electability Dilemma,” and CNN’s Harry Enten suggested Warren’s midterm reelection performance showed she is a “below-par candidate.” Accompanying Enten’s on-air comments was a poll-based article entitled, “Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar Score High on Electability; Elizabeth Warren, Not So Much.” But Taibbi reminded his readers that Enten formerly worked at FiveThirtyEight, the political polling site, where he memorably opined during the 2016 cycle that “Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another Home Alone movie with Macaulay Culkin—or playing in the NBA Finals—than winning the Republican nomination.”

All of these gyrations are about a woman who has dominated politics in her state, is considered the most gifted policy tactician in her party, and includes among her many political talents the widely admired (and envied) ability to relate the value and impact of governmental solutions to the economic concerns of everyday voters.

Anyone who has spent time around Elizabeth Warren can testify to the deep reservoir of her personal warmth and her capacity for empathy. And as former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge was quoted in the Politico piece, “She’s dynamite when you’re with her. She’s magnetic. She’s very compelling.”

Last summer Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, and it’s worth taking a look to see how she thinks about the economy and also how she uses policy initiatives to outmaneuver her rivals. Writing in The New York Times, the Berkeley political scientist Steven Vogel observed admiringly that Warren’s approach focuses on pre-distribution—“how the seemingly arcane rules of the marketplace, like labor and financial regulation, affect who profits most from economic activity in the first place.”

The pre-distribution agenda is less costly, according to Vogel, because it mostly entails regulatory reforms rather than big spending items. A prominent feature of Warren’s bill—and a lightning rod for the right—stipulates that employees would elect at least 40 percent of corporate board members: “this would encourage corporations to maximize their profits by investing in their workers rather than cutting labor costs.”

Susan Holmberg, a political economist and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, points out that worker representation on corporate boards, a practice called “co-determination,” is already a defining feature of the German economy, which is Europe’s strongest. “German laws dictate that workers at large companies elect up to half the members of supervisory boards,” Holmberg wrote in The Times. These boards “make high-level strategic decisions, including how to invest profits and whom to hire for senior management positions. Workers also elect representatives to works councils, the ‘shop-floor’ organizations that deal with day-to-day issues such as overtime pay, major layoffs, and monitoring and evaluation.”

Under the provisions of Warren’s bill, executives would be required to hold stock received as compensation for five years. And corporations would have to get approval from 75 percent of their shareholders and 75 percent of their directors to make political campaign donations.

The broader reforms of the pre-distribution agenda include labor regulation (stronger bargaining power for employees), financial regulation (modify or eliminate non-compete clauses and mandatory arbitration provisions), and antitrust enforcement.

Warren’s pre-distribution plan, Vogel argues, has a simple core message. “It is not about rigging the system to benefit the poor and the middle class, but about unrigging it from benefiting the wealthy and the powerful. It is about shaping markets to allocate returns from economic activity more fairly in the first place rather than trying to correct inequities after the fact.”

The Democrats, Vogel suggests, would be smart to embrace Senator Warren’s approach as their next big idea, “because it deals with the root causes of inequality in America and therefore the voter frustration that helped make Donald Trump president.”

We’ll have to wait for the primary season to begin to find out whether Elizabeth Warren will find the language and messaging to arouse a Democratic party that has struggled to gain traction for its big ideas. In the meantime, hopefully, journalists and pundits will abandon their lazy habit of filtering women candidates through the lens of male bias and culture, and in Warren’s case, give one of our most brilliant public office-holders—and a leading contender for the presidency—her due.

Hamilton Fish is editor and publisher of The Washington Spectator.

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