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Elizabeth Warren’s Ideas Could Win The Democratic Primary — Even If She Doesn’t

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is good news for liberal policy activists. And that’s whether she wins the nomination or not. The Massachusetts senator appears poised to serve as a progressive policy anchor in the 2020 Democratic field, pushing the field — and the eventual nominee — toward aggressively liberal policy stands.

How might Warren have such influence? Because the Massachusetts senator is planning to release detailed and decidedly liberal policy proposals on issue after issue. Her rivals, if past primary campaigns are any guide, will feel pressure to either “match” her on policy by coming up with their own proposals, say that they agree with Warren, or convince the party’s increasingly left-leaning electorate that Warren’s proposals are too liberal. And remember that presidential winners usually try to implement their promises — so an idea put out by Warren in March could be in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s platform in August and be signed into law by a President Gillibrand in 2021.

Here’s an example of how this works, from a past Democratic primary. Early in the 2008 campaign, John Edwards released a comprehensive plan to provide health care for millions of Americans. A few months later, then-Sen. Barack Obama, looking to compete with Edwards among liberal voters and activists, put out a similar proposal, which was the basic outline for the Affordable Care Act he signed into law as president.

In the 2020 Democratic nomination process, I expect that other candidates will also have lots of policy proposals. And Bernie Sanders in particular is likely to join Warren in pushing the Democratic primary debate to the left. But Warren is likely to be at the forefront of the “policy primary,”– the one-time Harvard professor is perhaps the wonkiest person in the field. And Warren knows how to push her ideas onto the national agenda quite well. Before she was elected to the Senate, Warren convinced congressional Democrats and President Obama to create the agency now known as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Warren campaign aides told me that unveiling major policy proposals will be a big part of her candidacy, with the ideas intended to reinforce Warren’s broader message that the country needs “big, structural change,” not just incremental tweaks.

“I’ve been working on one central question for 30 years,” Warren told me in brief interview after a campaign event in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday, “‘what’s going wrong with working families across this country, why is America’s middle class getting hollowed out?’ I never thought I would come into politics, not in a million years, but that was my chance to fight bigger, back in 2012, when I went to the Senate.”1

“Getting into the presidential race means I can talk about the kinds of big, systemic changes we need to make,” she added.

“Warren is an unusually wonkish, policy-focused figure, not just attached to some concerns … but very specific and knowledgeable about them,” said David Karol, a University of Maryland political science professor and expert on the presidential nominations process, in an e-mail message.

Karol said that Warren’s potential effect on the 2020 race is analogous to four years ago, when Sanders seemed to push Hillary Clinton to take more leftward stances than she might have otherwise. If Clinton had been elected president, she would have felt pressure to implement some of those liberal campaign promises, which would have made Sanders’s 2016 run particularly important in shaping U.S. public policy. But Karol argued that Warren is somewhat distinct from Sanders, because in his estimation, she is more attuned to the finer details of legislation. So Warren might push the rest of the Democratic field to the left and force Sanders, who is already very liberal, to be more specific in explaining how his proposals will work.

“[Warren] has a deep mastery of policy, a staunchly progressive voting record,” said New York-based liberal political activist Sean McElwee, best known for advocating for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, in an e-mail message. “She’ll be a real contender and will force every other candidate to get smart on policy and push the boundaries of what it means to be a progressive.”

So what are Warren’s ideas? It’s worth separating them into two general categories: ones that she is one of the principal authors of and those where she has embraced someone else’s proposal. The latter is important too — Warren taking up an idea while running for president can bring attention to obscure proposals written by backbenchers on Capitol Hill.

Here are some major Warren-authored policies:

Here are a couple of proposals written by others that Warren has embraced:

There are two caveats to this analysis. First, Warren’s influence on policy rests on her remaining a viable candidate, appearing in the debates, regularly visiting the early primary states and not, say, dropping out in May of this year. Second, I think Warren will particularly affect candidates, like Sanders, who are competing with her for support among liberal Democratic primary voters and activists like McElwee who comprise the party’s left wing. So Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who appears to be targeting more moderate Democrats, may not feel that she has to match Warren policy-for-policy.

That said, even more centrist candidates are likely to feel Warren’s pull on the race. Journalists and activists are going to ask candidates like Klobuchar if they support single-payer or Medicare-for-all. That will create pressure on those candidates to address Warren’s proposals, even if in the end they call for a less liberal variant — some kind of Medicare option for people between ages 50 and 64 instead of Medicare-for-all, for example. And Warren is likely to come up with ideas on issues that disproportionately affect blacks, Latinos, and young voters, three other key electoral blocs in the party. More moderate candidates can’t concede those voting blocs, so Warren’s proposals on issues that affect those voting blocs will likely influence all of the candidates.

So watch for Warren’s ideas — in some ways separately from Warren. A week after Warren unveiled her wealth tax, Sanders put out a plan to vastly increase the estate tax. I’m not saying Sanders proposed that idea only because of Warren’s move, but he might have proposed it so early in the presidential race (even before he officially announced his candidacy) because he felt pressured to match Warren. I would assume many Democratic candidates will put out proposals to vastly increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans — even if they aren’t as aggressive as Warren’s proposals. And his opposition to Warren’s wealth tax seems to be one of the primary reasons ex-Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, a one-time Democrat, is considering an independent presidential run.

So while Warren’s poll numbers put her behind some of her rivals right now, she’s already having an outsized influence on the race — and I would expect that to continue.

CORRECTION (Feb. 21, 2019, 7:36 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a Warren housing proposal. Her “American Housing and Economic Mobility Act” would offer first-time homeowners who have lived in areas with a history of redlining federal funding for a down-payment on a home. The program is not limited to homes in those communities; they could use the federal support to purchase a home in whatever they community they wanted.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012, and became a senator in 2013.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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