Elizabeth Warren Used to Be a Republican, Does it Matter?Photo by Leif Skoogfors/Getty Politics Features Elizabeth Warren
I was talking about the dynamics of the Democratic primary with my editor, Shane Ryan, and the issue of trust came up. I believe that we let the significant ideological differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren get in the way of the cold harsh reality of the legislative calendar, and the question of whether their presidency would be successful is less about personality and more about perseverance. This is not to say that their presidencies would be identical—far from it. Warren believes that capitalism can work if workers are aggressively written into the contract, and Bernie thinks capitalism is an inherently flawed system. Not to mention, contrasting Warren’s proposal to kill the filibuster against Sanders’ vision of a brand new VP-supercharged reconciliation process elucidates their different visions of how to utilize the levers of government. These vast ideological divides will have large implications as to how they both use executive power, and that’s before you even get to the largest split between them (and the job most under the purview of the executive), military power.
However, the very short legislative calendar and the general uselessness of the United States Congress prove that any president can really only get one or two big bills passed in each term, which narrows the gap between all presidential candidates’ platforms given how much Democrats (supposedly) agree on. It took President Obama an entire year to pass the Affordable Care Act with a Democratic Congress, and we all know that Congress doesn’t work in election years. This means that only two out of every four years can a Congress truly do what they are sent there to do.
So when it comes to the big stuff, namely Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, the question for me is less about ideology and more about who do I trust to take on the massive fight against the entrenched establishment, and this is how we arrived at the question at the top of this column.
I Used to Be More Conservative Too
I bring this up both to reveal my bias up front, and to use myself as an example of how shifting ideologies can alter your politics. I grew up in a professional-class liberal family whose political talking points were very much determined by the political entertainment complex I now decry as having too much political influence over liberalism. I graduated with a political science degree, and for years I suffered from many of the institutional blind spots that come with that elite vision of soft power. It was not until the dual shocks of the ACA betrayal in 2009 and Trump’s election in 2016 that I fully unmoored myself from many of the liberal principles I spent most of my life preaching. I do not consider myself to be a liberal. I am a leftist (I’m still figuring out the details though—my most consistent political belief that I still hold is a general distrust of all large, centralized institutions).
I feel a great sense of betrayal at the liberal institutions that I once held so dear. In short, I feel foolish. Others I still talk to in my graduating class who have experienced the same change describe a similar feeling—of being bamboozled by Very Serious People on the teevee preaching a technocratic view of the world that inherently caters to the tippy top of the economic food chain. Given my personal experience, I would expect a significant amount of rage to be locked inside “die hard conservative” Elizabeth Warren, who almost surely voted for Ronald Reagan and supported Newt Gingrich before formally switching away from the Republican Party in 1996. If the anger of us political nomads is proportional to our distance traveled, then Warren’s ire must be fueled by the fire of a trillion suns.
This is an assumption based on a projection, of course. I, nor the vast majority of people aware of Elizabeth Warren, know who she truly is—and a general posture of distrusting politicians is the empirically correct one to take in 2019. Questioning Elizabeth Warren’s motives is not a cynical venture, and so long as any analysis is based on provable actions undertook by Warren, it is simply a citizenry doing its due diligence on a job candidate interviewing for the most powerful office on the planet. Nathan Robinson penned an excellent piece titled “Why Criticize Warren?” that all skeptics and supporters of Warren should read, especially this passage:
Politicians are almost impossible to trust. Elizabeth Warren has adopted most of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 platform (albeit in vaguer and more watered down form), which makes it difficult to make strong policy arguments against her. After some of us criticized her for not having a labor policy, she came out with one. Now the criticism is neutralized. I do think there are worrying signs about the way she approaches policy—just look at this big wall of policies in one of her Iowa offices, where “climate change” is given the same status as “entrepreneur,” “economic patriotism,” and vague “big structural change.” (The wall almost seems like a prop from The West Wing, with things like “military housing” that seem like they’re just designed to sound like Important Issues You Stick On A Wall.) The Warren approach to policy, which combines radical ideas (e.g., codetermination) with means-tested half-measures, seems perfectly designed to allow the bold plans to be dropped the moment she takes office. If all plans are equal, then so long as she gets A Bunch Of Plans through, it doesn’t matter if they’re the ones that would radically readjust the balance of power in the economy (workers on corporate boards) or the ones that would do almost nothing (making every corporation agree to respect its “stakeholders”).
I really like Elizabeth Warren, and think that she is one of the best U.S. politicians I have ever seen, but these are all valid criticisms of what she is asking us to judge her on. I waffled between her and Bernie Sanders before ultimately choosing the latter over his unflinching Medicare for All support and much larger Green New Deal plan. Ideologically, I fall into the Bernie camp, but I seriously worry about a Democratic Senate under a Bernie Presidency a lot less than I do under a Warren one, which brings me back to the main issue of the legislative calendar. Given the intransigence of the upper echelon of Democratic power post-2016, I genuinely wonder if it would be easier to get Bernie’s plans through a Warren presidency than to get Warren’s plans through a Bernie presidency.
However, between launching her campaign by falsely claiming she has Native American DNA, and her extremely problematic corporate bankruptcy work on behalf of large conglomerates (with much of it taking place after her conversion to liberalism), Senator Warren has created enough problems for herself that one can credibly charge her with either some measure of political incompetence or duplicitous politics. The undeniable fact of this race is that Bernie Sanders has demonstrably been on the right side of our current fights decades longer than anyone running, and in a normal political environment, he would get widespread credit for that consistency. Instead, he gets penalized because he didn’t do all of that stuff with a D next to his name (which says a lot more about the “D” than it does of Sanders).
Whether you should trust Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any other politician is ultimately up to you, and all any of us can really do to effectively vet a politician is to judge them by their actions. Words are hollow. That is the lesson of 2016. Voters want a bold agenda, and there is no doubt that if Bernie Sanders were not in this race, Elizabeth Warren would have by far the most leftist platform of any major non-Sanders presidential contender in our post-1972 lifetimes. That Warren established the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau through a Senate controlled by a Democratic Party now joining with Trump to roll back Obama-era financial protections is proof of her ability to push any amount of progress through this broken system we call a federal government, plus it also buttresses her leftist credibility. How far she is willing to go with her aggressive policy vision is not just a fair, but a necessary question, as even her former colleague Harry Reid does not believe she supports Medicare for All, and she has been very cagey about her health care plans.
It ultimately does matter that Elizabeth Warren used to be a Republican, because if she is the genuine altruistic person she is selling herself as, then she must feel some measure of guilt over what she has supported. If the fire that rages in her is proportional to the anger I feel at my neoliberal past, then I can confirm that we can trust her as a crusader. Leftists would be wise to abandon the “fraud” label on Warren given her heavy counterpunch that is the CPFB (and her famed “nobody in this country got rich on his own” stump speech that preceded the 2016 Sanders campaign), and instead argue against her as something like an Obama 2.0—an engaging personality with an inspiring vision whose specific plans may be ripe to be dismantled by the D.C. swamp the moment she enters office. She is advertising herself as a plans-based person and given that she claims to be “capitalist to my bones,” there is plenty to critique for those who want to make a distinction between her and Sanders. While Obama was far more conservative than she presents herself to be, they both subscribe to the same kind of wonkish technocratic thinking imbued by the walls of Harvard Law and the myriad political science departments that trickles down to—which I can attest, creates the kind of elite blind spots that got us into this mess in the first place.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.