Meet Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Presidential Candidate
from The Water's Edge

Meet Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Presidential Candidate

Elizabeth Warren speaks to the media in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS
Elizabeth Warren speaks to the media in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS

Update: Elizabeth Warren announced on March 5, 2020, that she was ending her campaign.

As politicians, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Warren are opposites. He wanted to unleash the power of the market; she wants to curtail its abuses. But for all of their policy differences, the two share one thing in common—both switched political parties. Reagan joined the Republican Party in his early fifties. Before then he was a registered Democrat. “I didn't leave the Democratic Party,” he liked to say. “The party left me.” Warren made the opposite journey. She was a registered Republican until her forties. Why? She says it’s “because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore.” So did Warren vote for Reagan? For years she declined to say. Now she says that the last GOP nominee she voted for was Gerald Ford in 1976. If Warren succeeds in becoming president, she no doubt hopes to have a presidency as consequential as Reagan’s.

The Basics

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Name: Elizabeth Ann Warren

Date of Birth: June 22, 1949

Place of Birth: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Religion: Raised Methodist; Attends various Christian churches

Political Party: Democrat

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Marital Status: Divorced (Jim Warren); Married (Bruce Mann)

Children: Amelia (47) and Alexander (42)

Alma Mater: Attended George Washington University; University of Houston (BS); Rutgers School of Law (JD)

Career: Law professor (1979-2012), Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2008-2010), Special Advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2010-2011), U.S. Senator (2013-Present)

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Twitter Handle: @ewarren

Warren’s Announcement

Warren launched her campaign in Lawrence, Massachusetts, an old mill town thirty-five miles north of Boston. Back in 1912, Lawrence made national headlines when workers at the Everett Mill walked off the job in the so-called Bread and Roses Strike after their wages were cut. So it wasn’t an accident that Warren, who is pitching herself as a defender of the working class, announced her run in Lawrence. She walked out to the podium with Dolly Parton's song “9 to 5” playing on the speakers.

Warren called President Donald Trump "the latest—and most extreme—symptom of what's gone wrong in America." She said that undoing the acts of this administration won’t be enough and that there needs to be “big, structural change” to the “rigged” system that benefits the wealthy and the powerful. She laid out her economic platform, which includes a wealth tax, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. She promised to limit the power of big corporations by breaking up monopolies and making it easier for workers to join unions. She also vowed to fight political corruption in Washington, strengthen voting rights, and reform the criminal justice system.

What she didn’t mention was foreign policy.

Warren’s Story

Warren was born Elizabeth Herring in Oklahoma City and grew up there and in Norman. She was the youngest of four children who she says “grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” That was in part because her father suffered a heart attack that saddled the family with extensive medical bills. Warren nonetheless excelled in school. She became a state debate champion, earned her high-school diploma when she was just sixteen, and was awarded a full scholarship to attend George Washington University. She left GW after two years to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren. But she didn’t give up on her studies. She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology at the University of Houston. She was the first member of her family to graduate college.

Warren moved to New Jersey when her husband was transferred there for work. She had a baby and initially decided to be a stay-at-home mom. After two years, she enrolled at Rutgers School of Law. That led to a thirty-year career as a law professor that took her to Rutgers’ Newark School of Law, the University of Houston Law Center, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and finally Harvard. Her specialty was bankruptcy and commercial law. Much of her work highlighted how U.S. laws often hurt working- and middle-class Americans.

Beginning in the 1990s, Warren’s stature in the legal profession led to invitations to advise and serve on government commissions. In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Warren to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel charged with monitoring the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Two years later, President Barack Obama appointed her as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency that she had proposed creating in 2007, before the financial crisis. She was rumored to be the pick to become the CFPB’s first head, but Republican opposition dissuaded the White House from nominating her.

The visibility that Warren gained from her Washington service fueled her political ambitions. In 2011, she declared herself a candidate for the Senate seat once held by Edward Kennedy. Her YouTube video explaining why calling for higher taxes wasn’t class warfare went viral. She defeated Senator Scott Brown with nearly 54 percent of the vote and won re-election in 2018 with 60 percent. Because her term doesn’t expire until 2025, her 2020 run is not jeopardizing her Senate seat.

Despite considerable urging from her supporters, Warren passed on running for president in 2016. She instead campaigned for Hillary Clinton, saying "when Donald says he'll make America great, he means greater for rich guys just like Donald Trump." She gave the keynote address on the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She railed against big banks, corruption, and deregulation, while highlighting that she was “the daughter of a janitor, a daughter who believes in an America of opportunity.”

In the Senate, Warren serves on the Armed Services, Banking, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees as well as on the Special Committee on Aging.

Warren’s Message

Warren’s core message is that “America’s middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice.” She intends to change that by pursuing policies like a wealth tax and higher income taxes. Her critics say this amounts to socialism. Warren’s response is straightforward: “I am a capitalist…. I believe in markets…. But only fair markets, markets with rules. Markets without rules is about the rich take it all, it’s about the powerful get all of it. And that’s what’s gone wrong in America.”

Warren’s Foreign Policy Views

Warren’s conviction that elites have stuck it to working-class Americans shapes her approach to foreign policy. Last November she explained her foreign policy agenda on the pages of Foreign Affairs. (A companion speech at American University covered much the same territory.) She argued that Americans like to tell themselves how “we built a liberal international order…. But in recent decades, Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites.” In particular, “international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working class people discouraged and disaffected.” The solution is “to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few.” The accuracy of this diagnosis of America’s ills can be debated. But Warren clearly sees foreign policy through an economic lens rather than a security lens. Her showcase essay made no mention of NATO or alliances more generally, and it said nothing about what security threats she thinks the United States faces around the world.

Last month Warren laid out her preferred trade policy, or what she calls her “economic patriotism agenda.” Politico pointed out that the plan “is closer to Donald Trump’s agenda than Barack Obama’s.” Warren proposes to change both how trade policy is made in the United States and what Washington asks of its trading partners. In terms of the former, she wants more public involvement and more transparency, to the point of publishing the drafts of potential trade deals. In terms of the latter, she would hold negotiating partners to stringent labor and environmental standards. Warren’s plan has attracted criticism, including from experts sympathetic to her calls to curb the power of multinational corporations. The critics argue that the transparency she seeks will make agreements impossible to negotiate—trade partners won’t budge if their concessions become news before any deal is final—and her standards for entering into negotiations are so high that the United States doesn’t meet them itself. Perhaps more fundamentally, the premise of her trade plan, which is reflected in the title she gave it, “Trade—On Our Terms,” is flawed. As reactions to Trump’s trade policies show, America’s trading partners aren’t reacting to Washington’s demands by negotiating on its terms but by negotiating trade agreements among themselves  that increasingly leave American exporters on the outside looking in.

Given how Warren views trade policy in general, it’s not surprising that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or has said positive things about Trump’s turn to tariffs. She thinks that TPP is yet another example of multinational corporations, and particularly pharmaceutical companies, getting their way at the expense of ordinary Americans. As for tariffs, her view is that “when President Trump says he's putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall.” Her main complaint with Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum is that the administration is using exemptions from the tariffs to reward friends and punish adversaries. Of course, that criticism can be leveled against all tariff schedules with any flexibility—they create real or perceived opportunities for political favoritism.

On many other issues Warren strikes the same themes as other progressive Democrats. That is certainly true of climate change. She thinks it is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States. She supports a Green New Deal and has released five plans for tackling the problem. She laments that “the United States is a leader in climate policy. It's just leading in the wrong direction right now."

It’s also true of American combat operations overseas. When asked if there will still be U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of a first Warren term, she says, “No.” She approved of Trump’s decision last December, subsequently reversed, to withdraw troops from Syria, though with the caveat that “when you withdraw, you gotta withdraw as part of a plan.” She voted against the sense-of-the-Senate resolution that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered warning against a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Warren likewise opposes U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. In all, she wants to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East because “to continue to keep troops and more troops forever and ever and ever in that part of the world, it is not working and pretending that somehow in the future it is going to work by some unmeasured version of it—it’s a form of fantasy that we simply can’t afford to continue to engage in.” Like most of her Democratic rivals, Warren hasn’t discussed the likely consequences of a U.S. retreat from the Middle East or made the case that they will be better for America’s security than the current state of affairs.

Warren opposes Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, saying it “breaks our word, hurts our credibility with our allies, empowers Iranian hardliners, and doesn't make us any safer here at home.” She’s equally critical of Trump’s diplomacy toward North Korea. After Trump met with Kim Jong-un at the DMZ in June she tweeted: “Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator.” Warren says she would focus her initial diplomatic energies on striking a deal to limit North Korea’s weapons and put off the effort to cut North Korea’s arsenal to a later round of talks. Warren hasn’t said what she would offer Pyongyang, or threaten it with, to get the deal she wants.

Warren similarly opposes Trump’s decision to leave the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty: “We should be holding Russia accountable for its violations—not torching the treaty that has prevented a dangerous arms race for over 30 years.” She proposes to follow three core nuclear security principles while in office: no new nuclear weapons; “more international arms control, not less,” which would include “extending New START through 2026”; and no first use, the idea that “deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal,” and as such, the United States will use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for their use.

Warren says she wants to re-build America’s alliances. After last year’s NATO summit, she tweeted “America is strongest when we work together with our allies–including the 28 NATO members who share our democratic values. Undermining NATO is a gift to Putin that @realDonaldTrump seems all too happy to give.” Whether Warren’s more restrained and protectionist foreign policy will rally America’s allies or alarm them is an open question. But she certainly wants to put more effort and more resources into U.S. diplomacy. Among other things, she proposes to double the size of the foreign service and the Peace Corps, open diplomatic posts in underserved areas, invest more resources in language training, and create the diplomatic equivalent of ROTC on college campuses.

More on Warren

Warren is an academic, so she has written and edited a lot of books, mostly specialized treatises with titles such as The Laws of Debtors and Creditors. She wrote a book in 2003 with her daughter, Amelia, called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. Warren’s latest book is This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, published in 2017.

Vogue profiled Warren in 2010 when she was running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, saying she was a “grandmother with big blue eyes, soft blonde hair, and the honeyed accent of the Oklahoma plains,” but also “something of a knife in the gut.”

POLITICO Magazine examined Warren’s rapid rise in politics, saying that “in 2004, she was a respected but little-known academic with an obscure specialty. Then Dr. Phil called.”

POLITICO Magazine also charted Warren’s transformation from “diehard conservative” to the “woman now at the forefront of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”

The New Yorker’s profile of Warren described her as “one of the most vital voices in American politics. Her participation in the Democratic primary can only enrich it.”

Vanity Fair concluded that Warren is “quite skilled at drilling down to a simple, comprehensible point, usually having to do with economic justice. Her anecdotes go over well.”

The Washington Post has fact-checked the controversy over Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry.

Warren answered eighteen questions for the New York Times. When she was asked where she would go on her first international trip as president, she answered: “I think I’d go to Central America.”

Corey Cooper, Brenden Ebertz, and Elizabeth Lordi assisted in the preparation of this post.

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