Among the 23 candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is presenting the most thorough list of policy specifics on taxes, antitrust, student-debt relief, tackling inequality and much more.
If enacted, they would “significantly remake the American economy,” as The New York Times put it.
The proposals would be warmly embraced by Seattle progressives. Whether they would help or hurt her outside America’s blue islands is a big unknown. The label of “socialist” (or in angry emails I receive, “SOCIALIST”) is a candidate-killer in vast swaths of the nation. “Massachusetts liberal” has meant defeat since JFK was elected in 1960 (even Republican Mitt Romney couldn’t break the Bay State curse).
Warren is no socialist. She can fairly be called a social-democrat in the Western Europe mold, where capitalism coexists with a high-tax, high-regulation government.
Importantly, Warren’s detailed plans are defining a leftward-moving Democratic Party while the Republicans have moved to embrace the economic nationalism and protectionist policies of their president.
We’ve come a long way from the “neoliberal” centrism that generally defined presidential contests and policies since the late 1980s. Then, the scope of disagreements was narrower, such as limited increases or decreases to taxes. President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership would have been embraced by both parties in that era. No more.
A President Warren would push to break up Big Tech, and has specifically named Amazon along with Google and Facebook.
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” she wrote in March. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”
That essay then goes into great detail about how she would seek legislation to label these giants as “platform utilities … (to be) broken apart from any participant on that platform.” Anti-competitive mergers would be “reversed” by regulators. Amazon could say goodbye to Whole Foods and Zappos, which would return to being free-standing companies.
This is only the beginning of a sweeping set of policy recommendations.
She wants to seek an “ultra-millionaire” tax on the 75,000 wealthiest U.S. households. That would cost Jeff Bezos $4.1 billion in the first year — the world’s richest man is worth nearly $149 billion. Also on Warren’s agenda is a new tax on big corporations (60 Fortune 500s, including Amazon, avoided all federal income taxes in 2018).
Warren claims these would raise $3.8 trillion over a decade. The money would pay for some of her other ideas, such as free college and student-loan forgiveness, green industries, lower-income housing and child care.
So thorough is her agenda that supporters wear “Warren has a plan for that” T-shirts. (But the agenda appears to have some blind spots. Depressingly, the senator has had little if anything to say about high-speed rail — a critical way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — or transit or even Amtrak. She did back a high-speed rail proposal in Massachusetts, but that’s not the national transportation vision we need.
Nevertheless, Warren’s plans would mean radical change or a much-needed antidote to the decline of the middle class — or both. They are helping her popularity among Democrats but attracting critics, too. In addition to those on the right, her tax proposals have caused some prominent center-left economists to raise questions.
Were she to win the primary, Warren’s agenda would test the question about whether the 2016 election was really about the economy. I think not: Donald Trump ran on culture-war issues, immigration and white anxiety. With his bluster, unique manipulation of the media and help from the Kremlin, he still lost the popular vote. The expansion that began under Obama continued.
In 2020, the economy might become central if a recession arrives, particularly one that can be blamed on Trump’s trade wars.
Otherwise, turnout — and vote suppression — would be important. Large numbers of younger people, educated women, and minorities would heavily support a Democrat. Large numbers of older white people would tend to back a Republican. And could the Democrat capture vital states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016? Could Democrats win a Senate majority and keep the House, without which Warren’s proposals would be dead on arrival at Congress?
Warren is a fascinating mix of brains and the common touch. She was a Harvard academic who led establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new agency to combat the banksters (which is now being weakened by the Trump administration). When GOP senators refused to confirm her as the bureau’s head, she ran for the Senate and won.
Yet she was born in Oklahoma, where her family, as she put it, was “on the ragged edge of the middle class … kind of hanging on at the edges by our fingernails.” She bootstrapped her way up and is a more gifted retail politician — appealing personally to voters — than Hillary Clinton, able to articulate an agenda that’s also backed by rigorous academic research.
Intellectuals are often poor politicians. But not always (think Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama). Warren fits into this successful category.
It’s way too early to say she’ll win the nomination, facing formidable challenges from Joe Biden in the center and Bernie Sanders on the left.
Trump and the hard-right GOP behind him have so scrambled American politics that it’s difficult to pinpoint today’s center. And I suspect that many more people back Trump than the polling shows — they lie to pollsters.
It’s also difficult to say how much voters want to change the American economy. Many are too young to remember the era from the end of World War II to 1980. Many who do remember believe in Trump’s nationalism rather than a return to the mixed economy that was ushered in with the New Deal and supported by both parties.
On the other hand, socialism isn’t a dirty word to a surprising number of millennials. These younger people have doubts about capitalism as it’s practiced today and are willing to experiment.
Thus, while laissez-faire Trumpism will continue long after the Donald is gone, the Warren agenda will likely define the Democratic Party’s economic policies of the future. Finding a consensus between such radically different viewpoints will be challenging.