How Elizabeth Warren Works the Political System

Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

What sets Senator Elizabeth Warren apart is that she uses the levers of power available to politicians with a platform in Washington to achieve progress—and she is willing to criticize allies in the process.

I get a little annoyed by trendy, overused terms like “theory of change” that always seem to me more like after-the-fact justifications for how leaders manage to succeed than a premeditated idea. But you can build that thread with Elizabeth Warren, and take some lessons from her approach to politics, a combination of quiet bureaucratic skill, persistence, and the leverage of grassroots coalitions as outside muscle.

None of this is particularly innovative, but what sets Warren apart is that she uses the levers of power available to politicians with a platform in Washington. She recognizes that the position of U.S. senator allows for more than just what you vote on or what amendment you can write, and it can be worked to achieve progress in ways large and small.

Warren has been lumped in during the 2020 presidential primaries with Bernie Sanders, whose political approach during his Senate tenure (he was more of a bureaucratic infighter in the House, where the rules better enabled him to pass amendments) involves employing the bully pulpit instead of trying to make change from the inside. Focusing on approaches may seem like an attempt to blur ideological differences between candidates, but they say something real about how Warren and Sanders would govern.

Presidents can access a panoply of tools to make change through existing law, without adding any new statutes in Congress. And it’s the biggest megaphone in the world. What approach gets taken does affect the tangible results of the presidency, and how liberal populists can work through the formidable constitutional and political obstacles to progress. As president, Warren and Sanders might use both the megaphone and the bureaucratic scalpel. But what do we know already about their, well, theories of change?

Last week, BuzzFeed ran a classic Warren story, about how Warren helped ripped-off students from for-profit Corinthian Colleges obtain debt forgiveness during the Obama administration. From the outside, you wouldn’t necessarily know how deeply involved she was in that fight. It appeared that Corinthian students organized among themselves, going on strike for an obscure debt forgiveness clause called “defense to repayment,” available if colleges defrauded them, as Corinthian clearly did, lying about job placement statistics to put them on the hook for expensive loans.

But months earlier, Warren and her staff identified defense to repayment as a vehicle to relieve Corinthian students of their debts, and got the Education Department to acknowledge it as a tool. Beyond this, she worked on the inside to get the department to encourage blanket loan forgiveness, while slamming them in Senate floor speeches for dragging their feet. She used the nomination of John King as education secretary to extract promises on debt forgiveness for Corinthian students. She even intervened directly with President Obama, to force the Treasury Department to refrain from hitting students granted debt relief with a big tax bill by treating it as earned income. In the end, 30,000 students got their loans wiped out.

Having followed Warren’s career from the beginning, I found the episode broadly reminiscent of other fights she has taken on, where she worked to identify paths to progress and pursued them relentlessly. This is rooted in her and her staff’s keen understanding of the economy and the policy options available to make it work better for the public, instead of large corporate interests.

Take for example the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act, which passed both houses of Congress in 2010 with no fanfare. At the time, the foreclosure machinery nationwide had seized up because banks were peddling phony documents to paper over critical errors in the mortgage recording process. Activists were concerned that the bill could be used to force courts to accept fraudulent documents if they had an electronic notarization from out of state, flushing illegal foreclosures through the system.

At the time, Warren was standing up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an assistant to the president. She learned about the bill from then–Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, and appealed directly to President Obama to veto it, as activists had been insisting. It was one of only two bills Obama vetoed in his first six years in office.

Warren also worked behind the scenes to stop Larry Summers from becoming chair of the Federal Reserve, organizing Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee to oppose him. She has met personally with Postmaster General Megan Brennan to try to force her to honor a bargaining agreement with the American Postal Workers Union to initiate pilot programs for postal banking in three cities.

Warren worked on the inside to get the Federal Reserve to sanction Wells Fargo for a litany of abuses, restricting the bank’s growth and removing four board members. Warren’s staff found that, under a section of the U.S. Code, bank regulators had authority to remove members of a bank’s board of directors if they engaged in unsafe or unsound practices. She stated this in letters to the Fed and in testimony, and finally got it to happen, in Janet Yellen’s final action as Fed chair. Warren’s excoriation of Wells Fargo CEOs John Stumpf and Tim Sloan eventually led to their early retirements, too.

This is just a sampling of Warren’s actions, and it’s not really the stuff of campaign ads. For one, some of the actions involved fighting her own party, and the policy actions of someone who remains a popular president to the Democratic base. It’s hard for her to tout fighting Obama, even when she was right on the policy.

Moreover, quiet pressure from the inside doesn’t show up on a “key vote” scorecard or as a bill becoming law. But you can do more in Congress than vote. You can use your position, through hearings and letters and pressure that nobody sees, to get things done. You sometimes have to be willing to criticize allies to do it. You need to deploy activists on the outside while working on the inside. But it can happen.

You can also inspire change through loud, targeted yelling. Bernie Sanders has proven this, getting Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour after he introduced legislation called the Stop BEZOS Act that would have taxed corporations for each dollar their employees obtain in government assistance. (Of course, non-employee contractors that Amazon uses aren’t eligible for that wage.) Through his 2016 run for president, Sanders has moved the entire Democratic Party toward a more populist economic program. He has been skillful with the bully pulpit, and the pulpit gets much bigger when you’re president.

Warren uses public messaging in her crusades as well. And I have no doubt that, as president, Sanders aides would scour the U.S. Code to make change if stymied by the political opposition. But the natural inclinations of the two senators are clear: Sanders works from the outside, Warren dives in to find ways to make progress. They can be complementary skills, and in a polarized country with lots of checks and balances, both will be important in the next Democratic administration.

But to know where someone is headed, it’s worth looking at where they’ve been. And this has been Warren’s approach since before being elected: knowing what levers of the administrative state to pull, and then using outside activism and insider relentlessness to get them pulled. It’s a worthwhile quality in a chief executive, not least because it shows a desire to do something in office beyond getting re-elected.

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