© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
Public Files Contact · ATSC 3.0 FAQ
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Warren Focuses On Policy, Which Looks Like A Tough Sell With Voters

While Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seen speaking in Iowa, may be dominating the policy debate, there is little evidence that voters are rewarding politicians who flesh out their plans over others with strong personal brands.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
While Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seen speaking in Iowa, may be dominating the policy debate, there is little evidence that voters are rewarding politicians who flesh out their plans over others with strong personal brands.

A version of this story was first posted by member station WBUR.

In the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders might have the biggest army of supporters, Sen. Kamala Harris might come from a bigger state and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke might have his skateboard, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the policy candidate.

By the admittedly imperfect metrics of early fundraising and polling, it's not clear Warren's mastery of policy is an asset for Democratic voters.

The Massachusetts senator says she's a committed capitalist but that "markets without rules are theft." She says Washington is in league with big business and the super-rich at the expense of working Americans. So, as president, Warren says she would launch an ambitious reform of American capitalism.

"We need to make systemic change in this country," Warren declared in January at her first presidential rally in New Hampshire.

She's backing up that call with a slew of detailed policy proposals, which she began rolling out well before she announced she was running for president.

For example, in August she introduced an anti-corruption bill, which, among other things, would impose lifetime lobbying bans on presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges and cabinet secretaries. It would also require presidential candidates to make their tax returns public — something President Trump has never done.

"The problem is in the structure — it's how money influences this place, and how the wealthy and the well-connected get their way over and over, while everybody else gets left behind," she told WBUR last year.

Beyond that, Warren has proposed policies to break up Facebook and other tech giants; to require that corporations include workers on their boards to make them more responsive to the common good and not just to shareholders. She also has called for universal pre-K and child care — a big, expensive program. But she says an annual wealth tax on fortunes greater than $50 million would easily pay for it.

"And still have $2 trillion left over," Warren explained recently on The New York Times podcast The Argument. "Think about what we could do on students loans, or the work we need to do on infrastructure."

According to polls, voters overwhelmingly approve of Warren's policies, including a wealth tax and universal pre-K. But that doesn't seem to be translating into high voter interest in Warren's campaign.

Does policy even matter?

"You hear from people that [Warren] sort of reminds them of Hillary [Clinton], which they mean in a purely stylistic sense," Michelle Goldberg, a liberal columnist for The Times, said on The Argument. "It leads me to wonder: What is the salience of policy in a Democratic primary — or in our politics at all?"

In other words, when running for president, does policy even matter?

That's a deep question that leads to an answer that pains Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and someone who appreciates policy.

"It's a painful truth to recognize that policy is less important than we like to think it is," Reeves said. "We are increasingly seeing that political brands matter more than policy platforms."

In March 2016, Reeves published an essay for Brookings, "The real loser of the 2016 campaign is policy," in which he argued that Trump "offered the most vivid example of the sundering of policy from politics."

"What Donald Trump did during the campaign was to paint in a very broad brush," Reeves said. "Rather than having a debate about immigration policy in the round, [Trump asked], 'Are you for or against the wall? Are you for or against the Muslim ban?'"

Reeves gives Warren credit for her deep work on policy. But he says there is a lot of evidence that voters often decide first who they like before they consider which policies they support. For Warren, that means a big challenge could come from someone like O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, whose policy positions remain vague and unformed, but who is able to ride (literally) his brand.

"There's that famous video of him kind of skateboarding onto a stage before speaking," Reeves said. "It's really difficult to imagine Elizabeth Warren doing that, and I'm not recommending that she tries."

But Reeves is suggesting that we are living in a time when policy doesn't seem to matter as much as brand, symbol or the "feeling" that a candidate offers voters, all of which can translate into money.

A lot of money in the case of O'Rourke, whose campaign says he raised an astonishing $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of launching his campaign — surpassing even Sanders' haul on the first day of his campaign. Meanwhile, despite her detailed policy proposals, Warren raised a fraction of that in the first 24 hours of her campaign. That might say more about the obstacles that female candidates face than anything else.

Nevertheless, some observers are skeptical of candidates who don't do their policy homework.

"Sure, it's easier to get on a skateboard and have a photo taken in March the year before, but I don't think that's what voters carry into a caucus," said Bill Curry, a political writer and former policy adviser to Bill Clinton.

By contrast, according to Curry, Warren's commitment to policy makes her a stronger candidate.

"You can't call her a socialist when she deals with the label directly and then puts out a multi-page accountable-capitalism proposal," Curry said. "You can't accuse her of a lack of specificity when she tells you how she's going to pay for everything she proposes."

And yet, the fact that Warren's offering big, bold — some would even say "radical" — policy proposals doesn't mean that she will win the Democratic nomination. But it does mean, at least for now, that she's exerting a big influence on the primary race.

Copyright 2019 WBUR

Corrected: April 9, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story, we mistakenly wrote that an essay by Richard Reeves was published after the 2016 election. In fact, it was published in March 2016, during the 2016 presidential primaries.
Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.

Related Content