The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican. She shouldn’t hide it.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Washington on April 1. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) discusses her biography, she talks movingly about how her family finances all but cratered when she was a teenager after her dad suffered a heart attack and about her struggles for child care as a young mom.

Here’s something Warren doesn’t talk much about: When all that happened, she was a Republican. “A diehard conservative,” one high school friend told Politico, which published an article about all this last week. “Sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer,” recalled a law school colleague. In 1980, she wrote an influential paper on utilities regulation that essentially ignored the consumer issues she now champions.

It’s not hard to blame Warren for not talking about the fact she didn’t register at a Democrat till 1996, when she was in her late 40s. It risks making her look inconsistent, something to which voters are all too sensitive, especially when it comes to women. (Just ask Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.) Little wonder she told Politico she considered herself “nonpartisan” during the period.

But she should reconsider. Her story of moving from right to left is, in many ways, as good a case for “capitalism with rules,” as she describes her beliefs, as any policy paper or proposal.

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Warren is open about how her experience of studying families in bankruptcy changed her. She began what became a decades-long project expecting to find a bunch of financially frivolous slackers attempting to take advantage of the system. Instead, she discovered people drowning under the weight of uncertain jobs, increasing medical expenses and stagnating salaries. Faced with facts, she adjusted her beliefs to reality.

Warren has written about that conversion extensively, most notably in the two books she co-wrote with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi: “The Two-Income Trap” and the personal finance guide “All Your Worth.” But if she added her political evolution to the story, Warren would be making a stronger argument for why her agenda of enhanced business regulation, increased consumer protection and a beefed-up social safety net is right for America.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) grills JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who made $31 million last year, on how a low-paid bank teller is supposed to pay the bills. (Video: Danielle Kunitz, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

To register as a Republican in the 1970s and 1980s did not necessarily mean someone supported a far-right agenda. The Clean Air Act, now under attack by President Trump, was signed into law by Richard Nixon. It was George H.W. Bush who enacted the Americans With Disabilities Act. I don’t want to suggest Republicans were liberal — hardly! Warren, for one, remained a Republican despite the fact that Nixon vetoed a plan for national, subsidized child care in 1971, something that would have made her life as a young working mom much easier.

This political world is all but incomprehensible to voters under the age of 40, who came of age either in the hyperpartisan world of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and Clinton impeachment, or the obstructionist Republican Congress of the Obama presidency, and a party that was heading further and further to the right. Yet many older Democratic voters pine for this lost political reality — we see this with every candidate who pledges to work across the aisle, brandishes their bipartisan credentials and holds themselves as someone with unique talents to get the other side to see reason.

As the Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen recently pointed out, Warren is doing no such thing. Her message is empathetic toward individual people but angry about our politics and financial system. “History suggests that as a progressive populist, Warren faces a tough slog,” he wrote.

Yet political evolutions are not unknown in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan, for one, was a registered Democrat and president of the Screen Actors Guild before crossing the aisle. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” he liked to say. (As for the current president, he has switched parties multiple times.)

Warren’s journey, moreover, is one that is shared by a number of other groups. Millennial women, for example, are now more likely to identify as Democrats than a mere five years ago. Then there are the never-Trump Republicans, many of whom are now undergoing political awakenings of their own. Did you ever expect to see columnist David Brooks embrace reparations for African Americans?

Perhaps if Warren talked more about her political evolution, she could demonstrate she isn’t some stereotypical Massachusetts liberal. When it comes to voters who are skeptical of regulation and inclined to believe people are taking advantage of government benefits, Warren can say she was once where they are politically. If I could change my mind, she could tell them, so can you.

Read more:

Helaine Olen: Can voters forgive Elizabeth Warren?

Jennifer Rubin: Elizabeth Warren has done her homework. Why hasn’t everyone else?

Helaine Olen: Elizabeth Warren wrote a book of personal finance advice. How does it hold up?

Helaine Olen: How millennial women may change our politics

David Byler: Why hasn’t Elizabeth Warren achieved liftoff?