The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren bets that slew of policy ideas will win over Trump-weary voters

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses reporters after a speech at a high school in Reno, Nev.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses reporters after a speech at a high school in Reno, Nev. (Scott Sonner/AP)

The government would pay to build more than 3 million homes and apartments, nearly eliminating a housing shortage for the poor. Uncle Sam would manufacture insulin if the critical medicine’s price spikes. The federal government would foot the bill for child care for many. And big companies, from technology to agriculture, would be broken up.

That’s the world as envisioned by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has churned out a slew of policy ideas in the opening months of her presidential campaign, promoting government intervention into markets she says are no longer working for the middle class.

Warren, alone among the Democratic candidates, is betting voters, exhausted by an emotional, blustery president often seemingly uninterested in specifics, want someone whose strength is a mastery of detail and a meticulous road map for pitchfork-style change. While other Democratic hopefuls have offered isolated plans, Warren’s stand out for their number — and their sweeping aim of overhauling basic aspects of American life.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) officially launched her 2020 presidential campaign Feb. 9, more than a month after announcing her exploratory committee. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Rice/The Washington Post)

The risk is that these detailed initiatives may excite activists but not voters, fill the op-ed pages but not the front pages, and leave Warren with an effort that resembles a policy roadshow rather than a political campaign.

The approach plays to Warren’s strengths as a wonky former Harvard law professor who rose to prominence through her findings that corporations skew the rules to their benefit. It’s fitting for a woman who once considered launching what she called a Center for Middle Class Policy at the New York-based Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, but instead decided to run for U.S. Senate.

Warren’s overriding vision is that the federal government should intervene to fix markets when they fail ordinary people. It is a high-stakes argument at a moment when populism is surging, but distrust in big government remains high. Plus, it remains to be seen whether her policies will connect to voters on an emotional level, which is how many voters make their decisions.

The issues 2020 Democrats are running on, according to their social media

Warren, long seen as a strong candidate, has faced a rocky start to her campaign, her allies admit privately. Her fundraising has been unremarkable and she has so far failed to create the viral moments that helped her achieve national prominence in the first place.

She hopes to rebound with a stream of non-flashy town hall meetings where she embraces her ideas-heavy reputation. She can speak with energy and emotion, but she dives into the policy weeds significantly more than her rivals.

“You’re probably here today because you love policy!” shouted J.D. Scholten, a former Democratic congressional candidate who lost to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), as he warmed up a crowd of more than 250 waiting to hear Warren last month in West Des Moines. “Today we have the queen of policy!”

The senator appeared to love that introduction, and with microphone in hand, she said, “So I thought tonight what we do is, I tell you a little bit about myself,” she said, pausing before adding, “and talk a little policy!” She then blew an air kiss to the crowd.

Warren tries to connect her plans with her own biography. She talks about her difficulties — and even failures — as a working mother when she explains the motivation behind her child-care policy, which would nearly double the number of children in formal child care, according to an estimate by Moody’s Analytics. It would cost $700 billion over 10 years, funded by a wealth tax on the rich.

She talks about her family’s struggle to keep their home in Oklahoma after her father suffered a debilitating heart attack, a story that tees up the central pitch of her campaign: Her family made it through tough times because the government used to help the middle class; with the right leader, it could do so again.

Still, history is littered with “ideas” from candidates who didn’t get very far. Just ask former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who carried that mantle in the 2000 Democratic primary contest but never gained much traction.

Or former Florida governor Jeb Bush in 2016, who launched his Republican presidential bid with a booklet of policy ideas, then dropped out after only three primaries. He was easily defeated by President Trump, who eschewed detailed proposals and built his campaign on fiery emotional appeals.

Hillary Clinton, too, considered herself a policy wonk in 2016, and she was nearly derailed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with his visceral, sometimes angry rhetoric on economic inequality.

If the “policy nerd” route is an unproven one, it is what Warren has to offer. While candidates such as former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) may lay a greater claim to charisma, Warren rose to political prominence through her academic career, becoming a high-profile professor at Harvard Law School.

Warren and her allies say the sweep of her ideas will capture voters’ imaginations.

“A lot of Clinton’s proposals were more on the margins — it was more small-ball, more adjustments around programs,” said Mark Zandi, an independent analyst who reviews the candidates’ proposals as chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “Warren’s policies tend to be bigger. They are game-changing proposals.”

Other Democratic candidates have also started rolling out policy ideas, including Harris, who unveiled a plan to increase teacher pay by $13,500, funded by an estate tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has offered a $1 trillion infrastructure program.

Both are popular ideas on the left, but they differ from a Warren-style plan, analysts say.

“Harris’s plan to boost teacher pay, though laudable, doesn’t fundamentally restructure the balance of power,” said Heather McGhee, a senior fellow at the think tank Demos, who has not endorsed a candidate but is close with Warren. “Nor does a large infrastructure spending plan, unless it includes new rules for workers.”

The ambitiousness of Warren’s plans, however, means many of those ideas could face long odds against enactment. Even if Democrats seize control of Washington, their majority is likely to include centrists resistant to some of the proposals. And Democrats are unlikely to win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Warren contends some of her plans, such as splitting up big companies, can be achieved by aggressively enforcing existing laws. She acknowledged some rules might have to change, saying Friday she would support jettisoning the 60-vote threshold for most legislation in the Senate to more easily enact her agenda.

A pillar of Warren’s agenda is a plan to infuse $500 billion into building low-income housing, a proposal that took her on a three-day tour through the Deep South. “This isn’t a bill that is fiddling at the edges,” said Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at Princeton University and the author of “Evicted,” about poor families being thrown out of their homes in Milwaukee.

On the stump, Warren frequently mentions her ethics legislation, calling it “the biggest anti-corruption bill since Watergate.” The 289-page initiative includes at least 47 new requirements for federal officeholders and regulators, including a lifetime lobbying ban for Cabinet secretaries, tougher ethics rules for Supreme Court justices and a mandate that the Internal Revenue Service release tax returns for all federal candidates.

Renewing faith in regulators is of utmost importance in Warren’s world, and in sharp contrast with Trump’s, whose administration has curbed regulation or turned it over to businesses themselves. Much of her agenda relies on stocking the government with officials dedicated to zealously guarding the public good rather than — as Warren sees the current landscape — protecting corporate interests.

Her wealth tax, an added levy on assets over $50 million, relies on a bulked-up IRS to assess 75,000 more U.S. households. Battalions of empowered enforcers would scrutinize major corporate mergers.

“She’s bringing back the old-school populism,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute who just finished a book on monopoly power. “She is making the argument that markets are public institutions that have to be regulated. This is kind of a throwback that people haven’t heard in a long time.”

That has earned her criticism and even ridicule from conservatives and business groups. A Fox News opinion writer concluded Warren had “gone off the rails.” An editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal said Warren “does not accept the Constitution’s limits on federal power.” And the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that includes large tech companies, said her plan to break them up is an “unwarranted and extreme proposal.”

Others say she has misdiagnosed the problem.

“It begs the question of whether the markets are not working because there is too much government — or too little government regulation,” said Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economics lecturer who has been critical of Warren’s plans. “The libertarian view is mainly markets are not working as well as they might because there is too much government.”

This foreshadows the attacks Republicans are likely to aim at Warren should she win the Democratic nomination. For now, however, her ideas are helping keep her in the news. In March, Warren was the second-most-mentioned presidential candidate among news outlets after Sanders, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from NewsBank, which tracks coverage from more than 7,000 newspapers, online sites and television transcripts.

Other candidates are being forced to talk about her ideas, too.

“Senator Warren has been fantastic on this,” Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, said recently when asked about breaking up agriculture monopolies.

Harris and O’Rourke also have fielded questions about Warren’s wealth tax, while Klobuchar and former governor John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) found themselves discussing the merits of Warren’s idea to break up tech companies. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was asked his views on ending the electoral college, an idea Warren floated during a CNN town hall meeting.

But drawing distinctions between candidates’ plans can be difficult, perhaps more so if Warren’s rivals begin signing on to hers. Not all Democrats who come to see Warren are impressed with her approach, partly because they are not convinced it’s the path to defeating Trump.

“It’s not in policy — it’s persona,” said Jan Franck, 71, a retired marketing consultant who attended Warren’s town hall last month in Perry, Iowa. “Trump is a TV guy. And the nominee from the Democratic Party needs to be a TV-savvy person also.

“Nine out of 10 times, she would do very well,” Franck said. “But this isn’t going to be a battle of policies.”

Washington Post librarian Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.