When Elizabeth Warren came to Washington — not the first time, as a bankruptcy expert, or the second time, to oversee the bank bailout during the Great Recession — but the third time, when she was elected to the United States Senate, she wanted to solve a growing problem: student debt.
During her campaign, against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Warren had talked a lot about student loan debt and making college more affordable. She had run television ads about it, saying young people were “left drowning in debt to get an education.” So, as her Senate office began to staff up, the boss wanted to roll out a policy proposal to bring down the cost of student loans. Her staff did what they always did when working for Warren: They looked for the best existing plans and the best data to show her the root causes of the problem. What they found was lacking.
There were plenty of policy experts on K-12 education, but relatively few were focused on higher education, and even fewer were focused on student loans. The number of ideas floating around to fix the problem was minuscule.
Policy development in Washington normally runs through think tanks. Think tanks need to raise money for policy programs. But since there was no money devoted to developing a policy to relieve student loan debt, there were relatively few experts in Washington on the issue at the time. So Warren hired a top academic expert to develop student loan debt relief policy on her staff.
In the seven years since, Warren has become the most active politician in America when it comes to investigating, transforming and eliminating student debt. As the problem has grown, her proposed solutions grew. She started by fighting to lower interest rates and pushing the Obama administration to investigate for-profit colleges with high default rates, and she slowly reached the point where it was time to push for the near-total elimination of student debt.
This is how Warren has pushed the boundaries of progressive policy since coming to Washington. Instead of relying on the traditional D.C. think tank world, she made her office into her very own think tank. This vast, over-qualified policy team then consulted with a kitchen cabinet of legal academics, economists and other scholars outside the Beltway. Her goal all along has been to craft and sell policies to help solve one overarching problem: inequality in American society.
“It looks like we’re trying to solve a lot of different problems, but we’re only trying to solve one problem,” said Jon Donenberg, who is now the policy director for Warren’s presidential campaign. “It’s the rigged system; it’s the corrupt government and economy that only benefits those at the top. Every solution flows from that.”
Now Warren’s policy-first politics is the unlikely fuel for her bid for the White House. Her steady release of detailed yet easy-to-digest policy papers became a meme and rescued her campaign after a rough first few months. Though the campaigns of other candidates originally dismissed her focus on policy as a way to appeal to an irrelevant niche, many now grumble that her policy rollouts get far more media attention than those of other presidential candidates. She now sits among the top tier of contenders in the polls and fundraising — all while eschewing big-money fundraisers.
It’s no surprise that her focus on policy has catapulted Warren back into serious contention. Digging into policy solutions for overlooked problems and explaining it in digestible soundbites is what she has done since the publication of her first book, “As We Forgive Our Debtors,” an empirical study of bankruptcy that completely changed how academics viewed the issue.
“This is what she’s been doing her whole life,” said Georgetown Law School professor Adam Levitin, a former Warren student at Harvard Law School.
Other presidential candidates have highlighted their policy advisers. Franklin Roosevelt had his Brain Trust. Richard Nixon appointed the first Cabinet-level policymaking body. Ronald Reagan had the Heritage Foundation. And Bill Clinton had “The Conversation.”
But Warren’s approach is unique. If elected president, she won’t be testing out a new policy process in office. She’ll bring one that’s been tried and tested in her offices for nearly a decade.
She’s been doing it since even before her Senate run. A decade ago, she ran the Congressional Oversight Panel overseeing the 2008 bank bailout. It was a temporary post on a hot-button issue likely to anger powerful figures in both political parties. That made it hard to attract staff from the typical pool of Washington applicants. But Warren attracted policy experts to work with her. She connected them to her world of policy-oriented legal academics.
“That’s kind of where you can start to see her build a policy shop,” said Levitin, who also worked for Warren on the oversight panel. “And then she was able to build on that model when she went into the Senate.”
Warren’s Senate office was built entirely around policy, with the largest such team in Congress. She hired an investigations team to research issues she was considering pushing or to continue to build the case for legislation she had introduced. The team, whose members had sterling academic credentials — one of the office’s first health care staffers had a doctorate in pharmacology — consulted with academics that Warren read and talked to to help guide her policy thinking.
“They were just a conduit for people who had 50-year careers working in whatever the field was and had literally written the textbook on it,” said Graham Steele, a former staffer to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) who’s now working on a team at Stanford School of Business that Warren consults with for policy advice.
Other Senate offices would consult with her staff on policy development because they knew it was the best team around, according to Steele. Or sometimes her office would hear from Warren’s kitchen cabinet of academics about a particular bill.
She is really ― and I want to contrast this with every other member of Congress I’ve worked with — she gets it, she gets down and dirty in the weeds like nobody else. Georgetown Law School professor Adam Levitin
“There’d be a D.C. consensus, and then her office would come to you and say, ‘Hey, we’ve heard some concerns about this particular bill, and I’d love to put you on the phone with this person who’s like the foremost expert on whatever this issue is,’” Steele said.
Warren doesn’t totally eschew the D.C. think tanks — many of her ideas come from the Roosevelt Institute, which is largely a traditional Washington think tank except for the fact that it’s based in New York. There’s also the Great Democracy Initiative, where her former policy staffer Julie Morgan – the student loan expert armed with a Ph.D. and law degree Warren hired back in 2012 ― and her former counsel Ganesh Sitaraman craft policies in the Warren mold. And she’s open to ideas from places like the Center for American Progress, where Sitaraman is a fellow, and Demos, where her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, was previously the chair of the board of trustees. But it’s relatively rare for her staff to think the ideas emerging from think-tank land are the best ones out there.
The goal of think tanks is to prove their worth to donors by having politicians adopt their ideas. That means they mostly assemble and pitch ideas politicians are likely to adopt, and it can be hard for them to push the type of ideas that have been banished from polite conversation in Washington, even if that’s where the data leads them.
“It’s actually not very think tank,” Levitin said of Warren’s policy process. “It’s actually remarkably non-think tank-y. I think that that can be kind of refreshing”
The academics Warren consults are all focused on empirical policy research, the kind that Warren pursued in her academic career. They include MIT’s Simon Johnson, Stanford’s Anat Admati, Cornell’s Robert Hockett and Saule Omarova, the University of Georgia’s Mehrsa Baradaran, Ohio State University’s Darrick Hamilton and Georgetown Law School’s Levitin. She also has former staffers she consults, including Sitaraman, now a professor at Vanderbilt Law School.
Baradaran first came into contact with Warren’s team in 2013 as they looked at writing legislation to allow the U.S. Postal Service to operate as a public bank. They had read Baradaran’s research on how banking practices and laws had increased the racial wealth gap and sought her out. Today, Baradaran continues to offer advice for Warren’s policy team on how to close the racial wealth gap as it relates to Warren’s banking, housing and child care plans.
What really sold Baradaran on Warren and her policy team was something very simple.
“They read,” she said. “That’s something that can’t be overemphasized enough because it really contrasts starkly to me with the rest of the members of Congress all over the spectrum. People just don’t engage with or read, not only just not academic work, but other work in general.”
Take special counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” which lawmakers have said they didn’t read because “It’s tedious,” “It is what it is,” and “What’s the point?” Warren read it. She came to the conclusion that President Donald Trump obstructed justice and followed the clear message of the report: that only Congress can do something about a president breaking the law. She called for the House to launch an impeachment inquiry.
She also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” and reached out to the author to discuss it. “She had read it, she was deeply serious, and she had questions, and it wasn’t like, ‘Would you do XYZ for me?’” Coates told The New Yorker in June. Warren is the only 2020 candidate to talk to him about the issue, he added — and he thinks she’s the only candidate who is really serious about it.
Warren’s plan to levy a 2% tax on fortunes above $50 million stems from reading the work of University of California, Berkeley, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. Their research found that the current wealth inequality in the U.S. is the result of the growth of wealth among the top 0.1% of households caused by policy choices in Washington. Warren’s team reached out to Saez and Zucman in January to help craft her wealth tax. The two economists also worked on her corporate tax proposal and her plan to reduce overseas tax avoidance by the wealthy.
“She is really ― and I want to contrast this with every other member of Congress I’ve worked with — she gets it, she gets down and dirty in the weeds like nobody else,” Levitin said.
Sometimes Warren gets her policy from her own reading, but other times it bubbles up from her staff’s research. She makes sure to direct them toward answering the questions she always asked herself in her academic career.
“The two questions Elizabeth asks the most often is: ‘What’s driving the problem?’ and ‘What does the data say?’” Donenberg said. “If you don’t have answers to those two questions, it’s time for you to go.”
When all the research is complete and the policies appear done, Warren has one final task. It must be possible to explain every policy that comes out of her office in practical language to anyone.
She asks staffers to consider, “How can I tell the story about this that people will understand?” according to Levitin.
When she ran the Congressional Oversight Panel, every 100-page report her office put out first went to her desk, where she would write a one-page plain-language explanation for the press and the public.
“Her unusual strength is being able to translate really complex problems into a way that an ordinary person can understand them,” Levitin said.
She rocketed to political stardom by deftly explaining why the 2008 financial crisis happened in appearances on “The Daily Show.” And she’s using her policy plans not only to show what she’ll do as president to shrink the yawning inequality gap in the country but also to reveal her character and seriousness to voters.
“Issues are merely a vehicle to portray your intellectual capacity to the voters … a vehicle by which the voters will determine your honesty and candor,” then-Sen. Joe Biden, who’s now one of Warren’s major rivals in the Democratic presidential primary, said in his first major interview in 1974.
Warren is counting on it.