August 21st, 2019

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.

Activists Fear Imminent Betrayal From DNC Quashing Climate Debate

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Sipa USA/AP

On the eve of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, thousands marched in Philadelphia for action to prevent climate catastrophe.

Since the 2012 election cycle, California DNC member Christine Pelosi has called for a climate debate. In every subsequent cycle, she has called for a climate debate.

But now, calls for a climate debate are widespread. And DNC members are voting on all resolutions—including those on climate—on August 22, the first day of the DNC summer meeting. DNC Chair Tom Perez entered his own resolution on climate, which was met with vitriol from climate activists. Activists who already distrust the DNC view the language in the Perez resolution as yet another excuse to avoid an official debate.

RL Miller, founder of the environmental group Climate Hawks Vote and chair of the California Democratic Environmental Caucus, says that the calls for a climate debate started with activism—not with Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. Nonetheless, the governor’s sustained calls for a climate debate have been a boon to the movement.

“It’s a grassroots movement,” Miller says. “Almost all of our [presidential] candidates have said that they want a climate debate.”

Miller explained that aside from the existential crisis that climate change presents, the need for a debate is practical. “No one watches [town halls or forums] because they’re like watching paint dry,” Miller says. Forums and town halls also limit the number of candidates, and have higher qualification minimums than debates.

When CNN announced it would host a climate town hall—not a debate—Inslee did not even make the cut based on his polling and won’t appear on stage for the town hall, making a climate debate even more urgent to activists. Just ten candidates qualified for the CNN town hall, and until Tuesday morning, California Senator Kamala Harris had been planning to miss the event for a fundraiser.

“Climate has to be in the conversation continuously,” says Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. “We have this little tiny blue-green spaceship called Earth and we’re destroying it. And therefore, it is an existential issue that has to be debated with intensity. And if anyone doesn’t have a plan to move us far more rapidly and help lead the world in moving rapidly off carbon as fossil fuel energy, then they shouldn’t be in the race.”

Climate change is one of “the elements that unite us as Democrats, that galvanizes the base, and that distinguishes us from Republicans and independents,” Pelosi says.

Miller says activists started to push for the climate debate in April, beginning with a petition with CREDO’s name on it. By the time the petition was delivered in mid-June, it had over 220,000 signatures. Miller says there was some discussion of having Inslee deliver the petition to the DNC, but that they decided against it to avoid affiliating the petition with just one candidate. Some of the groups involved in addition to CREDO include, the Sunrise Movement, Daily Kos, and Climate Hawks Vote.

The DNC resolutions committee met in June as the movement gained momentum. Protesters went to the DNC headquarters in June, demanding the party hold a climate debate even as Perez threatened that any candidate who participates in such a debate would not be invited to other debates. These protests and other climate debate activism essentially forced the DNC’s hand on a climate debate, and a larger climate discussion. There are currently six resolutions on climate. Not all are about a debate. One resolution urges the DNC to create an Environmental and Climate Crisis Council.

Two resolutions call for a climate debate, with one calling for a climate debate specifically in the Pacific Northwest. But most contentious among the resolutions on climate are two resolutions, one of which was submitted by more than 70 DNC members. The other was submitted by DNC chair Tom Perez—and subsequently pilloried by climate activists in the press. Activists say that it draws attention away from a climate debate while maintaining in a “therefore” clause that Democrats will address climate change “through bold and inclusive solutions.”

Others say that the Perez resolution is operating as a “bait and switch.” After activists’ protests forced the DNC to put a climate debate to a vote, at the last minute, Perez entered this resolution. Mother Jones’s Rebecca Leber reported that the Perez resolution “would kill chances of a formal, DNC-sponsored debate devoted to climate change.” HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman wrote that the resolution would “torpedo” chances of a debate. Miller says that she saw the Perez resolution and “went into rage mode.”

On the other hand, Pelosi is more generous toward Perez. “Tom [Perez] wants to be neutral.” she says. “He should not put this thumb on the scale, but he should also be open to the people that elected him.” Pelosi thinks that despite the presence of the Perez resolution, they will still debate the merits of a climate debate. “All this did was institutionalize the two in a couple of votes,” she says. “Now the body decides what to do.”

“I feel like the best way out at this point is through having a handful of stand-alone debates,” Pelosi says. Ideally, she told me that the party would take the platform and divide it up into six “chapters” where candidates could debate aspects of each of the “chapters” and “duke out the details” so that when a candidate is nominated voters know that candidate’s stand on the platform.

Miller says that because the Perez resolution had many “whereas” statements but a “therefore” clause that did not call for a debate, it could be a cop-out for Democrats who didn’t want to support the climate debate to still show support for making climate a central issue to the platform.

Miller’s own experience, she says, gave her insight into just how bad the Perez resolution could be for the vote. “I know how to write a resolution. The resolutions I write always pass the state party. The whereas [clauses] don’t matter and the therefore [clause] does.” Thus, she explained, Perez’s “resolution wasn’t calling for action on the climate debate at all, it was just reciting as an established fact that we’d already had enough debate.”

The packet of resolutions was released August 8.

In anticipation of the vote Thursday, activists are planning several initiatives. A template resolution that Miller drafted supporting a climate debate has been passed by the Democratic members in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Utah, as well as endorsed in 20 different counties in California and county Democratic parties in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia. The Young Democrats of America have also passed her template resolution.

A major arm of the campaign to persuade DNC members to vote yes on a resolution for a climate debate has been led by CREDO and, among other climate groups. Through an alert to their members, and an online campaign, the organizations are asking their members to call the members of their local DNC groups to sign on to the resolution in favor of a climate debate.

CREDO Action campaign manager Jelani Drew-Davi says that the coalition has received good feedback from their call operation. “The DNC has been hearing about these calls, it’s creating conversation at the DNC,” Drew-Davi says. “I think we really are putting the pressure on members to say that they want a climate debate.”

Although Miller was able to garner strong DNC member support for the resolution, two California members refused. Bob Mulholland, a longtime California political operative and one of the members who has not signed on, told me he had a couple of reasons, including that he thought gun control was a more pressing concern. But he also said—with no proof—that he thinks the Russians have been coordinating a campaign to push the climate debate controversy in order to divide Democrats and distract them from the bread-and-butter issues that Mulholland says appeal to much of the vote.

Supposedly, the Russians are pushing for this debate on social media, and they are behind an effort to call DNC members who have not yet signed on to the resolution, Mulholland told me. Why Russians would sow discord through demanding attention to save the planet, something every major presidential candidate has agreed on, is unclear.

This is not the first time Mulholland has offhandedly blamed the Russians for changes in DNC policy. Last year he suggested, also without proof, that activists promoting reform of the superdelegate process were part of a Russian plot. Ultimately those changes were made, restricting superdelegates from having a vote on the presidential nomination on the first ballot. No word on whether Vladimir Putin squealed with glee upon that news.

I confirmed that the climate organizations, CREDO, and Sunrise Movement have created a tool that allows activists to call DNC members who oppose a climate debate. According to CREDO’s Drew-Davi, they have documented a little over 3,000 calls.

But Mulholland thinks the campaign is ill advised. “There’s not an organization in America that would tell hundreds of people to call a member,” he said. “Only a moron would be urging thousands of people to call us. That’s why I think it’s the Russians behind it.”

After I spoke with Drew-Davi, I asked Mulholland what he thought about the organizing tool designed to help activists call members. In an email response, he wrote, “If CREDO and thought it was a good organizing tool to urge thousands of people to call DNC members to harass them around the clock, like even at 12:20AM, the idiots behind it should be fired.” He added, “The trouble with some of these organizations is for the most part, they are ‘Keyboard’ activists, never really meeting an everday [sic] voter but they raise money on Causes, to pad their salaries.” The only situation where a call campaign would be effective, Mulholland says, was if you call the office of a member of Congress who can then add up the calls by the end of the week in support or against a certain issue.

Since then, he has also sent more than half a dozen emails updating me on the number of calls he has received. Over the last two weeks, he says, he’s received more than 200 calls. In subsequent emails, he wrote, “The Russians have to be pushing these calls. Some of them leave messages—what are they thinking—someone would actually listen to over 200 messages.” He also called them “threatening political calls.”

Despite resistance from DNC members like Mulholland, organizers are hopeful.

If the vote is yes, Drew-Davi says, it’s a celebration, but if the vote is no, “it’s still about trying to think about the ways to get the public the information they need about where the candidates stand on climate.”

Pelosi remains optimistic about the upcoming meeting. “Give it some time, and give people an opportunity to find face-saving ways to be responsive and compromise on the procedural stuff and really get to the heart of the matter, which is that there are a lot of people who are very concerned about climate,” she says.

On Thursday, Miller says that activists have plans to protest at the DNC summer meeting in San Francisco. “We’re going to show up in San Francisco to make some noise,” Miller says. “If security is tight, they’re actually going to make us register as outsiders, and two DNC insiders told me that that’s the first time they’ve required people to register for the meeting.”

The votes are scheduled to take place first thing—from 8 to 10 that morning.

Miller is adamant that a debate is the right forum to get climate information to voters: “Don’t lie to people. Don’t try to chase the middle when science says you need to do the opposite.”

David Dayen contributed reporting.