Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is determined to let you know that she’s a capitalist.
It is, perhaps, a semi-radical thing to say in this day and age in Democratic politics. The party’s base has veered more comfortably to the left, embracing broad progressive policies from Medicare for All to a federal jobs guarantee. And though the senator from Massachusetts is backing these very legislative proposals, she’s also making a play for nuance. There is, she explains, wisdom in capitalism, provided the addition of guard rails ensuring that corporations don’t outweigh consumers when it comes to markets and governance.
“I believe in markets,” Warren told The Daily Beast in an interview on Tuesday, after unveiling a sprawling anti-corruption legislative package. “And the enormous value that markets can produce. But only if those markets have rules. I believe in democracy but that means a democracy that is truly representative of the people.”
This is far from new territory for Warren whose political prominence has always been founded on promoting consumer protection and warning about the downsides of corporate governance. What’s different now is the surrounding political landscape. The senator finds herself occupying a unique lane among her half-dozen Democratic colleagues who are often bandied about as presidential aspirants. She is a fiery populist who is trying to fuse the Democratic-socialist inclined wing of the party with the more traditional anti-corruption sect, all while trying to not completely disgust voters who might not be ready for a more radical government.
Being a self-avowed supporter of capitalism while embracing big FDR-era ideas is tricky though. In order to make the sell, Warren has taken a surgical approach to crafting an issue set for herself.
The senator recently introduced two pieces of legislation that, though long shots in the current Congress, provide a roadmap both for what Democrats could campaign on in 2020 and what they could put into practice in a prospective new administration.
The first, the Accountable Capitalism Act, introduced last week, would (among other stipulations) require large corporations to obtain a federal charter, allow workers to elect at least 40 percent of board members for corporations with over $1 billion in revenue, and restrict sales of company shares by corporate directors.
The second, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, introduced on Tuesday, is divided into six primary sections that would seek to eliminate financial conflicts, expose influence-peddling in Washington D.C. and increase transparency on the nation’s courts.
Some of the specific prongs of the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act include the banning of individual stock ownership by members of Congress, White House staff, Cabinet secretaries and federal judges while in office. The legislative package would also make it mandatory for the president and vice president to put conflicted assets, including businesses, into a blind trust to be sold off.
The legislation also targets corporate lobbying—long a focus of Warren’s work—by prohibiting presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges and Cabinet secretaries from serving as lobbyists after their time in office. As for current D.C. lobbying, Warren proposes a new level of transparency in which the very definition of the word “lobbyist” would include all individuals paid to influence the government. (Currently it is defined for the Senate as anyone who is retained for more than one lobbying contract and spends at least 20 percent of his or her time engaged in “lobbying activities”)
“Money is the soft corruption of Washington,” she told The Daily Beast. “And it’s spread through this place everywhere. This is not something that can be done by saying ‘we’ll make one adjustment over here, or one over there.’ And that’s why this has so many moving parts.”
Though Warren’s new legislation is broad in scope, it seems tailored to address perceived failures of the current administration and the occupants of it. The bill, for instance, would require the IRS to release tax returns for both presidential and vice-presidential candidates from the previous eight years and during each year once elected. Donald Trump, in short, would not be pleased.
The timing of the bill’s release—less than two weeks after the arrest of Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) for insider trading and on the same day that President Trump’s former campaign chairman was found guilty of tax and banking fraud and another Republican member of Congress was indicted for alleged misuse of campaign funds—provided a potent example of how such anti-corruption messaging could be utilized politically. For the party’s seasoned operatives, it’s another indication that Warren is striking the right notes as she plots out her next steps.
“There is a lot of power in her package of proposals,” David Axelrod told The Daily Beast. The chief strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns said Warren’s approach reminded him of Obama’s 2007 speech at Nasdaq in which he urged Wall Street to embrace reform to help protect consumers. “The sense of pervasive corruption has suffused Washington today, from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. She is speaking to something that almost certainly will be a front and center in 2020.”
Warren, like all potential White House candidates, is coy about those future ambitions. But unlike the other likely candidates who are trying to shore up their progressive credentials, she sometimes appears to be moving in the opposite direction—pushing back against her critics who insist she’s a two-dimensional liberal. To avoid the strict label of being anti-capitalist, she has staked out a position that seeks to correct how the current systems function. Within that, is an acknowledgment that markets can’t fix everything. Putting capitalism on a corrective course, she argues, is not at odds with implementing something like a universal health care system.
“Some things don’t work well in markets, like health care,” Warren, who co-sponsored Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Medicare for All legislation, told The Daily Beast. “When someone feels chest pain, it’s hard to shop from among six different emergency rooms. When a doctor hands over a prescription, it’s tough to think about taking that prescription to six different places to price out what it would cost.”
“Health care doesn’t work like a credit card market,” she added. “It’s different and as a result, this is one of the places where the government has to play a more aggressive role to make sure that every American gets access to health care at an affordable price.”
Those who have followed Warren’s work, even before she was elected to the Senate in 2012, view Tuesday’s bill as a culmination of a worldview about how government can play a role in ensuring that markets actually work for consumers. Far from trying to find a middle ground between capitalism and an ascendent socialist wave, they say, Warren has always lived and thrived in that gray area.
“There’s a common theme which is that ‘Yes there’s market failure but there’s also government failure,’” Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “You can’t address the former if the latter is not working.”
Bernstein suggested that there was even an opening for people with polar opposite political views to actually find meaning in what Warren was espousing in her anti-corruption legislation.
“The ironic thing is that if you’re a conservative who was scared to death of socialism, you’d actually want to embrace a lot of what’s being recommended here,” he told The Daily Beast “Because, the market system can’t function if a corrupt government is almost solely focused on upward redistribution.”