Elizabeth Warren isn’t the left-winger she’s made out to be

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaking at a forum in Iowa in March. Photo via Flickr.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Despite her image as a staunch left-winger, Elizabeth Warren’s views have historically been to the right of centrists like Bill Clinton and have shifted erratically with public opinion. Leftists should be wary of supporting her campaign.

Until 1996, Warren was a registered Republican. Her GOP registration wasn’t a holdover from her parents or from growing up in a deep-red state: Warren herself says her family didn’t talk about politics but that her parents were probably FDR Democrats, and Oklahoma, where Warren was raised, was a mostly-blue state at the time. Warren’s votes varied between Republicans and Democrats, but she had registered as a Republican by 1987.

Since Warren was comfortable registering as an independent until then, it seems unlikely that she registered Republican to have her vote count in a closed primary in a one-party state or for some other non-ideological reason. Rather, it appears that Warren looked around at Ronald Reagan’s program of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and cuts to government services and thought it seemed pretty good. It would be nine years before she changed her mind. When asked on The Breakfast Club why she registered as a Republican, Warren repeatedly dodged the question.

Still, party affiliation alone doesn’t mean much. There are many things deeply wrong with the Democratic Party, and it’s possible — though improbable, in my view — that Warren registered as a Republican purely for other, practical reasons. So let’s look at Warren’s positions on actual issues.

In the 1980s, Bill Clinton ran for governor of Arkansas attacking predatory utility companies for raising rates. Warren, meanwhile, wrote an article for the Notre Dame Law Review arguing that utility companies should be deregulated and encouraged to raise rates automatically, because, she claimed, this would save money in the long run.

Warren has since changed her mind on that position. It’s funny how often Warren seems to change her mind.

In her book The Two-Income Trap, co-written with her daughter, Warren advocated for replacing the public school system entirely with school vouchers, writing, “An all-voucher system would be a shock to the educational system, but the shakeout might be just what the system needs.”

School vouchers, were thought up by conservative economist Milton Friedman in a 1955 paper arguing that education is a subjective private good outside of a few cases. In such a system, the lowest-quality education is the only one available to the poor who can no longer rely on a subsidy from richer families. Rich students in turn flee to expensive, exclusive schools that also receive public payouts. As usual in the rhetoric of “choice,” “school choice” amounts to an abandonment of the poor so the rich can save on taxes.

Warren now apparently opposes school vouchers. But when asked about charter schools — a similar issue that advocates also support using the misleading rhetoric of “school choice” — Warren equivocated, saying only that families must support public schools and “no child should be left behind in a school that’s not functional.” At a rally in Oakland, California, in May, Warren chose to be introduced by Sonya Mehta, a former policy fellow at an organization that advocates for charter schools.

On health care, Warren now advocates for Medicare for All, although her campaign website’s issue page makes no mention of it. In 2012, Warren told an interviewer she does not support  single-payer healthcare. Even now, when asked what “Medicare for All” means, Warren doesn’t give a straight answer. Does she mean a universal, tax-funded, free-at-the-point-of-use health insurance program, or is she among those attempting to water down the term? “When we talk about Medicare for all, there are a lot of different pathways,” Warren said in March.

Her refusal to discuss basic details of her position on the number one issue on voter’s minds is especially shocking given her bizarre choice to run as a policy wonk. This probably isn’t the campaign she should be running. When Hillary Clinton ran a similar campaign in 2016, she suffered arguably the most embarrassing loss for any presidential candidate in American history. It’s possible that the cold policy wonk strategy was the least-bad choice for Clinton given her unpopularity, but in my opinion, Warren is not viewed as corrupt and has a deeply American, gritty likability. All the same, since Warren is running on wonkishness, her reluctance to talk details on Medicare for All suggests Warren is doubtful voters would like what she would say.

Some of Warren’s proposals would make life better for many people. For one, I’ve written in support of her plan to forgive student loan debt, although I believe it should go further. But even here, it’s telling that Warren’s plans often focus on the needs of the professional middle-class, not the deeply poor. For example, just 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 were given to students from households earning less than $35,000, and only a minority of Americans even have college degrees.

There is one point on which Warren has remained consistent: No matter what she thinks about vouchers and charter schools, healthcare or the GOP, Warren has always claimed to be a capitalist. She’s told us whose side she’s on. It’s time to believe her.

John-Paul Teti is a University of Maryland alumnus. He can be reached at jp@jpteti.com.

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