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What Elizabeth Warren Got Right

The vanquished Democratic presidential candidate understands power better than any of her rivals.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The United States does not have a prime minister. If it did, Elizabeth Warren would be an excellent Democratic choice for the job. In her many plans could be found the light of progressive policymaking without the heat. But Americans elect presidents, and most Democratic voters decided not to nominate her for the job. In the wake of her disastrous Super Tuesday performance, the Massachusetts senator said Thursday she would end her campaign.

In a phone call with staffers, Warren said her campaign had “fundamentally changed” the policy discussions in the contest. “A year ago, people weren’t talking about corruption, and they still aren’t talking about it enough,” she said. “But we’ve moved the needle, and a hunk of our anti-corruption plan is already embedded in a House bill that is ready to go when we get a Democratic Senate.”

Most autopsies of Warren’s campaign will scrutinize her lowest moments, like the disastrous DNA test for Native American ancestry that haunted her campaign launch last spring or the Medicare for All debate that cost her the front-runner status last fall. More than a few will recall her vivisection of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on national television last month. Others will reflect on the inescapable role that gender played in shaping whether voters thought she could defeat President Donald Trump this fall.

“When voters were asked whom they’d pick if the primaries were held today, Mr. Biden came out ahead,” The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle wrote earlier this week, citing surveys on the senator’s popularity among Democrats. “When asked whom they would make president with the wave of a magic wand, without the candidate needing to win an election, voters went with Ms. Warren. Women were more likely than men to cite gender as a concern.”

What stood out most about Warren’s campaign was her thinking on power: who wields it and who doesn’t, who should and who shouldn’t. The Massachusetts senator displayed a keen understanding of how the levers of American governance could be used to enact her policy agenda. All presidential bids are ultimately about power and its acquisition. But Warren, more than any other current or former Democratic candidate, laid out a cohesive vision for how she would actually wield it.

On the campaign trail, Warren used the phrase “big, structural change” as a mnemonic for her policy agenda. For most voters and analysts, that phrase evoked the economic policies she favored, such as Medicare for All, universal childcare, or canceling student debt. But it also covered a wide swath of anti-corruption reforms that would fundamentally reshape how Washington works. The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a bill she introduced in August 2018, would ban elected officials from becoming lobbyists, create an independent ethics agency, require presidential candidates to disclose eight years of tax returns, and more.

Many of her other anti-corruption proposals took aim at the more technical aspects of our system of governance. Her campaign finance reform plan would shed more light on dark-money disclosures and tighten restrictions on super PACs. She called for the creation of a public advocate’s office, funded by a lobbying tax, which would counterbalance corporate influence in the regulatory process. She proposed reversing Newt Gingrich’s 1990s demolition of congressional research groups, which left a policymaking void filled by astroturfed think tanks. She even pledged to ban the bipartisan tradition of appointing donors as ambassadors. In isolation, each of these reforms might be relatively minor. In aggregate, their effect would be monumental.

Presidential candidates often release policy plans in some form, especially on major issues like health care or taxes. But never before had any candidate outlined so clearly and so thoroughly how they would govern the country. Warren’s policies, taken together, depicted a candidate who could navigate the intricacies of federal law and policy to redemocratize American politics, one arcane rule or unremarkable statute at a time. Though technocratic in nature, her reforms carefully sought to avoid the soullessness associated with that framework in a post-austerity world.

That approach also set her apart from the two remaining candidates. Joe Biden’s campaign is largely fueled by a potent nostalgia among Democratic voters for the Obama years after the last three years under Trump. When asked how he’ll actually overcome GOP obstruction that hindered Obama’s ability to govern, however, Biden offers two unconvincing theories. The one spoken aloud is that he’ll be able to work with GOP lawmakers because they’ll have an epiphany after Trump loses. The unspoken one is that Republicans will be less hostile to him because he’s their racial and class peer. Neither is persuasive, especially after the GOP’s treatment of him during the Ukraine scandal.

Sanders and Warren share many of the same policy goals, but they take a starkly different approach when it comes to tactics. Sanders holds no illusions about the Republican Party or how it would respond to his policy agenda. When asked how he would overcome practical hurdles like the Senate, he often says he would lead a “political revolution” by using grassroots organizing to pressure Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike and oust hostile incumbents. That reliance on movement politics sets him apart from Warren, who often adopts a more top-down approach to power than Sanders favors.

Sanders, for all his revolutionary fervor, also rarely emphasizes structural features of the American political system that would make it harder to enact his agenda. Warren favors abolishing the filibuster outright, removing a de facto conservative veto over progressive legislation if Democrats retake the Senate. Sanders favors a more convoluted procedure that would require the vice president to selectively bypass the 60-vote threshold. And while she and more centrist former rivals like Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris said they would be open to packing the Supreme Court last year, Sanders declined to join them.

Warren’s departure from the race closed one door to exercising power while opening another. In her press conference on Thursday afternoon, she declined to say whether she would immediately endorse Sanders or Biden. For the Vermont senator, Warren’s endorsement would give his campaign momentum and earned media coverage as he hopes to stave off a Biden rout. For the former vice president, Warren’s support would give him an effective surrogate to reach progressive voters who are wary of his candidacy but unenthusiastic about Sanders. Neither man can offer her a prime ministerial post in return. Both might wish they could.