On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced a plan to provide free public college and cancel a large portion of existing student debt. It’s another big policy proposal from the candidate who can’t stop coming up with them. As Politico noted recently, though, in a well-reported piece you might have missed because it was published during the Mueller speculation tornado, left-leaning policy was not always Warren’s “thing.” In fact, the icon of unapologetically populist wonkery used to be a Republican—and one who shared Ronald Reagan’s economic worldview at that.
That’s relevant not just because it’s, like, interesting when people switch parties and change their minds, but because Warren’s greatest perceived weakness as a candidate is that she’s a snobby Massachusetts law professor who won’t be able to resonate with Joe Six Pack, who thinks she’s a total nag, some uptight teacher telling him what to do, and if he needed someone to do that he’d just ask his wife, am I right? Warren makes an effort to undermine this stereotype by centering her campaign message around her upbringing in working-class Oklahoma but doesn’t play up the fact that, as Politico writes, that upbringing involved her adoption of what you’d now call some very red-state political beliefs:
Katrina Harry, one of Warren’s best friends in high school in Oklahoma, remembers that she and Warren “talked politics a lot, taxes and welfare and such, and I was just a flaming liberal back then.” Harry adds, “Liz was a diehard conservative in those days.”
We’re not talking about a brief high-school infatuation with Barry Goldwater, either: Warren’s apparent adoption of free-market conservatism persisted into her work as a law professor studying regulatory issues:
In 1980, one of Warren’s first papers as a full-time professor at the University of Houston took on one of the most divisive political issues of the time: utilities. A decade of energy crises and nearly unprecedented price hikes had made government-sanctioned monopolies a popular target for populist politicians. … In her paper, however, Warren argued that utility companies were over-regulated and that automatic utility rate increases should be institutionalized to avoid “regulatory lag,” in spite of consumer advocate concerns.
Warren has talked and written about becoming actively involved in partisan politics after she started researching bankruptcy rules and decided that the Democratic Party was more supportive of the consumer-friendly policy changes that she became convinced were necessary. (She first registered as a Democrat in 1996, when she was studying bankruptcy law for a Bill Clinton–appointed federal commission.) But she has generally not volunteered that her previous work adhered to what Politico describes as the “Reaganomics”-style framework popular in legal-economics circles at the time; she told the site in a (present-day) interview that she never thought of herself as a conservative per se and that Gerald Ford was the last Republican presidential nominee she voted for.
It makes some sense that Warren would have downplayed the Republican side of her personal political background when she was a relatively unknown figure running as a progressive in Massachusetts: Party-switchers often face intra-party criticism from those who are skeptical that they have a deep understanding of their new party’s worldview. (It’s simply also true that she was never active in Republican electoral politics.) In 2020 there is absolutely no danger that Elizabeth Warren will be accused of not being fully committed to progressive policy goals. But it is 100 percent certain that if she’s the Democratic nominee, she’ll be accused of being “out of touch” with the concerns of white working-class swing voters in the Midwest. Her political history seems like an opportune way to undermine those charges.
Ronald Reagan himself famously won over many former Democrats in the Rust Belt and elsewhere with his personal story of having been a New Deal Democrat who changed parties because conditions around him changed. Perhaps 40 years later, with conditions having changed again, another humble child of the heartland who moved to the coast to make her name will argue the same case in reverse.