Politics

Warren Has Earned Her Wonk Reputation

No other top 2020 contender can come close to the depth or breadth of her policy portfolio.

Elizabeth Warren speaks some policy, with drawn lightbulbs going off over her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

It was an off-the-cuff remark that turned into a catchphrase and a campaign T-shirt. Now, it’s a Time magazine cover: “I have a plan for that.” Elizabeth Warren’s reputation as the Democratic Party’s resident wonk is well earned. The Massachusetts senator was churning out ambitious policy proposals even before she became the first big-name challenger to enter the 2020 race. Since then, she’s rolled out one plan after another on issues big and small, from wiping out student debt to improving the living conditions of military families renting homes on U.S. bases. Her latest came just this week: a $100 billion plan to address the nation’s opioid crisis.

Warren isn’t the first presidential hopeful with a bounty of white papers, nor is she the only 2020 candidate who has made policy central to her pitch. Bernie Sanders paints in broad brushstrokes when he rails against the status quo, but the Vermont senator’s “Medicare for All” legislation lies at the heart of his campaign. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tends to offer soaring rhetoric on the stump, but he rolled out a creative “baby bond” plan early to address the nation’s racial wealth gap and more recently proposed creating a national gun license program. Even California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, neither of whom have reputations as policy heavyweights, have gotten specific of late on issues like guns and climate change, respectively. There are plenty more policy ideas toward the bottom of the polls too. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the most detailed climate plan of anyone running, and businessman Andrew Yang’s platform runs the gamut from universal basic income to getting rid of the penny.

What makes Warren stand out, though, is that among the major candidates—the half-dozen or so who routinely poll outside the margin of error—she’s offering the most detailed proposals on the widest swath of issues. And she’s putting those policies front and center in each stump speech and in her casual conversations on the way to her next one. Consider this list of more than a dozen of the proposals Warren’s running on.

The “Ultra-Millionaire” Tax

Warren wants Congress to create a new 2 percent annual tax on household wealth—including stocks, real estate, and retirement funds—above $50 million, and an additional 1 percent surtax on any household with a net worth over $1 billion. The plan also calls for increased spending at the IRS to enforce the tax, and an additional “exit tax” on anyone who renounced their U.S. citizenship to avoid the tax. According to her campaign, the plan would affect about 75,000 households—or about 1 out of every 1,700 American families—and raise $2.75 trillion in tax revenue over a decade.

Taxing Corporate Profits

Warren wants Congress to levy a new tax to prevent profitable companies from using existing tax loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes. Under the plan, corporations would pay a new 7 percent tax on every dollar over $100 million in profits they report to shareholders, in addition to whatever they would owe the federal government under the existing corporate income tax. The campaign estimates the new tax would apply to roughly 1,200 companies and bring in $1 trillion over 10 years.

Holding Corporate Executives Accountable

Warren wants Congress to make it easier for federal prosecutors to charge executives of large firms that act illegally, regardless of whether the officials personally signed off on the action in question. According to her campaign, the threat of prison time would motivate the executives to actively root out wrongdoing that they otherwise would benefit from. The new rule would apply to any company with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, and an executive found guilty would serve up to a year in prison for the first violation and as many as three years for a second. The plan would also create a permanent federal unit devoted to investigating financial crimes.

Making Public College Free

Warren wants to make undergraduate education free at public colleges and universities, to beef up Pell and other federal grants to help students cover nontuition expenses, and to create a $50 billion fund to support historically black colleges and universities.

Forgiving Student Debt

Warren wants to wipe out up to $50,000 in student debt for anyone with a household income of less than $100,000. The amount of debt forgiven would gradually decrease for those making more than $100,000, with those making more than $250,000 excluded from the plan.

Providing Universal Child Care

Warren wants to create a network of government-funded care centers. The program would be based, in part, on the existing Head Start network, with employees paid comparably to public school teachers. Families earning less than twice the federal poverty level could send their children to the centers for free; families earning more would pay on a sliding scale, capped at 7 percent of their income.

Increasing Affordable Housing

Warren wants to spend $500 billion over 10 years to build, preserve, and rehab millions of units that will be affordable to lower-income families and to address ongoing housing segregation. The plan would offer down-payment assistance to two groups in particular: black borrowers, who have historically been the victims of redlining, and families who were hit hardest by the last housing crisis. It would also strengthen existing protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and source of income.

Bringing Down Maternal Mortality Rate

Warren wants to incentivize health care providers to focus on bringing down the maternal mortality rate, particularly for black women. The plan would involve a new pricing model that involves “bundled payments,” whereby hospitals charge one set price for an entire pregnancy as opposed to individual payments for each visit. Hospitals that can show they are providing better care would then be given financial bonuses, while those that cannot would be penalized.

Addressing the Nation’s Opioid Crisis

Warren wants to spend $100 billion over 10 years to combat the epidemic, a plan that includes changes to Medicaid and increasing access to medication-assisted treatment. The proposal would direct significant funding to those communities hit hardest by drug addiction, and would also impose criminal penalties on pharmaceutical executives who have contributed to the crisis.

Breaking Up Big Tech

Warren wants to break up America’s largest tech companies—including Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. The plan would rely on ambitious regulatory moves that would undo some tech mergers as well as legislation that would prevent platforms from competing in the same marketplaces they own—for example, Amazon would be barred from selling its AmazonBasics brand on Amazon.com. Companies would also be prevented from sharing users’ data with third parties.

Breaking Up Big Ag

Warren wants to curb consolidation in the agribusiness industry—specifically at giants like Tyson, DowDuPont, and Bayer-Monsanto. The plan would rewrite antitrust rules to make mergers more difficult, include a national right-to-repair law that allows farmers to repair their farm equipment without having to go to an authorized agent, and establish a mandatory country-of-origin label for beef and pork.

Protecting Public Lands

Warren says she’d sign an executive order that would prohibit new leases for fossil fuel drilling offshore and on public lands, call for the creation of a “21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps” of 10,000 young people, and commit to opening up half of the public acreage that is currently off-limits to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. She also wants to undo many of the environmental actions of the Trump administration, including reinstating Obama-era air and water protections and restoring national monuments that Trump shrank.

Getting Rid of the Electoral College

Warren wants to replace the Electoral College and have the national popular vote decide the general election. Warren has not said whether she proposes doing so via a constitutional amendment or some other workaround, such as a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, by which member states would pledge their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Providing Debt Relief to Puerto Rico

Warren wants Congress to change the law to allow Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover from twin hurricanes in 2017, to terminate its unsecured public debt. (Other U.S. territories that meet certain criteria—being hit by a major natural disaster, experiencing major population loss, struggling with massive debt—would be eligible to do the same.) The bill also calls for an independent audit of Puerto Rico and the creation of a federal fund to compensate the holders of any terminated debt—though, notably, not if those holders are bond insurers, large financial firms, or hedge funds.

Improving Military Housing

Warren has proposed legislation that would strengthen oversight of privately managed homes on U.S. military bases and offer new protections for those military families living in them. Among other things, the bill mandates spot inspections of homes as well as annual government audits of housing conditions. It would also hold private landlords accountable for quickly fixing any hazards, and require them to cover moving costs for at-risk families and health care costs for anyone with medical conditions that resulted from unsafe housing.

With nearly every proposal, Warren identifies something she sees as a serious problem—and often the specific entities that are causing that problem—and then points to the levers of government she’d pull to fix them. She doesn’t have a monopoly on all of these issues. Sanders, for instance, has his own plans to tax the wealthy. Harris and Booker have similarly made addressing the black maternal mortality rate a priority. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg and, to a lesser degree, O’Rourke and Harris have taken aim at the Electoral College. But taken together, Warren’s plans bolster her general worldview in ways that the rest of the field’s more limited policy offerings do not. Her policy portfolio proves that Warren means it when she says she both believes in the power of the market and in the need for strong, enforceable rules to make the market fairer and more equitable.

More recently, Warren’s also found ways to use her brand to her advantage, as she did with the release of her student debt forgiveness plan on the morning of last month’s CNN town hall extravaganza, through which she became the measuring stick for comparing her rivals. As Anderson Cooper told Buttigieg during his turn onstage that night: “It’s hard to compare where you stand to, you know, Elizabeth Warren. It’s sort of like comparing—I mean, you just can’t compare the policy positions.” As her wonkish image has solidified in the weeks since, Warren has inched up in the national polls. While she still sits well behind Biden and Sanders, her upward trend suggests there’s a real appetite among primary voters for what she’s offering. (However, the fact that during that same stretch she’s also spoken forcefully in favor of impeachment proceedings against Trump—a plan that similarly looks to pull a lever of government to fix a problem—is likely also playing a role in her rise.)

Curiously absent from Warren’s long list of proposals, however, are detailed plans on some of the issues that Democratic voters say are their top priorities. Warren supports the Green New Deal, and her public lands plan has its own climate component, but she’s not yet offered a plan to address climate change as robust as O’Rourke’s or Inslee’s. She’s expressed support for Sanders’ goal of providing Medicare to everyone, but she has been a little vague on her preferred way to do that. And likewise, she’s voiced support for universal background checks and other strong gun control measures, but she has yet to roll out a comprehensive plan on that front. It’s still early, however, and she’s given voters good reason to trust she’ll offer serious solutions to those problems as well. By seizing the mantle of policy leader so earnestly, Warren has bought herself time to think about what she still wants to propose—and when she wants to propose it to best benefit her campaign.