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Elizabeth Warren Bucks the Trend by Running on Ideas

TIME Staff

Presidential campaigns tend to follow a pattern: Start with big themes, then slowly roll out detailed policies as the primary unfolds.

It’s a safe approach. After all, there’s no telling what the public might end up thinking about policy ideas like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All when the election is held 19 months from now.

But it’s not what Sen. Elizabeth Warren is doing.

Unlike most of her opponents in the Democratic primary, her website has an entire section dedicated to policy, with plans to permanently ban lobbying for former members of Congress, overhaul America’s campaign finance laws, decriminalize marijuana, outlaw private prisons and fund a Medicare for All system.

“The rules of our economy are so rigged in favor of the rich and powerful that we can’t afford to just tinker around the edges. Our fight is for big, structural change,” she told TIME. “This is the time for Democrats to identify exactly what’s broken and lay out exactly how we’ll fix it.”

Her approach is much different from the rest of the field.

During a recent interview with Fox News, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the Green New Deal was “aspirational,” and that she would want the resolution to get down to the “nitty-gritty of an actual legislation” without saying what that legislation would look like. In January, when asked what the United States should do about visa overstays, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke answered, “I don’t know,” despite having represented a border district for six years.

In fact, most major Democratic candidates — including O’Rourke, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders — don’t detail a single specific policy plan on their campaign websites, to date.

Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse, says it makes sense that some candidates keep details at bay so early in the game. “When you put out things that people can get behind, you also put out things that people can criticize,” he told TIME.

But Warren’s approach is both true to her reputation as a policy wonk and Harvard professor and a useful way for her to differentiate herself in what could end up being the largest primary field in history.

To develop the policies, Warren has leaned on a robust network of outside wonks.

Indivar Dutta-Gupta, the co-executive director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, helped Warren on her child care proposals. But he is making his team’s research available to any candidate from either party who will listen. Dutta-Gupta told TIME that there was something novel about the way in which Warren’s team asked for advice.

“There was clearly a charge to think not about change but about transformation,” Dutta-Gupta said. “Imagine a system that one would have built from scratch. And then you think about how you get there under our current system.”

Previous presidential campaigns have certainly made use of outside advisers and academics, too. On foreign policy matters alone, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign had what officials said were “several hundred” advisers — a group so unwieldy that no one at headquarters could ever assemble an authoritative roster. Roughly a dozen so-called Clinton “working groups” met regularly by teleconference and included the ranks for former top government officials. Former aides say it was similar in 2008, when Clinton was a senator.

Patti Solis Doyle, a former campaign manager for Clinton 2008’s White House bid and an adviser to former President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012 tells TIME there might be a reason Warren’s team is having these conversations so early.

“She’s already very much a known commodity,” Solis Doyle says. “People already have preconceptions about whether they like her or don’t like her. She’s at this stage now where she’s ready to show a little bit more leg in terms of what her ideas are and where she stands.”

One of her most fleshed-out proposals is a universal child-care system. According to a post Warren authored on Medium, it will work by partnering together local childcare providers and the federal government to create a network that would be accessible to all. For families who make less than 200% the federal poverty line, it will be free. For those who make more than that, access will cost no more than 7% of a family’s income, the post says.

“In the wealthiest country on the planet,” she writes, “access to affordable and high-quality child care and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich.”

And though no major groups have polled that specific approach yet, it’s likely to be popular. Nearly a third of parents who pay for child care say the cost has caused them financial problems, and 71% of these parents say that problem was “very” or “somewhat” serious, according to a 2016 report by NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 33 states, the cost of infant child care is more than college tuition, according to New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

Warren doesn’t just put forward ambitious ideas; she’s also explained how she’ll pay for some of them.

Citing that the richest 130,000 families in America have approximately as much wealth as the bottom 117 million families combined, she proposing creating a tax plan where those with net worths greater than $50 million pay 2% on additional earnings, and those above $1 billion pay 3% on additional earnings. While her “Ultra Millionaire Tax” would only apply to about 75,000 households — or the top 0.1% of families in the U.S. — Warren’s website estimates it would bring in $2.75 trillion in revenue over a ten-year period.

Just over 60% of people back a wealth tax on households with a net worth over $50 million, according to a Morning Consult poll from February that sampled about 2,000 voters. By comparison, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s more aggressive idea for a 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over $10 million received support from only 45% of respondents.

Jon Donenberg, senior adviser and policy director to the senator’s 2020 campaign, tells TIME Warren’s detailed ideas are extensions of who she’s always been and what she’s long been fighting for.

“Elizabeth’s bold ideas are a natural extension of her life’s work fighting to reverse the economic squeeze on working families,” he said. “Her commitment to big, structural change is credible because it is supported by an agenda of serious, specific and aggressive reforms to get our economy, our government and our democracy working for everyone — not just the wealthy and the well-connected.”

To be sure, Warren’s policy-heavy campaign rollout may have also been born out of necessity.

Warren’s campaign got off to a rocky start after she released a much-criticized report and video detailing a DNA test that they said confirmed her relation to a Native American ancestor about six to 10 generations ago. Even before the video was released, 58% percent of likely voters in her home state of Massachusetts said they didn’t think Warren should run for President in a Boston Globe/Suffolk University Political poll.

And she’s facing a competitive field of 14 declared Democrats, including Sanders, Harris and O’Rourke who are polling ahead of her, according to a Morning Consult survey. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t even officially entered the race, attracted 35% of likely Democratic primary voters compared to her 7% in one recent poll.

Even if Warren does beat the odds and win out based on her ambitious policy platform, she would face similarly tough odds getting her agenda passed into law in the White House.

Republicans currently have a 53-seat majority and a difficult map in 2020, with 22 GOP seats of 34 races up for grabs. Even in the best case scenario, Democrats are unlikely to win enough seats to overcome a Republican filibuster.

That reality is one reason some of her rivals aren’t going as pie-in-the-sky as Warren. And as much as Warren wants policy to dominate the conversation ahead of 2020, experts say the dialogue might be less about what one would do once in the Oval Office, and more about that person’s odds of getting there at all.

“In this particular climate, Democrats just want to win. And what they’re looking for is the best candidate to beat Trump. That is the position that affects all of their decision making,” said Solis Doyle. “Of course they want to know what they’re going to do while in office, of course they want to know if the candidate is going to best speak to their own interests — whether that’s jobs or health care or education or whatever it is.”

“But first and foremost is beating Trump,” she added. “And if they don’t think that you can beat Trump, I don’t think that they’re going to get their vote.”