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The Ivory Tower team of wonks behind Warren’s policy agenda

By Alex Thompson and Theodoric Meyer

Behind Elizabeth Warren’s trust-busting, Wall Street-bashing, tax-the-wealthy platform is a brain trust that extends well beyond the Beltway thinkers who often rubber stamp campaign proposals.

Instead, the former Harvard professor and her tight team of policy advisers have waded deeper into the world of academia than is usual in presidential campaigns, according to interviews with more than a dozen people her campaign has consulted and a review of the scholarship underlying her plans.

Leafing through Warren's plans posted on Medium, voters will find links to obscure academic literature from places like the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics, the Upjohn Institute, the Journal of Applied Business and Economics, and the American Journal of Sociology.

The unveiling of her agriculture policy, for example, came with bold promises to take on "Big Ag." But her policy team went into the weeds with experts beforehand, consulting texts like a recent book published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis titled, “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities.”

Warren is also frequently in touch with an array of academics, including several of her former students — slipping naturally from easily digestible campaign trail rhetoric to her native ivory tower vernacular.

“In economics, they have reached out for advice from some important academics that are not really from the standard D.C. policy circuit,” said Austan Goolsbee, a senior economic adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He cited Berkeley professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who have done pioneering research on inequality and helped Warren’s campaign develop its wealth tax proposal.

“Warren's campaign seems to have much deeper academic knowledge than other campaigns at this early stage,” Saez told POLITICO in an email. He said he’d had “ongoing sporadic” conversations with people in Bernie Sanders' camp since 2016 but had not heard from any other campaigns.

The approach has produced more detailed proposals than any other presidential rival and, to the surprise of even some in Warren-world, become a political asset. Her “I have a plan for that” rallying cry has, improbably, electrified crowds and achieved meme status.

Jacob Leibenluft, who worked on policy on Obama’s campaign in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, said what's unique in Warren's case is her ability to weave her far-reaching policy ideas “into a broader worldview.”

Given Warren's oft-repeated assertion that “personnel is policy,” the thinkers behind her anti-establishment agenda are the sort of people who might fill a Warren administration: Intellectuals inclined to challenge conventional wisdom, and people long on expertise in their subject matters but shorter on experience in the hard-knock political arena.

Warren's campaign policy team—four people on staff, plus a close outside adviser who’s a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School—match that profile. All of them have degrees from Harvard or Yale, some two.

"Some policy shops of the past were a collection of ad hoc smart people, or folks doing a campaign stint in order to get a job in the next administration," said Adam Green, who supports Warren and has worked with the senator and her team over the years as co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Warren's policy shop is an extension of her brain. They get her big-picture worldview. Debates within her team represent the intellectual questions Warren would ask herself."

A prodigious academic in her own right, Warren has long sought out scholarly types as sounding boards. Beyond various academics across the country, she has a kitchen cabinet of sorts of many former students who have gone into academia. She occasionally chats with New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman as well. (Krugman confirmed that they “sometimes correspond” but emphasized that he had “no input at all into her policy proposals” given the newpaper’s guidelines.)

“They’re pretty plugged into what’s happening in the academy — way more so than other [members of Congress] that I’ve worked with,” said Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of Georgia law professor who’s supportive of Warren’s campaign and advised her campaign on its child care proposal.

Warren ignored popular punditry that policy no longer mattered after 2016, when Clinton’s white paper-filled campaign lost to a Trump effort that was notably light on details. While Warren has found unexpected success so far in the primary, the level of detail she’s providing — on a very liberal agenda — also has plenty for conservatives to pick over, especially if she becomes the nominee.

“Democrats brought a stack of fact sheets to a gunfight,” Goolsbee said of the 2016 campaign. While he admires the Warren team’s policy chops, he added that “it does give me a little heartburn when there’s so much policy detail this early in the campaign.”

Warren had her game plan in place months before her announcement. She rolled out a centerpiece anti-corruption plan in August, and a housing measure a month later. Warren aides and allies spent the fall prepping other potential proposals.

The campaign has many more initiatives in the pipeline. Aides told POLITICO they're in the process of adding more policy staff, to ward off any rival looking to steal her policy thunder. The focus on policy is also reflected in the campaign's salary structure: The head of the policy team, Jon Donenberg, makes the same as the campaign manager and other senior leaders.

“It's all we can do to keep up with her,” said Donenberg, a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for former Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Richard Blumenthal before he joined Warren's 2012 campaign and then served as legislative director in her senate office. "The job of the policy shop is to help her fill in the details around these proposals, to present data, and to talk through the costs and benefits of various approaches.”

Longtime Warren confidante Ganesh Sitaraman, an old friend of Pete Buttigieg from their time as undergrads at Harvard, is not on her campaign's payroll given his job at Vanderbilt. But he has taken a lead role in formulating her domestic policies.

Sasha Baker is the former deputy chief of staff to Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and focuses on national security. And Bharat Ramamurti, a longtime Senate aide who Warren pushed to fill a seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2017, has been handling financial issues. The campaign said that both have been expanding their portfolios to other domestic policy topics as well.

Academics who have heard from multiple campaigns say that Warren's team tends to go deeper into details than her rivals. In March, Ramamurti reached out to Thomas Shapiro, a Brandeis University professor who studies the racial wealth gap, for help crafting the campaign’s student debt proposal. Other campaigns have sought his advice, Shapiro said in an interview — but Warren's was the first to ask him to model how different policies would affect those with student loan debt.

Shapiro recruited three researchers and spent about a month running numbers to try to determine the most effective way to cancel student debt without exacerbating the wealth gap between white and non-white households.

“They could ask more in-depth questions because they had more of a foundation to do so,” said Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, whom Warren and her team consulted to develop her plan calling for the breakup of “Big Ag.”

“Others have a different learning curve,” he said of other politicians, including some of her 2020 rivals, while emphasizing he has no preferences in the field.

“She’s a real intellectual,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, who has worked with Warren and her team on their anti-trust tech proposals. “That’s different than a lot of people in this town: they’re politicians, not intellectuals.”

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