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By Benjy Sarlin
WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the biggest name to enter (technically “explore”) the 2020 presidential race so far. Her path to the nomination won’t be easy, but the Massachusetts Democrat’s unique brand on policy gives her a chance to influence the field like no other candidate.
Warren, who announced on Monday that she’s considering a bid for the White House, passed on a run in 2016, and faces significant obstacles this time around. There’s more competition, early 2020 polling finds her surprisingly weak in her home state despite handily winning re-election in November, and she drew criticism on the left this year over her rollout of a DNA test to corroborate family stories of Native American heritage.
With no obvious frontrunner, Warren still has an opening. But she’s also a rare figure in that, like Bernie Sanders in 2016, she has the potential to exert a strong influence on her party and the primary even if she falls short.
With a boost from Sanders, much of the early Democratic contest has been focused on ramping up government spending to combat inequality, with competing proposals from top-tier contenders to implement Medicare For All, free college, a Green New Deal, trillions of dollars in new tax benefits and a guaranteed jobs program.
Warren has a chance to chance to differentiate herself by shifting the conversation toward how to restrain government and business under a strict new set of rules.
“How did we get here?” she asked in her announcement video on Monday. “Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice.”
Over the last year, Warren has been padding her core message with major legislation that’s likely to form the backbone of a presidential campaign. If some of her ideas stick with voters, rivals could risk a grassroots backlash if they fail to keep up.
In August, Warren unveiled a far-reaching government ethics package that seemed to touch on just about every corruption scandal in the last few years. Headlined by a lifetime ban on lobbying by top elected and appointed officials, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act also would ban foreign lobbying, stock trading by members of Congress, and require politicians from the president down to release eight years of tax returns.
The House version is notably co-sponsored by the influential co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. It’s not hard to imagine some of Warren’s ideas becoming a baseline demand on the left. In a fractured field, that can be very hard to resist.
Trump’s ethics issues played only a bit part in midterm campaigns, but ongoing investigations by federal prosecutors and the incoming Democratic House are likely to keep them in the spotlight. Depending on what they find, it could potentially intensify voters’ focus on the corruption issue ahead of the primaries.
Warren’s ethics platform also gives her a chance to potentially police individual behavior by rivals. Donors are already testing whether they can get away with backing candidates via an allied super PAC that can take unlimited donations. Warren’s rivals may feel greater pressure to renounce outside support knowing she’s there to wave her bill and raise it in a televised debate.
Also in August, Warren unveiled the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that would require large corporations allow workers to elect 40 percent of their board, make it harder for companies to engage in political activity, and would tack on new legal responsibilities toward customers and employees.
While she’s hardly alone in the field in targeting big business, her legislation and longtime emphasis on consumer advocacy could leave Democratic rivals vulnerable if they aren’t careful.
In a race that could feature multiple billionaires, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the senator is well-positioned to start fights and draw contrasts over corporate influence. Whether or not voters name her as their top choice, her reputation within the party makes them more likely to listen to her critiques.
There may be limits to her approach, though. The economy was an unusually weak factor in the midterms, for one. With unemployment low and consumer confidence high, voters listed economic issues well behind health care as their top concern in exit polls.
Similar to ethics issues, it’s possible the next year could shift the conversation in her favor, though. The stock market is looking wobbly and some analysts are raising concerns about a broader slowdown ahead. If there’s even a minor downturn, the senator might be well-positioned to make her case, and her rivals more likely to incorporate it into their own message.
Whether or not Warren ends up on a Democratic ticket in 2020, don’t be surprised if the eventual nominee ends up sounding a lot like her.