Fifteen Things You Didn’t Know about Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., August 21, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
A trip through the life of Democrats’ first announced 2020 presidential candidate

1) In 1966, Elizabeth Warren won the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow scholarship at her high school. “Contestants were required to take a 50-minute exam,” according to a short history published in 2013. “The test, consisting of 150 questions, covered a variety of topics: family relationships, spiritual and moral values, child development and care, health and safety, utilization and conservation, money management, recreation and use of leisure time, home care and beautification, community participation, and continuing education.”

2) One of Warren’s big breaks was an appearance on Dr. Phil McGraw’s daytime television show in 2004. The previous year, then Harvard Law School professor Warren and her daughter, financial consultant Amelia Warren Tyagi, had co-written a book entitled “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke.” McGraw had Warren on to give advice to couples with major debt problems. She appeared twice more and in the following years made more appearances in related documentaries and programming on mortgage costs, the housing bubble, and the economic crisis.

3) For a long while, Lou Dobbs was a fan of Warren’s. He approvingly quoted her in his 2004 book, War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interests Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back.

Back in 2006, the National Association of Manufacturers fumed about Dobbs’s show, lamenting:  “He opened with author and fellow Harvard-ite Elizabeth Warren, whose grim assessments of the state of the middle class were quoted favorably by the similarly dour Presidential candidate John Kerry. She says it’s tough to make ends meet (although presumably not on a Harvard professor’s salary), seemingly ignoring the fact that folks consume much more in food, housing, cars and general electronics and goodies than they ever did before.”

In November 2008, when Dobbs was with CNN and Warren was heading the congressional panel that provided oversight of the bailout of the U.S. financial system, Dobbs closed an interview with her by declaring, “I hope that a lot of those folks in Congress and in the Senate hear your voice, Professor Elizabeth Warren. They couldn’t have chosen a better person in my opinion to chair that committee.”

By 2018, Dobbs, now with Fox Business Channel, had a very different opinion of Warren, asking his followers on Twitter whether her atrocious handling of questions about her claims of Native American ancestry was evidence that she was “a secret operative for the Republicans.”

4) In his autobiography Stress Test, President Obama’s first treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, portrays Warren as an empty suit, full of criticism but short on serious alternative proposals. Her “oversight hearings often felt more like made-for-YouTube inquisitions than serious inquiries,” he writes. “She was worried about the right things but she was better at impugning our choices — as well as our intentions and our competence — than identifying any feasible alternatives.”

Geithner describes a meeting with Warren in which he said, “At some point, you should tell me what you propose we do,” and she admitted she hadn’t really thought about what specifically should change in the administration’s approach.

Of course, other Obama-administration officials have contended that Geithner “hated her,” for both personal and ideological reasons.

5) Former Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd, a fellow Democrat with close ties to the banking industry and Wall Street, publicly expressed irritation with Warren. Dodd co-authored Dodd-Frank, which created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since known as Warren’s brainchild. In 2011, as the Obama administration’s internal fight over the first CFPB director became public, Dodd issued a statement denying that he was lobbying against Warren for the job but hinting at behind-the-scenes frustration with her role in the impasse: “I believe it would be deeply unfortunate if the head of this agency is not filled because of ego, because of people who believe they are so important that their value exceeds the idea. It would essentially enable the opponents to kill the bill.”

6) Warren was a registered Republican from 1991 to 1996, when she taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School before eventually making the move to Harvard.

“I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore,” Warren told The Daily Beast in 2011. “I was a Republican at a time when I felt like there was a problem that the markets were under a lot more strain. It worried me whether or not the government played too activist a role.” In that interview, she refused to say whether she had voted for Ronald Reagan.

7) Warren was, at one point, a passionate advocate for school-voucher programs. The Two-Income Trap, the 2003 book she co-authored with her daughter, had this to say on the subject:

Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.

A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly. A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children. With fully funded vouchers, parents of all income levels could send their children — and the accompanying financial support — to the schools of their choice. Middle-class parents who used state funds to send their kids to school would be able to live in the neighborhood of their choice — or the neighborhood of their pocketbook. Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.

As she joined the Democratic party and became increasingly prominent in it, Warren’s position changed. By 2018, she was denouncing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for “using her vast fortune to bankroll radical K–12 ‘school choice’ policies and private voucher programs,” and she decried voucher programs as an effort to “further drain funds from public education and programs serving low-income and working Americans.”

8) Elsewhere in The Two-Income Trap, Warren and her daughter argued that the problem of divorced “deadbeat dads” failing to pay child support had been vastly overstated:

So how can a single-parent family get out of the trap? We begin with the solution put forth by nearly every politician, women’s group, and angry mother: Make Dad pay more. . . .

It doesn’t come through in most news reports, but the overwhelming majority of middle-class fathers today are like Brad Pritchard. They pay the support they owe. According to one survey, nonresident fathers who earned more than $30,000 a year reported that they were paying more than 95 percent of their court-ordered child support. This statistic may be somewhat distorted by men who overestimate their own payments. But another survey of single mothers found similar results. . . .

What about the dads who don’t pay? About two-thirds of these men do not pay because they are not legally required to pay; they have not had paternity established, or they are separated but not divorced.

At the heart of the book was a contention that women entering the workforce created increased competition for homes in good neighborhoods and other aspects of middle-class life, increasing demand much faster than supply and raising prices. This amounted to a mild criticism of feminists who celebrated women entering the workforce:

When millions of mothers entered the workforce, they ratcheted up the price of a middle-class life for everyone, including families who wanted to keep Mom at home. . . . Both sides of the political spectrum miscalculated the financial value of the stay-at-home mother. Feminists assumed that women’s entry in the workforce entailed no real costs — only benefits. Conservatives, for their part, slavishly touted the emotional benefits that a stay-at-home mother provides to her children and fretted over “who will rock the cradle” when mothers abandon their homes. . . . No one saw the stay-at-home mom as the family’s safety net.

9) Relatedly, the book expressed mixed feelings about government-funded day care:

How much help would subsidized day care really offer to middle-class families? It would certainly be a big help for poorer families, whose paychecks can barely cover even low-quality child care. But what about the average two-parent middle-class family? Government-sponsored day care would ease the immediate cost pressures on some families, but the long-term financial implications are more complex. Unlike the money that the government spends on public safety or education, which benefit every child, subsidized day care benefits only some kids — those whose parents both work outside the home. Day-care subsidies offer no help for families with a stay-at-home mother. In fact, such subsidies would make financial life more difficult for these families, because they would create yet another comparative disadvantage for single-income families trying to compete in the marketplace. Every dollar spent to subsidize the price of day care frees up a dollar for the two-income family to spend in the bidding wars for housing, tuition, and everything else that families are competing for — widening the gap between single- and dual-income families. Any subsidy that benefits working parents without providing a similar benefit to single-income families pushes the stay-at-home mother and her family further down the economic ladder.

By the time the book was reissued in 2016, Warren was declaring in a new introduction that the country needs to “create universal preschool and affordable child care.”

10) Some other analysts argued that Warren’s analysis had seriously understated the effect of the changing tax code and higher taxes on family finances, and that the book amounted to demonizing the rising costs of real estate, banking, and automobiles to avoid discussing the increasing tax burden on middle-class families.

Here’s law professor Todd Zywicki, back in 2007:

In fact, for the typical 1970s family, paying 24% of its income in taxes works out to be $9,288. And for the 2000s family, paying 33% of its income is $22,374.

Although income only rose 75%, and expenditures for the mortgage, car and health insurance rose by even less than that, the tax bill increased by $13,086 — a whopping 140% increase. The percentage of family income dedicated to health insurance, mortgage, and automobiles actually declined between the two periods.

During this period, the figures used by Ms. Warren and Ms. Tyagi indicate that annual mortgage obligations increased by $3,690, automobile obligations by $2,860, and health insurance payments by $620 (a total increase of $7,170). Those increases are not trivial — but they are swamped by the increase in tax obligations. To put this in perspective, the increase in tax obligations is over three times as large as the increase in the mortgage payments and almost double the increase in the mortgage and automobile payments combined. Even the new expenditure on child care is about a quarter less than the increase in taxes.

Overall, the typical family in the 2000s pays substantially more in taxes than the combined expenses of their mortgage, automobile, and health insurance. And the change in the tax obligation between the two periods is substantially greater than the change in mortgage, automobile expenses, and health-insurance costs combined.

11) In a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers, Warren told a story that portrayed Hillary Clinton as a shameless sellout to the banking industry:

That bankruptcy bill that was passed by the House and the Senate in 2000 and [Bill Clinton] vetoed it. And in her autobiography, Mrs. Clinton took credit for that veto, and she rightly should. She turned around a whole administration on the subject of bankruptcy. . . . One of the first bills that came up after she was Senator Clinton was the bankruptcy bill. This is a bill that’s like a vampire that will not die. There’s a lot of money behind it. Her husband had vetoed it, very much at her urging . . . and she voted in favor of it.

As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different. It’s a well-financed industry. A lot of people don’t realize that the industry that gave the most money to Washington over the past few years was not the oil industry, was not pharmaceuticals, it was consumer-credit products. She has taken money from the groups and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency.

12) As a lawyer, Warren represented a few companies that would later generate headaches for her Senate campaign.

In 1995, Warren “wrote a Supreme Court petition on behalf of a steel company, which was attempting to avoid paying into a fund that gave health benefits to retired coal miners.” She later argued that the retirees’ health benefits were never at risk, and the case was about what stage of bankruptcy had to be complete before the company had to pay.

From 2008 to 2010, she was paid $212,000 by Travelers Insurance as an expert witness in an effort to preserve a $500 million trust for asbestos victims in exchange for permanent immunity from lawsuits. Her lone appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court came in this case. She argued that the trust should stay in place; she won, but the Court left the door open for other companies to sue Travelers. An Appeals Court subsequently ruled that another company could still sue Travelers, and then another judge ruled that because Travelers was still getting sued, the conditions had not been met to force Travelers to pay out the money, delaying the payouts again.

13) Zywicki accused Warren of using “shoddy data” and claimed that her research involved fudging statistics to exaggerate the scale of the trends she decried.

At the height of the Obamacare fight, Warren warned of an explosion in “medical bankruptcies” — people who were financially ruined by runaway medical bills. Zywicki noted that the studies she cited to back this claim:

provided an implausibly broad definition of ‘medical bankruptcy’ — including any filer who reported uncontrolled gambling, drug or alcohol addiction, or the birth or adoption of a child. . . .

Equally dubious, the authors classified a bankruptcy as having a “major medical cause” if the individual had accumulated more than $1,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses (uncovered by insurance) over the course of two years prior to filing — regardless of income, and even if the debtor did not cite illness or injury among the reasons for bankruptcy. This is a completely different and much narrower definition of “medical bankruptcy” than the one she used 20 years later, and obviously inflates the increase.

14) When discussing international trade deals, Warren can sound . . . an awful lot like the president, so much so that Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, has called her politics “Trumpism with a human face.”

Here she is in her big foreign-policy address from November:

While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected. . . .

The trade deals they negotiated mainly lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown. Policymakers were willing to sacrifice American jobs in hopes of lowering prices for consumer goods at home and spreading open markets abroad. . . .

Multinational corporations exploited their enormous influence on both sides of the negotiating table to ensure that the terms of trade between nations always favored their own bottom lines. Time after time, American workers got the short end of the stick.

15) In her books, Warren has denounced “flipping houses” as a high-risk form of investment in which rich speculators often profit at the expense of the little guy. But going back to the 1990s, Warren and her husband bought at least five homes in her native Oklahoma, two of them in foreclosure, and then resold them, anywhere from five months to several years later. A 2015 NRO investigative report by Jillian Kay Melchior and Eliana Johnson found that Warren and her husband sold one of the homes for nearly four times its purchase price, and they concluded that the couple made at least $240,500 from their real-estate speculation, not counting the unknown sum they invested in remodeling.

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