The Story Elizabeth Warren Isn’t Telling

The progressive senator doesn’t talk about her Republican past. Should she?

Leif Skoogfors / Corbis via Getty

Katrina Cochran can still remember clearly how her close friend Liz Herring would needle her about her liberal politics when the two would sit next to each other at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma, and during the years after.

“Besides the Democratic Party,” Herring, whose success on the debate team would win her a college scholarship, would say, “what other subversive organizations are you a member of?”

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A half century later, Liz Herring is now Elizabeth Warren, and she’s running for the presidential nomination of the party she once derided. Warren’s upbringing in Oklahoma is a major part of her stump speech: She talks about how her father’s poor health forced her mother into the workforce in the 1960s and nearly cost the family their house; how she married at 19 and lost her first teaching job after she became pregnant; how her Aunt Bee saved her when she was struggling to balance the demands of motherhood and her burgeoning career in academia. She discusses her three older brothers, making sure to note that all of them were in the military and that two of them are Republicans. What Warren rarely—if ever—mentions, however, is that during this entire formative period of her adult life, she herself was a conservative. “She was very against a lot of governmental controls,” Cochran, who remained close with Warren through her 20s, told me. “She thought people should have the right to make all the money they could.”

Among longtime liberals, Warren’s political history could present a liability as the race nears its first votes. Unlike some of her top rivals, she cannot claim to have been fighting in the trenches of progressive politics for decades. Yet that very fact could, at the same time, be appealing to less ideological voters who may know little about Warren’s biography from before she burst onto the national political scene. Hers is the story of a convert, not a zealot. The decision to become a Democrat was anything but a default choice; she came to it only after years of study that challenged her more conservative assumptions about how the economy and the government worked. And as Warren seeks to expand beyond her liberal base, that rarely mined part of her past could serve as a comfort to Democrats who worry about her electability, or as a point of connection with independents and moderate Republicans who may not know that, for a long time, she was actually one of them.

Warren has this in common with the previous Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton, just two years older than Warren, famously began her political life as a “Goldwater girl” in high school in the 1960s. But while Clinton’s flirtation with the right was brief, Warren’s was not. Though she was not politically active, well into the ’80s Warren was espousing the views of an ascendant conservative legal movement that championed free markets over the intervention of government regulation, her colleagues from the time told me. In scholarly papers and policy debates with her law-school comrades, Warren regularly took the side of corporations over consumers. “She drank the Kool-Aid. She definitely believed in that,” recalled Calvin Johnson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former neighbor and commuting buddy of Warren’s.

Though Warren’s views began to shift in the mid-’80s, she did not become a Democrat until 1995, when she was 46 years old. She was, in comparison to her top rivals in the presidential race, a Johnny-come-lately to progressivism: By the time Warren finally made her switch, Joe Biden had already run for president once and spent a quarter century as a Democrat representing Delaware in the Senate. And while Bernie Sanders, in the early ’90s, was fighting as a member of the House for a “national health-insurance program” like the one Warren is now embracing, she was still a registered member of the party that successfully defeated it.

It’s hardly surprising that Warren wouldn’t broadcast her history of economic conservatism as she tries to win over a primary electorate full of progressives. And so far, Warren’s rivals haven’t brought it up directly; instead, they’ve lightly criticized her past work for corporate clients. But with the contest intensifying, it may be only a matter of time until Warren’s fellow Democrats weaponize her GOP history.

The question for her, then, is whether she’s willing to try turning a weakness into a strength by dusting off a piece of her past and making it not merely a whispered admission, but a central part of the story she tells voters. Yes, I was a Republican, and this is why I’m not anymore. Warren’s reluctance so far suggests she thinks that chapter is something to apologize for. Perhaps she should embrace it instead.

The conservative streak that Katrina Cochran remembers was still with Warren when, in the early 1980s, the young law professor made the biggest jump of her fledgling academic career and moved from the University of Houston to the larger and more prestigious UT Austin. Indeed, Warren’s conservativism might have helped her land the job in the first place.

Russell Weintraub, then a law professor at UT Austin, recruited Warren after seeing her teach. He told colleagues that “she was the smartest person in Houston, and we should hire her if we could,” Johnson recalled to me.

But Warren stood out in other ways, Johnson said. She did not graduate from Harvard or Yale, where UT Austin usually recruited from, but from Rutgers Law School, in New Jersey—an institution whose reputation for activism had earned it the nickname “the People’s Electric Law School.” It was, as Johnson put it, “a left-wing former night school in the downtown of Newark with a left-wing faculty and a left-wing student body.”

Warren was decidedly not left-wing. She had studied under the conservative legal scholar Henry Manne and was a follower of the free-market “law and economics” discipline he founded, which “became something of a fad,” says Julius Getman, a UT Austin law professor who was a friend and jogging partner of Warren’s. (It was at a conference known as Manne Camp that Warren met her second and current husband, Bruce Mann.)

Johnson, who has stayed intermittently in touch with Warren over the years, told me he suspected that UT Austin hired Warren in part because it wanted the law-and-economics discipline represented on its faculty. “I think we looked down our nose at her because she’s from Rutgers,” he said, “and we [hired] her because she [wrote] well with supply-and-demand curves from a conservative point of view.”

When Johnson arrived at UT Austin, in 1981, he lived about a block away from the house Warren was renting, and the two of them spent their morning commutes fiercely debating economic policy as Mann drove them to work. “We would have no social niceties, no small talk, and we would immediately get into largely bashing each other,” he said. “Bruce is a sweet guy, and he would drive, but he never said a word. It was just Liz and I going at it.”

On the surface, the recollections of Warren’s colleagues about a young woman in the early ’80s fiercely defending the primacy of the free market suggest that the senator now trying to grab the Democratic mantle was a supporter of Ronald Reagan, who won the presidency on that platform. Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine a Democratic Party that has re-embraced a central role for government nominating a former Reaganite as its candidate. But Warren told The Intercept last year that although she voted for the Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, she backed President Jimmy Carter’s reelection in 1980.

She has described herself as politically disengaged at the time. “When I was a young mom, I was struggling to keep up with my job, get dinner on the table, take care of my two little ones,” Warren said in response to written questions I sent her about her voting habits and political views over time. “I had been a policy person for a long time, but I didn’t think much about politics.”

Warren’s colleagues told me that although they frequently engaged in wonky discussions about economic policy, they didn’t talk much about national politics, and never heard her say whom she voted for. “She certainly was a conservative, but very much of a moderate one,” recalled Jay Westbrook, Warren’s longtime research partner and co-author. “She was a person who cared about people, who cared about the government looking out for people who needed help. But at the same time, she was somebody who was not in favor of high government spending and that sort of thing.”

More than three decades later, Johnson remembers Warren arguing that courts should not intervene to settle contract disputes, and taking the side of public utilities that didn’t want to pass along to consumers the benefits of a generous tax break. It was, he said, “industry pap.” Johnson told me he was surprised that a former Rutgers student came down so firmly on the side of industry. “Nobody at that school would take that side,” he said. “Everybody should have been on the side of the consumer, and she was anti-consumer. She bought the industry position hook, line, and sinker.”

But within just a few years, Warren’s political conversion began. Her shift from skeptic to staunch consumer advocate is one that she has been willing to speak and write about over the years—including during this campaign. After becoming a full-time professor at UT Austin in 1983, she began working on bankruptcy research that would not only catapult her to the top of her field, but also transform her view of consumer rights, the very issue on which she built her political career.

Bankruptcies were increasing in the ’80s, and Warren, Westbrook, and the sociologist Teresa Sullivan set out to study their causes. In her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren acknowledged that she brought certain preconceptions to the research. “I might not have said so at the time, but I think I was on the lookout for cheaters and deadbeats as a way to explain who was filing for bankruptcy,” she wrote.

What they found shook the future lawmaker: After reviewing thousands of cases of family bankruptcies, going to bankruptcy courts, and consuming heart-rending questionnaires in which people described in detail the reasons for their financial ruin, “we learned that nearly 90 percent were declaring bankruptcy for one of three reasons: a job loss, a medical problem, or a family breakup,” Warren wrote.

“She went through what I think is the most powerful transformation, which is actually doing research and discovering that what you believed was wrong,” Getman told me. As Warren told an interviewer in 2007, “I did the research, and the data just took me to a totally different place.”

If the data changed Warren’s views on bankruptcy, it was the opposition of the credit industry, and ultimately members of Congress, to reform proposals inspired by the same data that appeared to shift her politics over a longer period of time. Warren’s introduction to Washington, D.C., did not come until 1995, when she joined Harvard’s faculty. She reluctantly agreed to a request from an old Oklahoma friend, Democratic Representative Mike Synar, to serve on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, which was charged with making policy recommendations to Congress. The culture she discovered is the one she now rails against: The consumer-credit industry, its lobbyists, and its allies in Congress—some Democrats, but mostly Republicans—wanted to reduce, not strengthen, protections for people declaring bankruptcy. “It made her deeply unhappy,” Westbrook told me. “She felt that these were a lot of half-truths and flat falsehoods, and that got her dander up.”

It was during this period that Warren officially changed her registration and became a Democrat. “When Congress was working to reform our nation’s bankruptcy laws, I watched as every single Republican lined up with the big banks and a lot of Democrats joined them too,” she told me in her written responses. “But it was also only Democrats who stood with people who have lost everything because of medical problems, job loss, or family break-up.” (Her campaign would not provide a detailed history of her party registration and voting habits before she registered as a Democrat for the first time, in 1995, saying only that she was an independent “at times” and a registered Republican at others.)

By the time Warren fully emerged as a public figure more than a decade later, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, she left no doubt about where she stood politically. She sparred with Republicans—and some business-friendly Democrats in the Obama administration—as the appointed watchdog of the federal bailout of banks and large financial firms. She became a hero to progressives after she came up with the idea for—and fought hard for the creation of—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And when Senate Republicans made clear that they would block her nomination to lead the new agency, she went home to Massachusetts to run for the Senate. Three decades after Warren arrived at UT Austin singing the gospel of the free market, the last strains of her conservatism had long since faded away.

After The New York Times published a piece on Warren’s political history, in late August, Johnson emailed her the article, in which he is quoted describing her progressive transformation as “Saul on the road to Damascus.” He included a note saying that he thought the piece would win her votes, he told me.

Warren, however, did not see it that way. “Why did you have to call me ‘savagely anti-consumer’?” the senator replied, according to Johnson’s retelling. Ever the debater, she defended her views from decades ago, arguing that she “was trying to help out consumers through the free market.” After another round of emails, Warren told her old sparring partner, “Well, we'll just have to work it out during another semester of commuting in.”

It’s easy to see why Warren would be so defensive—and so hesitant to broadcast her ideological evolution. Her life before politics has been the source of her biggest political headache: Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry over the years erupted as a controversy during her first run for the Senate, in 2012, as Republican Senator Scott Brown ran ads accusing her of lying about her ethnicity. The flap resurfaced briefly again in 2018, after she released the results of a DNA test in an attempt to prove her claim. (According to a Boston Globe investigation that year, there’s little evidence that Warren’s ancestry claim helped advance her academic career.) And with Donald Trump having given her the racist nickname Pocahontas, it promises to reemerge this year if she’s the nominee.

While the controversy over her lineage hasn’t torpedoed her career, it does illuminate how Warren’s unorthodox path to political stardom makes her both an outsider at the age of 70 and an object of mystery.

Not only did she enter politics relatively late in her career, but Warren was not even a public figure for most of her adult life. Americans did not grow up with her voice as the soundtrack to their Sunday-morning breakfast, as Biden’s was for so many viewers of Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Nor were they likely to have read glowing profiles of her business success, as they did in the case of Trump or Michael Bloomberg.

That previous anonymity has allowed Warren more freedom to introduce herself to voters, but it has also led to criticism (which her fans see as sexist) that she has been overly selective, and even deceptive, in the way she tells her story. Her Republican past goes unmentioned not only in her stump speech, but also in her 2014 memoir and other books of hers that contain considerable biographical detail. She’s discussed it in the occasional interview, but rarely voluntarily.

“I think the Native American thing has robbed her of her ability to talk about” major parts of her past, Colin Reed, a Republican strategist who served as a top aide to Brown, told me.

Yet her reticence to dive more fully into her political transformation could be a missed chance to tell a compelling story of the converted: how a young academic studied the data and went from being suspicious of, if not outright hostile toward, the rights of consumers to conceiving and then building an entire federal agency devoted to protecting them. Warren did mention her shift on the narrow issue of bankruptcy policy when she released a plan this week to overhaul federal laws in favor of consumers. But that was as far as she went; she made no reference to her affiliation as a Republican or her broader conservative worldview at the time.

The question of whether Warren should talk more about her past conservatism is admittedly a tricky one; she wouldn’t, for example, want to give progressives who are still torn between her and Sanders more reason to be suspicious of her. One old Warren colleague doesn’t think much of the idea: former Representative Barney Frank, the retired Massachusetts congressman and liberal stalwart who worked closely with Warren as he was developing the bill that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “That’s not a good way to win over Democratic voters,” Frank told me when I asked him if she should talk more about her Republican past. “I don’t think that makes any political sense at all.”

Yet some political strategists I spoke with said that Warren should embrace her political conversion.

“For Elizabeth Warren, this is a tremendous opportunity to reach beyond her progressive base,” Daniel Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist, told me.

Schnur said that Warren’s move left reminded him of Reagan’s move right. A longtime Democrat who led the Screen Actors Guild as a Hollywood actor, Reagan famously explained his political evolution by saying, “The Democratic Party left me.” By the time he ran for president, he was so deeply aligned with the conservative movement that his liberal past helped him win over Democrats and independents more than it hurt him with lifelong Republicans.

“A more centrist Republican would have been attacked for a history in the Democratic Party,” Schnur said. “But a more conservative leader, like Reagan, was able to use it to soften his edges with swing voters without sacrificing his credibility with the Republican conservative base.”

The same could be true for Warren on the Democratic side. Her raft of detailed and deeply progressive policy proposals has given her credibility on the left, but there’s evidence that her agenda is scaring off more moderate voters. And it may limit her ability to reach suburban voters—many of whom may be current or lapsed Republicans—who have become disaffected with Trump and whom Democrats are targeting in 2020. It’s that pool of voters in particular that was so crucial to the Democrats’ victory in the House in 2018 and for whom Warren’s political-conversion story could be most appealing. Many voters who see her only through the prism of her recent biography—the Harvard professor turned progressive senator—may see themselves in a once-conservative woman who moved to the center and then further left over many years.

“It's finding that common ground,” says Katie Paris, a Democratic strategist unaligned with any 2020 candidate. “I think that by talking about the change that happened in her life, she creates permission for others to also have change in their own lives.”

Paris, who recently founded the group Red, Wine, and Blue to mobilize suburban women in Ohio ahead of the 2020 election, told me that many of the women who have switched to voting Democrat in the Trump era were, like Warren, not particularly engaged politically earlier in their life and shifted their views after learning more about the issues. Warren’s story, she said, “could potentially really resonate with a lot of women because they're going through a similar process themselves right now.”

Whether a deeper focus on Warren’s biography can overcome the concerns that centrist and swing voters have about her policies is a tougher question. Her rise to the top of the Democratic primary polls has stalled recently. “I was stupid and then I became educated isn't a great political narrative,” says Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “The biggest thing she's got to do, quite frankly, is jettison Medicare for All.”

Warren’s commitment to a detailed policy agenda makes the idea that she’d ditch one of her core proposals nearly impossible to fathom. And while that would surely threaten her support among staunch progressives, a bigger focus on her political history might not. “To the extent that it's brought up by others, it actually reinforces the electability argument for Elizabeth Warren,” says Adam Green, whose Progressive Change Campaign Committee endorsed her candidacy early on in the race, “by making clear that while her progressive bona fides on challenging corporate power and standing up for workers is unquestioned, she also has the additional cred in the general election of having once affiliated as a Republican, as having cross-party appeal.”

Perhaps Warren is saving the story of her political transformation for a later moment in the campaign, if and when she dispatches her competitors and can move on to the broader electorate. Perhaps she’ll weave it into her stump speech, another layer to her journey from Oklahoma to Harvard, and from academia to politics. Or maybe Warren sees this all differently, and this part of her backstory is exactly where she wants it—offstage and in the past, a personal relic that’s not to be embraced or spun, but simply left aside.