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.