But a few questions caught her off guard: how to safeguard American nuclear weapons in Turkey; how to respond if China cracked down violently on protesters in Hong Kong; and what she was likely to fail at as president.
Here is a transcript, with [annotations in bracketed italics], of the 80-minute discussion, which was filmed for a special episode of “The Weekly,” The Times’ TV show on FX and Hulu. The transcript is unedited.
Kathleen Kingsbury : So we don’t have very much time together. We all know your résumé and your bio, and many of us have met you in the past, so you don’t mind if we just jump right into questions?
Elizabeth Warren: Of course.
KK: Should it be against the law for the children of sitting presidents and vice presidents to serve on the boards of foreign companies or otherwise profit from their parents’ service? [Several members of the Trump family have come under fire for profiting from Donald Trump’s administration in possible violation of the emoluments clause, including Ivanka Trump, who was paid more than $1 million from her ties to the Trump Organization last year. And former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter held a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. In late September, Warren was, in the words of one reporter, “uncharacteristically flustered” when asked about the Biden matter.]
EW: You know, when I put together my anti-corruption plan, [Warren’s anti-corruption plan includes provisions to extend conflict-of-interest laws to the president and vice president, compel government to divest from privately owned assets and restrict the ability of lobbyists to be hired for government jobs. It takes aim in particular at many of the practices that the Trump family has used to profit from office, which The Times has editorialized against.] which is a big plan about the influence of money, I didn’t put the provision in, but it was mostly because it’s like so many things, I hadn’t actually seen the implications of it. I think it’s actually a very bad idea, and I would like to see it as part of an anti-corruption —
KK : It’s a very bad idea for the children to —
EW: Yes. I just think it’s got this — no one has to say there is a conflict of interest, and I’m not trying to talk about anyone’s individual circumstances, but I think one of the things we have to deal with in public life is the appearance of conflict of interest. You know, that’s supposed to be the guiding principle, for example, for judges. It’s not whether or not there is a conflict of interest, it’s whether or not people in the public could reasonably be concerned that it were, because it’s important that you believe that judges are acting independently and not influenced because they’re going to get money or someone in their family is going to get money. And so that’s where I think the analogy is the closest, and whether you make it a rule of ethics or whether do you actually just make it part of the law, I think is a fair question, but I get why we should push in that direction.
KK : So do you think that Vice President Biden has been forceful enough in his —
EW: I’m not going to do this. I’m just not. I’m not here to take on Joe Biden and what Joe Biden has done. I’m glad to talk to you about why I’m running for president, but not to attack him. [Some of the Democratic candidates have been more forthright in their criticism of Hunter Biden’s role at the Ukrainian gas concern; others have been cagier. Sen. Cory Booker, when asked about the controversy, said “I just don’t think children of vice presidents, presidents, during the administration should be out there doing that.” Warren, on the other hand, has said: “I don’t know. I mean I’d have to go back and look at the details.”]
KK : Well, we’re going to start, if you don’t mind, at America’s borders and around foreign policy.
KK : Throughout America, many jobs that were once held by American union members have been replaced and are now held by undocumented immigrants. Does that drive down wages in the United States? [Over several decades, it’s become increasingly clear that how immigration debates are framed is important. One of the more subtle anti-immigration tactics — employed by the Trump, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as some on the political left — is to suggest that reducing immigration could preserve more jobs for American workers and lead to higher wages, but economic research has consistently disputed the notion that limiting immigration would increase domestic employment or raise average wages. The prevailing view of economists is that immigration increases economic growth; while some workers might benefit from immigration restrictions, more would suffer.]
EW: I think having people here who are working under the table is both bad for American workers and bad for the American economy. One of the reasons I propose to create a pathway to citizenship for everyone who’s here to stay, a pathway that is fair and achievable, is to stop the problem of two-tier hiring: those who are hired in the legal system and then those who are hired outside the legal system. People who are undocumented have no protection and are frequently subject to wage theft, to unsafe working conditions, and that’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for American workers. It’s not good for the American economy.
KK : But does it drive down wages for American workers?
EW: Well, it’s not good for them and in a dozen different ways. Wages are part of it, but they are only part of it. It’s about unsafe working conditions, for example. If you can hire somebody for cash and not meet current labor standards on safety, that someone needs a safety belt or needs training to go up high on a building, you not only put that person at risk, you reward employers who continue not to follow the law and to undermine safety standards for everyone.
KK : But do you know of any specific evidence that immigrants drive down wages?
EW: No. I thought you were talking about undocumented workers.
KK: Yes, I am, undocumented immigrants, excuse me.
EW: So whenever people are being paid outside the legal system, it undercuts protection for everyone and gives an advantage to the employers who move outside the legal system. You know, look, it’s part of the same basic principle. Everybody should follow the same set of rules. And if our labor standards are there’s a $15-an-hour minimum wage, then everybody should pay it. If the labor standards are that you don’t get to put somebody up working in an elevator shaft who has no training, then every employer should have to follow that. And any time an employer can get the work done by not following the rules, that employer gets an unfair advantage, and that unfair advantage undercuts the strength of everybody who follows the rules, undercuts the economy, undercuts workers.
KK : We have some foreign policy questions for you.
Serge Schmemann : Let me ask you about the Middle East. In the October debate you said, “I think we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.” Did you mean nowhere in the Middle East? Do you think — for example, who should control the Persian Gulf, freedom of navigation, should we close down the air base in Qatar?
EW: I think we need to get our combat troops out. I don’t think that combat is advancing the interests of the United States in the Middle East, and it’s time to end combat operations. Of course we’ll have a continuing presence in the Middle East. We have interests in the Middle East with our allies. We have interests in the Middle East and keeping shipping lanes open, and we will continue to have a presence there, but I don’t think combat troops are how we best advance that presence. [After Warren said during the October debate that the United States should “get out of the Middle East,” her campaign clarified that she was referring just to combat troops. Noncombat troops have long been stationed in the region for a variety of reasons including ensuring a free flow of oil.]
SS : So you mean getting rid of the combat troops there now, or preclude sending any combat troops there in the future?
EW: Well, I would take the combat troops out of there now. I see no immediate reason we’d send combat troops into the region, but I’d get the combat troops that are there now out.
John Broder : We have combat troops in Syria now fighting ISIS.
EW: Yes we do.
JB : And you would bring them all home?
EW: Yeah. I think we need to bring our combat troops home. [U.S. troops have recently resumed counterterrorism operations in Syria, suggesting that Trump intends to leave most of the 500 troops currently stationed there (many of them in combat). Trump has been inconsistent in his strategy on troops in Syria; Warren has been firm in her stance that all combat troops should come home.]
JB : And leave the Kurds to their fate?
EW: Look, we can work — and this is what we should have done. We should have been pushing for negotiations with Turkey, with our allies, in order to protect the Kurds. And we could do that or could have done this as part of withdrawal. We could use economic pressure, we can use diplomatic pressure. We can use coalescing with our allies in order to bring pressure to protect the Kurds, and I think that’s what we should have done. We’ve already abandoned the Kurds in the worst possible way and sent a huge signal to the rest of the world that the United States, at least under the Trump administration, is not a reliable ally.
KK : Do you feel comfortable with there still being nuclear weapons in Turkey?
EW: Look, I have argued for a long time that we need not to expand our nuclear arsenal, and that is the direction the Trump administration has been taking us. [Last year, Warren introduced a bill called the No First Use Act, which would declare that the United States would never be the first to use a nuclear weapon. Opponents say it could drive arms races in smaller countries that depend on America for protection.]
KK : But this isn’t expanding the arsenal at all. These are existing weapons that may or may not be in southern Turkey.
EW: And I think right now, the push should be not to expand because that’s the issue that’s on the table.
Alex Kingsbury: The Trump administration has made an effort to get Europeans to pay more for their own defense as being part of NATO. Is that a goal that you support even if you don’t support the way he’s going about it? And how might you achieve those goals? [NATO members agreed, in 2014, to a goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense, but in 2017 the only countries to meet that goal were America, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia. Trump chastised fellow member states at a 2017 summit, declaring that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should.”]
EW: Yes. I do think that the Europeans need to bear a significant share of the cost of defense of Europe. I don’t think that hectoring or embarrassing them is a way to get there. I think we get there by talking about the ways that work best for them on the ground, but I do think it’s important. It’s an important partnership, and it should be a partnership. [Since scolding member nations at the 2017 summit, Trump has followed up with strongly worded letters to NATO nations advising that if they don’t increase their payments, it will be increasingly hard to justify why “American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas.”]
AK: But the Obama administration tried, past presidents have tried — how would you do it? [Trump isn’t the first to mount a pressure campaign on NATO member states to increase their contributions. President George Bush used a summit in Latvia in 2006 to urge other nations to raise their military spending, and President Barack Obama echoed the plea at a 2014 conference in Brussels. Trump, though, has made spending levels a more central issue.]
EW: Well, I think part of it is how much you’re willing to do two things: how much you are willing to push and how much you’re willing to be creative about the various ways in which it’s done. You know, we did the same thing in Asia with South Korea, with Japan, about which costs the South Koreans pick up and which costs the Americans pick up. The cost of moving, the cost of consolidating the land, the cost of maintaining security around the perimeter. There are a lot of different ways that we can do this, and I think we should be doing this much more in partnership. I think hectoring them and putting their leaders in an embarrassing position domestically, for each of them, do you cave in to the United States president who is trying to throw his weight around by picking up a bigger share of the defense budget? I don’t think that’s a way to further success in this area. [America regularly renegotiates its defense cost-sharing agreements with host countries. In November, Trump asked Japan to quadruple its payments for the American troop presence.]
James Dao: Moving from Europe to Asia, if China were to send troops, massive numbers of troops into Hong Kong, and impose a violent crackdown there similar to Tiananmen Square in 1989, what would you do as president? [A recent op-ed in The Times argued that Carrie Lam’s decision to characterize the Hong Kong protests as a “riot” echoed a moment in 1989 when The People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, referred to a gathering of students in Tiananmen Square as “turmoil.” Protesters in Hong Kong demanded that the term “riot” be retracted.]
EW: You know, this is a hard hypothetical to take on until you actually know what’s happening. Again, you’ve got to back this one up on where we should have started. When the unrest first started unfolding in Hong Kong, for Donald Trump to step back and say in effect, gee, I think China’s going to crack down on Hong Kong, and effectively inviting it, I think is the wrong place for the United States to be. I think that we should have been in a position from the beginning, saying to China, we support these efforts in Hong Kong. That’s part one.
Part two is again, we should be working more with our allies. Donald Trump seems to think somehow that we are stronger alone and I think that’s fundamentally wrong. If you want to bring economic pressure on China, if you want to bring diplomatic pressure on China, it makes a lot more sense to do that if we’re doing it with our allies, if we’re doing it in conjunction with others. And I think that provides potentially much better protection for Hong Kong. The idea that this is going to be a direct military conflict between China and the United States, that would be deeply destabilizing to the entire world. So I want to see us use our diplomatic tools. I want to see us use our economic tools, and I want to see us leverage everything that we want to do by working much more tightly in conjunction with our allies. We just haven’t been doing that. None of the above. [Warren visited Beijing in 2018, as Trump was waging a tariff war on China. She criticized his “chaotic” foreign policy, while arguing that America cannot support an economic system more integrated with China’s while it “fails to respect basic human rights.”]
SS : Well, speaking of using leverage, you’ve argued that nations that want to trade with the United States should be held to higher standards.
SS: The Obama administration tried that, Trump administration tried that in different ways, but no results. What kind of leverage would you use? What would you do?
EW: Well, I’m not sure I accept the premise of the question, that they actually tried what I was talking about. Look, our No. 1 leverage is everybody wants the American consumer. They want access to the American consumer. They want to be able to sell us all of their stuff because the American consumer is not only the engine of about 70% of our economy; it’s a worldwide engine. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say, if you want to be able to trade with United States on the best possible terms, then everybody needs to raise their standards just a little. Who wants to do that? [Trump has unsettled markets with trade threats aimed at China, which The Times has editorialized against. He famously boasted “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” But a recent Axios report noted that China’s exports to the United States dropped 23.1% this year.]
And you may start out with modest increments and increase them over time, but there’s no reason that we should be treating a country that is producing goods through prison labor or child labor or unsafe working standards or by polluting the earth, that we should treat a country that produces goods in that way the same way we’re treating a country that produces goods with standards that are much closer to ours. We simply put our own businesses and our own workers at a competitive disadvantage, so we end up doing things like exporting pollution. Can’t pollute here in the United States, but move this polluting industry. This way that you’re going to paint dolls or produce chips, move it somewhere else where they have no environmental standards and then resell, and then sell those goods back in the United States.
Binyamin Appelbaum : Would you reduce existing —
EW: We just undercut ourselves when we do that.
BA: Would you reduce existing access in order to achieve that goal?
BA : So you’d put tariffs on existing foreign imports?
EW: It’s that you don’t get the tariff benefit. This is what it’s really about. Where’s the baseline? Right? And is the baseline one that says, across the board, you’ve got to give plenty of notice. You’ve got to work through, make sure you’ve got something that’s achievable for countries we trade with. But this is not like trying to institute a trade war. This is not like saying we’re mad at you and therefore we’re going to impose all these tariffs on you, and doing it as Donald Trump has done by tweet.
But it’s to work with nations and say, you want access to the American consumer, you’ve got to start raising your standards in a meaningful way. And here’s where the long-term goals are, here’s where you are, here’s what constitutes moving toward those. And I think that’s where a lot of folks would like to go, and frankly we should be working with other nations on helping, not just those who lag way behind, but those who have good standards to be using the same kind of approach to trade. The idea that trade is just about tariffs is just old 20th century. Trade today in the 21st century is about regulation. It’s about who’s going to have to meet what regulatory standards. [Warren’s plan on trade, released in July, would change American trade policy by pushing the country’s trade partners to abide by higher labor and environmental standards. Under her plan, more representatives from labor, environmental and consumer groups would be involved in trade negotiations, and the process would be more transparent through public disclosure of draft agreements.]
Whether we’re talking about workers or we’re talking about the environment, who has to meet what standards? And there are big corporations who figured out how to game the system. Where standards are high, then move that part of the operation somewhere else where standards are low and save a nickel. Because these corporations, they don’t have any loyalty to a country, they just have loyalty to their own bottom line. And they play this all around the world.
BA: Are tariffs the leverage that you use to secure those types —
EW: Tariffs are one of the tools. Economic agreements across countries, that many countries join together, and say, we’re not going to let anyone import if they’re using prison labor, for example, or if they’re dumping dangerous chemicals into the water. There are lots of ways to do this, but we can’t simply think of this as a tariff, no tariff protectionism barrier. It’s not. It’s about regulations. Look at the dang NAFTA 2.0, look at what we were negotiating for TTIP. TTIP was about financial regulations, not about goods that were moving, in a sense, the old way that people think about, that you put a bunch of stuff on a barge and you ship it across the Atlantic Ocean. And we just need to tune into the fact we know what our advantage is and we need to use it, not to try to lock others out, but to try to encourage others to come in.
Nick Fox : What did you think of the standards in the Trans-Pacific deal?
EW: I disagreed with them. So for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership had a robust investor state dispute resolution mechanism, which multiple of our trade treaties have had for decades now. And I just think that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s a two-tier system that says, in effect, we’ll make a bunch of promises in a trade deal on the environment, on use of prison labor, child labor and on anything else, and then we’ll give two entirely different enforcement mechanisms. [Warren published an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2015 attacking the investor-state dispute settlement clause in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which she argued “would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations.”]
If you are a giant multinational corporation and any regulation comes along that you don’t like, the local country raises the minimum — we’ve actually seen this — raises its environmental standards, you get to sue them to get them to drop those standards. And who will your case be heard by? It’ll be heard by a handful of corporate lawyers, who when they’re not sitting on this arbitration panel are working for big law firms that are doing work for you or other multinational corporations like you. That’s one set of how the path will run.
But the other half, let’s say you have a complaint because the trade agreement had said that some other country would permit unionization or would not use low-wage workers beyond a certain point. Do you get a path like that? A quick resolution? And by the way, I should point out: That quick resolution? There’s no appeal from it. It is immediately enforceable against a government. So you can go straight against Canada for raising its environmental standards. You can go straight against a South American country for raising its standards to protect its children’s health from smoking.
But if your complaint is a labor complaint, that is, gee, here I am in America and I’m trying to compete against workers in a foreign country who are getting paid a dollar a day. What’s your path? Well, first you’ve got to go to the U.S. government and persuade the U.S. government that they should go after this country, for which we know what has happened. U.S. government has repeatedly — and this is not just by — well, yeah, we get your point.
But on the other hand, we have other diplomatic initiatives and it’s really important that we’re trying to work with this country, and they’re important to us strategically for this reason and we have this ongoing negotiation in that political thing. Drag your heels, drag your heels, drag your heels, until the jobs have disappeared here. And then once you go forward, you’ve got to go forward through a different kind of court that’s much slower.
So the effect is that the promises that are put into trade agreements like TPP, they may all look the same on paper, but man, they are nowhere close to each other in terms of what happens with enforcement. Multinational corporations are given the opportunity basically to opt out of laws they don’t like, where protections that are supposed to be written for our workers, for the worldwide environment, for human rights standards, just get left by the curb.
KK : Senator, I think we need to move on.
Charlie Warzel : Senator, how do you first campaign in and then govern a country as polarized as the one that we’re living in right now? Because this doesn’t feel like a disagreement on a few policies. This is a situation where the cost of letting the other side wins seems almost too much to bear for the other side. And if you look at impeachment, you see politicians literally inventing alternate realities rather than compromise or disparage a party leader. How do you realistically navigate that and get things done? Because it doesn’t feel like a divide that you can heal away.
EW: I think you’re overlooking the places where we’re not divided. I have three brothers back in Oklahoma. One is a Democrat. Do the math, the other two are not. And yet, all three of my brothers and tens of millions of people around this country get furious over the fact that Amazon reports $11 billion in profits last year and paid zero in taxes. All three of my brothers understand that we have an America that works great for giant drug companies, just not for people trying to fill a prescription. Works great for oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for people who are worried about climate change.
So the way I see this is I think the old left-right division, yeah, there’s a lot of that. But I think there’s a very different division in America, and that is an America that’s working for a thinner and thinner slice at the top and not working for much of anyone else. And there are a lot of Democrats, a lot of independents and a lot of Republicans who see that.
In fact, let me quote you a New York Times article from just last week that I thought was terrific, and that’s about a 2-cent wealth tax and how it is popular across political lines and it’s popular, why? [Times reporting from Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley found that Warren’s wealth tax plan has broad support, including from 77% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans, with the exception of one demographic: Republican men with college degrees.] Because most of America gets that they’re getting cheated in this game, and you get that wherever you are on that income scale until you get up to the very top.
CW : Is that enough to bridge the systems, the ecosystems of misinformation, hyper-partisanship, things that are —
KK : Yes, and even more practically, is it enough to get anything passed in Mitch McConnell’s Senate?
EW: So let me do both of these, because I think there are two answers. There are two pieces in this answer. One is, I think attacking the corruption in Washington brings a lot more people together than most folks recognize, and that it really does reach across party lines. [Fighting corruption is, indeed, an issue with cross-party support. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last year, people ranked as the country’s second most important issue “reducing the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington.”]
The way I think we get something done in Washington, it’s the Frances Perkins story. It’s not enough to organize on the outside and have the marches in the street. Before the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, there had been dozens of marches, right? Lots of high profile. But the guys who ran the factories figured out it was a lot cheaper just to grease palms in Albany than it was to actually change their practices and put up adequate fire escapes and fire preventive measures. So just pushing from the outside, it’s not enough to get it done. Just fighting it from the inside is not enough to get it done. But the one-two punch of pushing from the outside and leading it from the inside is where you see real difference.
Look what Frances Perkins got accomplished, first in Albany, but then when she went down to Washington. So here’s a woman, she goes to Albany at a time when women don’t even have the vote and gets herself appointed the head of a fire commission. [Warren frequently refers to Frances Perkins, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary. In The Atlantic, the former Obama speechwriter Susannah Jacob wrote that Warren’s campaign slogan “Dream big, fight hard” echoes a sentence in Perkins’ memoir, in which she wrote that her “heart sank” when President Roosevelt questioned the public works program, because Perkins realized “we must fight hard now.”] And by the way, every time you see one of those lit-up fire exit signs, thank Frances Perkins, OK? But she not only does that, she then immediately expands it into labor law and workers and worker safety and worker protection overall. As you know, she then goes down to Washington, becomes the first woman Cabinet official, and look at what she gets done in a short period of time. Social security, minimum wage, right to join a union, end of child labor, the weekend, my personal favorite [LAUGHTER], that Saturdays and Sundays are not treated like Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. But think about it that way. So we start with the corruption. That’s what Perkins started with. She started by outing the corruption.
Brent Staples : But she needed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. What is the contemporary equivalent of the Shirtwaist fire?
EW: Well, I’ll start with 43 million Americans who are dealing with student loan debt. And not all of them are having trouble, but a whole, whole bunch of them are. Or how about the parents of 12 million children who are struggling to find child care? [Times columnist David Brooks noted in “The Road to Character” that Perkins discovered her calling to service and organizing after witnessing the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The analogy to something like the student loan debt crisis or child care, of course, isn’t perfect — the debt crisis, for instance, has been slow burning as tuition rates have risen far above the inflation rate since the 1970s.] And I’m not just talking about one narrow slice. I’m talking about a whole bunch of parents across a wide range of ZIP codes and income categories who are struggling. I’m talking about the 36 million Americans last year who didn’t have prescriptions filled because they simply couldn’t afford it. Or the 35 million Americans who didn’t go have a lump checked out at the doctor, or some other medical condition, because they were afraid they couldn’t afford the — and these are people, most of them, many of them, with insurance, right? Couldn’t afford the co-pay, couldn’t afford the deductible. I think people are feeling this in their lives right now. And what is the spark, which is what I hear your question to be? It’s you show them a path out. It doesn’t have to be this way. Can I just say, the first time I think I came to The New York Times was during the financial crisis.
BS : It was.
EW: And I came here to talk with you all about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And the very short version of this story is I went around Washington talking to people about how, do not in this crisis, simply outlaw the practices that were bad, that were used on the mortgages, that are used on credit cards, because they’ll be like fence posts on the prairie with nothing strong in between. And it’ll take the banks and Wall Street about three minutes to figure out how to run around them by redescribing their product or slightly reinventing their product. I think you’ve got to have an agency that when Wall Street moves, the agency can move. That’s how financial crises — it’s the only way we’re going to make this work.
I went to Washington. I came here to New York to talk to people about the idea for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and I heard two things over and over and over. Part one, that’s a great idea. It would actually make a real difference. That would be structural change, or as I now say, big structural change, in financial services. And part two, don’t even try, because you’ll be up against the big banks. [Warren, then a Harvard professor, first introduced the idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a 2007 paper in the journal Democracy. President Obama assigned her to build the agency after the 2008 financial crisis.] You’ll be up against Wall Street. You’ll be up against all of the Republicans. You’ll be up against half the Democrats. You’ll never get it done. But we did get it done.
BS : Well, you had your fire.
EW: Exactly. No, I get —
BS : You had your fire.
EW: Exactly right.
BS : You had the crash.
EW: We had a fire, and the fire there was millions of people who lost their homes, but the fire by itself doesn’t get it done. The fire by itself wasn’t enough. You had to be ready with the big structural change and had to have somebody from the inside who would fight for it. [About 10 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure sales between 2006 and 2014, the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis.]
BS : Just to tie in with Charlie here, let’s just take the prescription problem.
BS : Right. You have a lot of people in this country who actually, if you asked them about Obamacare, they hate it. These are the same people who are being wounded by the constant diminution of medical care under the Trump administration. How do you convince those people? That’s the issue, because he’s talking about fake news and disbelief. We had the whole discussion about “death committees.” [In 2009, when the Affordable Care Act was being written, Sarah Palin popularized the phrase “Obama’s ‘death panel,’” which became a rallying cry for the Tea Party.]
EW: “Death panels.”
BS : You speak of these people standing around at rallies, are a lot of these people you’re talking about. A lot of people standing around at Trump rallies are the very people you’re talking about.
EW: I said there were going to be two parts to this. So I’ve done part one about the inside/outside theory of change, but the second part, that’s why we’ve got to do this through grass roots movement. We cannot do this through television commercials. If winning the presidency, and I’ll speak only to the Democratic side, is about who comes in, and oh, let’s see, drops $37 million in one week on TV ads, and that’s what it takes to win a Democratic primary, [Since entering the Democratic race in November, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has outspent almost all of his opponents in TV advertisements, spending over $100 million in just the first month.] then we have a democracy that’s just our TV ads versus their TV ads, and at that point, they’re fake news. They claim ours is fake news, right? Everybody just gets farther and farther and farther into their corners.
The importance of a grass-roots movement is there is one thing that beats fake news, and actually the data showed this, and that’s somebody you know. It’s somebody who actually talks to you. It’s somebody who does the face to face. It’s somebody who reaches out. It’s somebody who knocks on your door. It’s your neighbor. It’s the person who talks to you in line at the grocery store. That’s part of it. It’s why you have to build — when I did inside/outside, it’s also about the importance of building grass roots, building it from the ground up. It’s why I made the decisions I made in running for president right from the beginning, which we can talk about in a minute. But for me, that’s at the heart of it, and then there’s a second part. I’ll push first to get the anti-corruption bill through. I’ll push to deliver on a meaningful anti-corruption deal. I think you can get a lot of people on board for that, Democrats and Republicans to push for it. I dare you to vote against it, right? That is a fight I will have, and it will be a fight. [Warren introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act in August 2018, which includes provisions to block government officials from becoming lobbyists, bar federal judges from owning stocks and more, all to be overseen by a new Office of Public Integrity. Much of what’s outlined in that bill made its way into Warren’s campaign plan to end Washington corruption.]
KK : Well, it has to come to the Senate floor. [The House of Representatives passed HR 1, to strengthen voting rights and ethics provisions, in March 2019 and sent it to the Senate. It is now awaiting a vote there.] I mean, Mitch McConnell already has an anti-corruption, election reform bill [passed by the House] .
EW: I’m sorry. And who’s fighting Mitch McConnell right now and from what platform?
KK : Well, the House Democrats are fighting Mitch McConnell.
EW: [WARREN APPEARS UNIMPRESSED]
Michelle Cottle : So here’s a question about —
EW: But let me finish my point. If you fight on ground where I think you’ve got lots of bipartisan support and you lead a damn fight — and then — just — if you can deliver a 2-cent wealth tax, which has wide popularity, when I get to sign the piece of paper that cancels student loan debt for 43 million Americans, that’s Democrats and Republicans. [A nationwide poll conducted by SurveyMonkey for The New York Times found that six in 10 Americans support a wealth tax. The slice of the electorate least likely to support it is Republican men with college degrees.] I think at that moment, the world starts to shift. I think at that moment, a whole generation of people who have only seen the government as debt collector starts to shift. Will we get 100% of the folks on board? No. But will we get a lot more? Will we begin to talk about a democracy that doesn’t just work increasingly for a thinner and thinner slice of the top, or will we start to talk about a democracy that works for all of us? That 2-cent wealth tax is about child care. It’s about things that touch people’s lives. It’s about universal pre-K for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It’s about a $50 billion investment in historically black colleges and universities, tuition-free. Technical school, two-year college, four-year college. You just deliver on something that matters to people. Now they’ve got a stake in democracy. It feels like it pays off, that it’s not just marching in the street over and over and over, and the next day you wake up and it’s a little bit worse than it was today. This is our chance to turn that one around.
MC: So as you’re out there trying to convince people to join you on this mission, at certain times, and certainly in the debates it’s come up that people who do not embrace your path lack the political courage or will, or they’re scared, as you’ve said, to embrace big change. Now, certainly this will appeal to a lot of Democratic voters, but there are also a lot of more moderate swing voters, Democratic voters who will be put off by the idea that just because they don’t embrace your particular policies, they somehow are not courageous or that they’re wrong in their ideas. So how do you reach out to these people, because you can’t win the nomination just with the progressive base. You’ve got to kind of convince these people who are nervous about the big ideas. For instance, “Medicare for all” that you’re pitching is not a overwhelmingly popular idea. [When told that Biden criticized her health care plans, Warren answered with a critique of moderate Democrats: “Democrats are not going to win by repeating Republican talking points and by dusting off the points of view of the giant insurance companies and the giant drug companies.” She also suggested Biden is “running in the wrong primary.”]
EW: Actually, I don’t think of what I say that way. What I think of is the leadership possibilities that the candidates for president are offering. I don’t know anybody who sits around and says, “I want to make peace with corruption.” I don’t know where those people are in America who think it’s OK that Amazon makes $11 billion and pays nothing in taxes. I haven’t seen those people. Now, maybe they just stay away from me, but I don’t think so. I think —
MC: But with particular policies, like not everybody’s going to be down with banning fracking altogether, especially in the state of Pennsylvania. [Roughly 50% of Pennsylvania’s population supports the fracking industry.]
EW: I understand.
MC : Not everybody likes “Medicare for all,” where you do away with private health care. [The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Care Tracking Poll has found a decline in public support for “Medicare for all” since the start of the year. Now roughly 51% of American adults are in favor of a single-payer system and 47% are opposed, whereas earlier this year 57% backed it and 37% were opposed.] Not everybody is going to appreciate if you’ve suggested that the candidate that they happen to back now is in the wrong primary. I’m just saying these things will come back as you have to win voters in swing states, things like that.
EW: So the way I see this is all I can do is get out and tell you what I’ll fight for, and I’ll point out the difference between the two. I try not to get over my skis. No, I do. I’ve really tried hard not to be personally critical of other candidates. I got a little heated once, but once, and because I think this is the fundamental question. Do you think that this democracy, do you think that this economy, do you think this government is going to make it if all we’re offering are little nibbles around the edges? [When Warren suggested that Biden is “running in the wrong primary,” he responded in a Medium post that called such attacks “condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view.”]
JI : I want to just pivot very quickly to health care. It seemed like a good moment. With respect to what you will fight for, can you talk a little bit about “Medicare for all” and where it ranks in terms of your priorities, and then to kind of sort of reiterate the question, how do you convince people who are wary of massive health care overhaul yet again that that’s the right approach to that problem basically?
EW: So I start with trying to understand the problem, what it means that tens of millions of people don’t have prescriptions filled, don’t go to the doctor. People with health insurance who are being sued by their hospitals for medical bills. I think of this as offering the most help to the greatest number of people as quickly as possible. So in terms of priorities, day one, there’s a lot a president could do all by herself, and I’ll do it. [Warren was likely referring to reporting by Sarah Kliff in The Times in November chronicling a rise in hospitals’ suing patients over overdue bills.]
One of them is use march-in orders on prescription drugs. We can bring down the cost of EpiPens and insulin and other drugs, so that we save families literally hundreds of millions of dollars. It can be done without Mitch McConnell. The power is already there. You’ve just got to be willing to pick it up and use it. Nobody else has talked about picking it up and using it. [A 2017 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that generic competition has weakened in recent decades, leading to higher prices for generics. EpiPen and insulin prices, in particular, have skyrocketed. Warren’s Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act would authorize the government to manufacture active ingredients for medications or contract outside entities to manufacture generic drugs and lower prices. But McConnell has railed against “socialist price controls” in the health care system.]
I’ll defend the Affordable Care Act from the sabotage of the Trump administration. That I can do all by myself.
I will also fight to knock back the influence of money, because I think every time we do that, that’s what that anti-corruption bill is about. It’s about calling out the big drug companies. It’s about calling out the big insurance companies and just disrupting the fabulous patterns they have right now to get their way in Washington. In the first 100 days, I’ll go to Congress and try to get what we can get on 50 votes. What we can get on 50 votes is to offer Medicare to everybody who’s 50 or older.
JI : So this is an incremental plan that you’ve talked about, right? So your first hundred days you have essentially two health care plans, right? You have one that — would enact —
EW: Or three. I mean, how do you want to count it? [LAUGHTER] One is to reduce the cost for families on the first day. I mean, the cost savings doesn’t come in on the first day, but you sign the papers that need to be done, so you reduce costs on the first day. [Warren has laid out an ambitious timeline that would put children and families under “Medicare for all” in her first 100 days through a congressional maneuver, then fully roll out her system by her third year in office.] The second is to give people the opportunity to be in Medicare if they want, anyone who’s 50 or older, and expand the coverage for Medicare. It’s to offer Medicare for all complete health care coverage to everyone else who wants it.
JI : I just want to pause here for one second. You’ll have —
EW: It’ll be free for anybody who’s under 18. It’ll be free for a family of four making less than $50,000 a year, and it will have a small price for everyone else. This is the advantage to having already identified how you can pay for this.
JI: So you have, on one hand, the boldest public option that’s probably been offered by any of the Democratic candidates. On the other hand, you have the most aggressive “Medicare for all” universal plan that’s been offered. You’ll be, if I understand it correctly, starting with this aggressive public option hoping to segue to a “Medicare for all” by year three, and in the middle of all that, you will probably be called upon to defend the Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court level. How do you think about those three — and of distinct — that just seems like an awful lot of health care reform. [Obama’s health care battles foreshadow some of what Warren might face in trying to institute her single-payer system. Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010 after a protracted fight in Congress, and by November 2011 the Supreme Court had agreed to hear a case challenging its constitutionality.]
EW: Why is defending the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court hard? That’s what lawyers are for, sure. That’s a legal issue, and they’ve got a whole bunch of lawyers in the federal government. [While Obama himself didn’t personally appear in court to defend the Affordable Care Act, the legal challenges hurled at the legislation demanded years of government and legal resources, not to mention public attention — so the legal dimension of the health care fight can’t be discounted.]
JI : But one of the premises for massive health care reform is that the Affordable Care Act is not working in a lot of ways, right? So you support “Medicare for all” presumably because you think the Affordable Care Act has a lot of holes in it, and we need to do something different, so you’ll be defending that.
EW: Right. So I’ve identified pay-fors, and I lay out that if you want, you can get into it, and you’ve got a three-year period to be able to do it at a deeply subsidized price or at no price at all.
KK: Simultaneously though, all of the things that you’ve suggested you would need to do in order to afford “Medicare for all,” a wealth tax, cutting the defense budget, comprehensive immigration reform, would require the Senate’s approval. [Warren’s “Medicare for all” would require $20.5 trillion in new federal spending over the next 10 years. She has promised the money won’t come from raising taxes on the middle class and maintains that between defense cuts and a wealth tax, the costs would be covered. But of course, that would require Senate approval — and McConnell has sworn it won’t happen “as long as I’m majority leader.”]
EW: 50 votes.
KK : Well, so you’re going to kill the filibuster?
EW: No. This is on budget reconciliation.
JI: Let me try to frame it a different way. What do you say to critics who would argue that it will take so much political capital just to enact the first portion of this plan, the aggressive public option that you’ve laid out, that it would be essentially impossible to then segue to a “Medicare for all”? You’ll spend so much capital getting that first part that it seems — people have said it seems like a pipe dream to say we’re going to have this aggressive public option, and then we’re going to have “Medicare for all” three years later. [The number of people who have denounced “Medicare for all” as politically impractical continues to grow — the former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called it a “pipe dream” in a recent Washington Post op-ed, in which he called on proponents to “please explain to me exactly how we get that bill through the Senate?”]
EW: So let me push back on what your theory of change is, because the way the Affordable Care Act worked is we passed it, and then it was four years later when the benefits came in, and they kind of bumped into place, right? Look at it the other way around. What I propose is as many people can get into it as want to get into it, and then once they’re in, try taking it away from them, because that’s what the fight then shifts to. How did we end up hanging on to the Affordable Care Act when the Republicans had the House, the Senate and the White House? The answer was we ended up hanging on to it because enough people across this country said, “You’re not going to take this away from me.” [The Affordable Care Act continued to grow in popularity after Republican efforts to repeal the legislation in 2017 — a recent poll found that over half of the public favors the legislation.]
JI: People were opposed to it until —
Mara Gay: Actually, that’s a perfect point for me to just ask you a question that’s related. My family is from Michigan, and UAW workers. One of the last things that they really love, many of them, is their health care. So I guess my question is, is both a practical one and a political one, which is why not try and expand health care access without actually taking away programs that people already like? Is there a way to do that? Is there even a way to get to what you’re talking about without talking about it in such dogmatic political terms, and how do you — this is I guess the most important part of the question, I think, is how do you make the pitch to a UAW worker that what you can offer is actually better than what they already have? [A growing divide has emerged among unions over whether to support “Medicare for all.” Roughly 95% of union workers had health care access in 2019, while just 68% of nonunion workers did.]
EW: I’ve already made the pitch, and I actually had several unions say that it’s a really good approach. I don’t remember if the UAW was one of them. [The United Automobile Workers has nearly 1 million members. Along with the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, it has yet not taken a stance on “Medicare for all.”]
MG : The UAW was not one of them.
EW: So let me do the pitch, because I’ll tell you exactly what the pitch is. That is the Affordable Care Act already requires employers to provide health care for their workers if they have more than 50 workers. I propose we just keep that in place, and that will yield about $9 trillion over the next 10 years. That’s what they pay. [In conversations with some unions, Warren has dodged the question of how she would protect existing coverage. At a recent town hall with the Culinary Workers Union, for example, she said their health care is “not supposed to change” but sidestepped details.]
MG : Sorry. You think it has — go ahead. I’ll let you finish.
EW: So let me explain what the plan is. The plan is the employer has to keep paying in as the employer does right now. The one exception to that is if you have a collective bargaining agreement, and the employer is paying in more than whatever is the standard minimal that employers are paying in. That difference goes to the workers in cash.
Now, that’s only for collective bargaining agreements, but that’s real money in the pockets of those union numbers. Secondly, what at least some of the unions liked about this is the unions never have to bargain on this one again, once you get all the way to “Medicare for all,” because their workers will have health care coverage. [Biden has cast the “Medicare for all” plan as anti-labor, arguing that unions have already painstakingly negotiated health care benefits, progress that could be undone by a single-payer system. But Warren and Sanders argue that the plan is pro-labor because it would mean union members are guaranteed health care and can focus their negotiations on wage increases, family leave and other benefits.] Which means they can bargain once again over wages and working conditions and keeping jobs here in the United States instead of having to go back to their members year after year after year and say: “We just bargained. Great for you. Your salary will go up 1/2 of 1%, and your deductible will only go up by another $2,000.”
MG : Your standing in some of the polls in the swing states is not as competitive as some of the other candidates’. Do you think that this issue is hurting you in the swing states like Michigan? If not, what do you make of the discrepancy in swing states?
EW: Actually, I don’t do polls. I haven’t looked at them, so I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this. I’m out there fighting for those votes every single day. [Polling has consistently shown Warren to be in the top tier of candidates, but not the front of the pack. She trails Biden — and Trump — in key swing states.] I’ve been to 29 states and Puerto Rico. I will keep doing this. I’ve been to blue states and red states, and talked about how we build a future. I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got what, two more months before the caucuses start, but this is the question in front of us as a country. How do we think about how to go forward? Is the message going to be business as usual after Donald Trump? It’s just too damn hard to get anything done. Therefore, we’re just going to just kind of nibble at that problem of all the folks who can’t get child care and teachers who are working three jobs?
KK: But you have to admit, many of the things you’re saying are the same pitch Obama gave us in 2008, and Obama, of course, got health care done, but with a lot of compromises and left a law that I think by everyone’s estimation is flawed. So what’s different in 2020 — excuse me, I don’t know what year it is, 2019 — than it was in 2008? [A Washington Post tally of Obama’s campaign promises found that he kept 11 promises (expand hate crime statutes, insure more Americans, establish a credit-card Bill of Rights), compromised on 12 (end the war in Iraq in 16 months, increase the earned-income tax credit) and failed on 17 (raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants).]
EW: Well, I would add he also got a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
KK : He did. That’s true.
EW: And he actually got a fair amount of Dodd-Frank. And — that he did, but —
KK : I guess do you understand why I keep harping on this? I don’t mean to —
EW: No, it’s fine. It’s just that look out there. People’s financial circumstances have gotten worse. The amount of student loan debt has been going up at a rate of $100 billion a year. Oh, here’s one. Just saw some data not long ago out of the Department of Education. Go take a look 20 years out on people who borrowed student loan debt — [This appears to be a misrepresented statistic. A 2019 report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University found that the median white student borrower has paid back 94% of his or her student debt, while the median black student borrower has paid back 5%.] 94% of whites have paid off their student loan debt. Want to guess what the percentage is for African-Americans is?
KK : No.
EW: Five — 5%. We are widening racial wealth gaps in this country right now. Opportunity is shrinking for our children, and people see this. It’s 12 years later. It’s 20 years later from a whole set of promises that this was going to get better, and it hasn’t gotten better, but people watch at the same moment. They don’t look around and see a country that’s getting poor. Look out your window, right? They don’t look around and say, “God, America’s really on a downslide.” They look out and they say, America is doing great. GDP keeps going up. The stock market keeps going up, unemployment is down, but my family is stretched to the breaking point. My debt load is bigger than ever, and I look over the edge and see where my children are headed. I don’t even see my children able to replicate what I have. I don’t see them able to buy my house. I don’t see them having even the job stability I had. I see them carrying more debt at 19 than I carried at 35. [Warren’s support among young people — the Gen Z and millennial voters she describes, saddled with debt — has been on the rise. A November poll from Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics found that 22% of 18- to 29-year-olds support her, up from 4% in March.]
MC : I think we can agree that there are huge problems here. But to Katie’s point, and then I’m going to throw it to Jesse. You have to be careful to balance the big promises with the over-promising, because then you risk the disillusionment, which I think we saw during the Obama administration. And back to kind of Katie’s question about how you pay for a lot of these things. I mean comprehensive immigration for one, you can’t do that through budget reconciliation. [When even a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform, focused on employment-based green cards, died on the Senate floor in September, it demonstrated just how difficult it has become to get any immigration reform legislation through Congress.]
EW: I’m sorry, but you can do it if you roll back the filibuster. I stood on the floor of the Senate when we had those votes.
MC : And there is a good question. How do you do that if Mitch McConnell still holds that Senate?
EW: Well, look, I’m going to start. I don’t want Mitch McConnell, obviously.
BS : No?
EW: No, but look. All right, so what do you want to do? You want just give up? Say, “Aw, gee, Mitch McConnell...” Let’s go get the begging bowl and say give me a crumb or two, and I will say thank you. That’s what it means now to be a Democrat to the party in opposition.
MC : No, I’m just saying —
EW: That sure gets a lot done.
MC : — that requires you to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
EW: It’s 5% of the pay for. Give me a break. [Under Warren’s plan to pay for “Medicare for all,” a substantial chunk of funds would come from an “employer contribution” into the health care fund. Sanders has not released a detailed plan explaining how he would pay for the system.] No, we have passed it, and actually —
MC : OK, so we mark that one off, so we don’t have to do immigration reform for this to work.
EW: You start by disrupting. You start with some wins. You start with some places people want to be, and actually immigration reform is one of them. People don’t like our immigration system, and our support for immigrants continues to go up. I can be in a room full of people who are three generations away from any immigration experience personally, and they want to see us get this done. It’s not just liberals. What was the latest story? Utah wants more immigrants, right? [A 2018 Gallup poll found that a record-high 75% of Americans say immigration is a positive, including majorities of all parties. Yet immigration reform has become a wedge issue in Congress, with the government brought to a shutdown multiple times over issues like the treatment of Dreamers and the funding for Trump’s border wall.]
People understand this is good for our economy. It’s good for our worldwide security. If you’re not willing to get out there and fight, nothing is going to change. And yeah, the fights have to be realistic. It’s why I start everything with, “Here’s how I’m going to pay for it.” You may not like how I did, but at least I laid it out there. You don’t have any doubt, and I show you where every single nickel comes from because I want it to be realistic. I didn’t start with free college. I started with a 2-cent wealth tax, because we can do a 2-cent wealth tax. I started with it and said, and here’s how much revenue it produces. It produces a staggering amount of revenue, far more than raising income taxes, because that’s what the wealth curve looks like.
A 2-cent wealth tax, and now let’s talk about what kind of change we could make — 2 cents, and we can do universal child care. [Warren’s campaign ads pitch a 2-cent wealth tax to cover $700 billion in universal child care, $1.25 trillion in universal free college and student debt forgiveness, and more. But Warren’s tax would really be more than 2 cents on the dollar for the ultrarich, because you have to add the 2 cents to additional taxes she has promised on assets above $1 billion along with taxes on income and capital gains. Two University of California economists recently calculated that the Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ net worth would be more than halved if Warren’s wealth tax in its original form had been enacted in 1982.] We can put $800 billion into our public schools. We can make a federal commitment for the first time in history to public education K-12, and we can do the same thing for college, and we can cancel student loan debt, and an enormous boost to our economy.
KK : Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.
EW: Yes, you did. [LAUGHTER]
KK : We’re running out of time here.
Jesse Wegman : Senator, I want to just take you back for a moment to Mara’s question about swing states and swing state voters and your point about large structural changes that people warn you off. The other day, you repeated your argument that you wanted to be the last president to win the Electoral College and the first to win the national popular vote. How do you expect — I’m assuming you’re not talking about a constitutional amendment. [Warren said in March that she hopes to pass a constitutional amendment to protect every American’s right to vote. She added, “Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”] How do you expect to get there in five years, unless you’re the president, unless you win the Electoral College and Donald Trump wins the popular vote in 2020?
EW: That’s a nice one. I like that. So look, I think it’s one of the things that, as a country, it’s time for us to take it on.
JW : And how?
EW: We take it on by deciding we’re going to take it on. We pass it through Congress, and then we set it up for the states to be able to vote on it.
JW : So you think a constitutional amendment?
EW: You can take it through a constitutional amendment if you think it needs a constitutional amendment.
KK: OK, the Electoral College is really important to Jesse. So much of the biggest change in recent years has come through the Supreme Court. Who would be your Supreme Court nominees?
EW: Oh, I’m not going to do names. [Trump released his short list of potential Supreme Court nominees in May 2016. In September 2016, he released a second list with several more women and people of color, following criticisms of the white and male bias in his first.]
KK : So who would be your running mate?
EW: I’m not going to do names. That’s enormously presumptuous. [In December, Biden said that he would consider choosing Warren as his running mate and wondered whether she would choose him. The senator, for her part, has suggested she might prefer a woman.]
KK : Well, one more personal question for you. Who has broken your heart?
EW: My first husband. [At age 19, Warren married her high school sweetheart, a computer engineer, Jim Warren. She gave up a full scholarship to George Washington University for the marriage, and they later split in part because he didn’t support her career ambitions.]
KK : Why? Do you mind telling?
EW: Well, yeah. [LAUGHTER]
KK : Oh my god, we’re running out of time. We have a bunch of questions around technology. [LAUGHTER]
JD : That’s a perfect segue.
KK : I’m trying to get a lot in here.
CW : Andrew Yang said in one of the debates that you’re applying a 20th-century framework to antitrust when it comes to Big Tech. Why is he wrong on that, and what makes your proposal to break up Big Tech adequate for the unprecedented profits of Silicon Valley? [Warren has argued that the sheer size of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon pose a real threat to innovation and competition in the technology industry. Yang has argued that her diagnosis is “100% correct” but that her solution isn’t fully effective because “competition doesn’t solve all of the problems.”]
EW: Well, actually, you’re going to have to explain to me what Andrew was — if I’m going to have to argue back against Andrew, you’re going to have to tell me exactly what Andrew’s argument is. [In the October Democratic debate, Times national editor Marc Lacey asked Yang to comment on Warren’s calls to break up companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. Yang said Warren is correct in her diagnosis of the problem but breaking up the companies isn’t an adequate solution because “using a 20th-century antitrust framework will not work. We need new solutions and a new tool kit.”]
CW : Well, during the debate he said it was a 20th-century —
EW: No, I know he did, but I don’t know what that means. [After the endorsement interview, Warren reached out to Warzel to clarify her response on 20th century antitrust. In that follow-up interview, she said: “Antitrust law is a very valuable tool and breaking them up would have important effects but what I realized after I left in the room is that I was pulled in a different direction but I never finished to say that antitrust law is important but not the only tool we need. I don’t believe that markets alone are going to fix all the problems we’re facing on the tech side. Particularly the issues around privacy and the values that come from aggregation on platforms and how that value would be distributed. I don’t believe only antitrust works but I do believe its a powerful tool we should be using in dealing with Big Tech.”]
BA: What is the specific standard that you would apply in antitrust? Right now we basically have a consumer pricing setup. [Warren has proposed using the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to undo anti-competitive mergers currently in place, then passing legislation designating companies worth more than $25 billion in revenue as “platform utilities.”]
EW: And I don’t think that’s the right model.
BA : What is the right stance?
EW: I think it includes anti-competitiveness and unfair trade practices. I think we need to resuscitate the old “tying” concept that we use. [“Tying” is an arrangement where to buy one product, a consumer also has to buy a different product from a separate market. An example the FTC offers is a drugmaker that required all consumers buying its medicine for schizophrenia to also buy its blood-monitoring service. The Supreme Court has treated the practice as illegal in the past, but more recently lower courts have permitted it under the more flexible “rule of reason.”]
I think Robert Bork narrowed the standards we use for antitrust and for breaking up big companies. [Robert Bork was President Ronald Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee in 1987. He wrote extensively on antitrust legislation and redefined it from a focus on helping small businesses to promoting economic efficiency, according to Barak Orbach, professor of law at the University of Arizona.] Market dominance by itself, when you totally dominate a market, that is anti-competitive. Then the platforms — this new — you want to go to the new part. The platforms themselves create a new kind of problem that we haven’t seen. We can only do this by analogy, which is what we always do in law, but think of it this way. There’s Amazon that owns the marketplace where people go and buy toasters and sell toasters, but they also are scraping bits of information off every one of those purchases. When they decide that your toaster business is getting very profitable, and they might like to crowd in on that, they take all that information they took from you without your consent and they go into the 2.0 version of your toaster business and move you back to page seven on the search.
My view on that one is that really you can be the umpire in the baseball game or you can have a team in the baseball game, but you don’t get to do both at the same time. So breaking the platform off from the competitive business, yeah, that would give a lot of small businesses a much more level playing field and ability to compete.
BA: I appreciate that the toaster is still your preferred consumer appliance. [Warren’s famous paper laying the groundwork for the creation of the CFPB opens with the sentence, “It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house” and later says, “Why are consumers safe when they purchase tangible products with cash, but when they sign up for routine financial products like mortgages and credit cards they are left at the mercy of their creditors?”]
EW: There we go. But the point is there are some things about tech that are special. I mean, that we’re seeing for the first time. Ways that you can be anti-competitive that we hadn’t seen before, just like that was true in the early 1900s about, you know — you had the oil supply, and you also owned all the gas stations and how that one worked. We broke that apart.
CW : But does that fix the power consolidation that’s happening right now? If you took Facebook and spun out to Instagram, say, you still have a real dominance and a power that has been accumulated there. [One parallel Warren has used in her plans for breaking up Facebook is the government’s antitrust case against Microsoft in 1998, which Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Tim Wu wrote in The Times made Microsoft “a gentler giant.”] So Facebook, for example, in the media and advertising industry.
EW: You’re asking the fundamental question about how you break them up. This was the question for Standard Oil. How did they break up Standard Oil? They ended up doing it actually by geography back in those days, but that’s obviously a very different world from the world we live in right now. [The American government’s antitrust battle with the oil industry perhaps epitomizes a 20th-century approach to antitrust — in 1911, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil. Of course, many would argue that the country’s dependence on oil and its addiction to Facebook aren’t totally comparable.]
But look at the difference it makes if there are multiple Facebooks out there. If you can get to anybody’s page regardless of who they go through, it becomes like the phone company, right? You can have any different brand of phone, but as long as I hit the same set of numbers, I will reach you. If you could do that through Facebook, then you’ve got competitors offering, hey, I tell you what. You come use my site, and I won’t be sharing your personal data with anybody. I will offer better security than those other yahoos offer. I will offer you a 2-cent rebate for all of the advertising. I will offer you the option to click out of ads, or you’ll only get one ad every minute. That’s what competitive markets do.
I like markets. I believe that capitalism can produce enormous value. But capitalism without rules is theft, and one of those rules should be progressive taxation. Everybody pays their fair share. And one of those rules should be you don’t get to crush the opposition. That’s not how markets work. And that’s a battle we had at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, and it’s a battle we need to have again. The giants have grown and they exercise so much economic power, but they also exercise too much political power.
CW : Can I ask about that?
CW : You previously suggested that Facebook intends to use their influence in this election. [In October 2019, Warren tweeted: “Facebook has incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. Mark Zuckerberg is telling employees that he views a Warren administration as an ‘existential’ threat to Facebook. The public deserves to know how Facebook intends to use their influence in this election.”] What did you mean by that and did you think —
EW: I’m sorry, say it again. Facebook?
CW : Intends to use their influence in this election. And Mark Zuckerberg especially. You were tweeting about that and mentioning him.
EW: Well, I —
CW : I’m just curious, do you think that Facebook could tip the scales in favor of a candidate? What did you mean by that specific power and is it something that an employee like Mark Zuckerberg is going to wield on his own or just the company’s power in political influence?
EW: Look at the example. He said, “I will take your money to lie about other candidates.” What does that mean for our democracy? [Mark Zuckerberg has held the line on Facebook’s decision to allow political ads, even as Twitter banned them. The company’s approach came under scrutiny after it said Trump’s re-election campaign would be allowed to run an ad with false claims about Biden and his son Hunter. Zuckerberg said this is about free speech and not the profit motive.] Not even meet the minimal standard that TV ads run, right?
I’ll — start — I want to lie about you, that’s why I ran the ad that said Mark Zuckerberg endorses Donald Trump, and they said, “We’ll take your money for that one,” until they discovered what it actually said and said: “Wait a minute. Not if you’re going to talk about Mark Zuckerberg.” Whoa. [In October, Warren’s campaign bought ads that read: “Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.” The campaign was intended as a critique of Facebook’s decision not to fact-check or remove political ads. Facebook did not remove from the social network the ad falsely endorsing Trump.]
CW : That’s just a process of fact-checking and you want that to be independent, because then there’s the issue of Facebook getting involved.
EW: No. It’s a process. This is an example.
EW: If Facebook has way too much power.
CW : Sure. And they have too much power, not just in an economy, they have too much power in a democracy, and they keep consolidating and expanding — are you worried about individual employees there? You know, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel.
EW: I don’t know individual employees there. [Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor, called Warren “dangerous,” to which Warren responded “good.” Zuckerberg said a Warren presidency would “suck” for the company, according to audio leaked and reported in The Verge.] What I know is the power of that place and how they’re using it right now. Well —
JW : Senator, do you think that the House of Representatives is moving too quickly toward a vote on impeachment?
JW : You think if they vote in the next two weeks that that will be a sufficient amount of time and what they’ve done, what they ——
EW: I have not finished reading the report, but they look like they’ve laid out their ducks. The Trump administration evidently does not wish to put up a defense and call its own witnesses. In fact, it seems to be still in the process of trying to block witnesses from coming and block documents from exposure. Yeah. And look, I think they’ve got enough. And if they’ve got enough, it can’t be that the House impeachment process is the tail that gets wagged by Donald Trump based on when he’s willing to allow access to various witnesses or various documents. Not even Richard Nixon tried to stop people from testifying or tried to stop the House from getting access to documentation. [Michael Conway, who served as counsel for the house Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment inquiry, said President Nixon also tried to deny the investigators access to key materials, but Trump has gone a step further. Conway said, “Nixon was equally resistant to turning materials over and documents, but he did allow people to testify.”] So they’ve got what they’ve got. If it’s enough, then go forward.
JD : Do you think it’s better, then, that the Senate finish a trial as early as possible next year?
EW: Well — again —
JD : Before Iowa, perhaps even?
EW: Consistent with whatever is revealed. You can’t do speed independently of facts, right? But if that’s what we’ve got and it’s enough information for a charge of impeachment, then I think they can go forward and I think they should. [Warren called for the House of Representatives to begin impeachment inquiry proceedings against Trump as early as April 2019.]
KK: As student loan debt has come up a couple of times, I want to make sure we have a question.
AK : Sure. I’m really interested in the student loan debt issue, but there’s a concern that your plan to forgive student debt really tilts a lot of resources towards the wealthy. So only 2% of borrowers have more than $50,000 in debt. A third of all student debt is owned by people in the top income quartile, and most student debt goes to households with advanced degrees. So these are doctors and lawyers, and they’ve amassed a lot of debt, but they’re also investing in their own educational capacity to pay off that debt. So I’m just wondering how you square that with a plan that goes about forgiving student debt? [Critics of Warren’s student debt plan say it would unfairly benefit those on the path to becoming highly paid professionals.]
EW: So my plan to forgive student loan debt is capped at $50,000 and an income of $250,000. And the reason for that is because it is the best way, not only to give maximum forgiveness to a lot of people who are struggling, but it also helps close the black-white wealth gap, and is part of the reason that the NAACP endorsed it along with the other parts I was doing about investment in our colleges. [An expert on college affordability at the Urban Institute told The Times that Warren’s $50,000 debt clearance is too much. Setting the level at $10,000 instead would relieve debt for a third of all borrowers, according to their analysis.] But I really worked through hard on these numbers to deal with exactly that question and that’s why I got the numbers where they are. I don’t think they raise that same issue. I’m not —
AK : OK. No, I mean, it’s not my critique. This is a critique on the left as well, you know, that going about forgiving student debt in this way puts a lot of money in households that are going to make a lot of money. [A graduate with a professional degree expects to earn $2.3 million more than a high school graduate. The Brookings Institution’s Adam Looney estimated that under Warren’s plan “the bottom 20% of borrowers by income get only 4% of the savings.”]
EW: But that’s my point. It doesn’t. That’s what I just said.
AK : OK.
EW: It’s both capped in terms of the number of dollars, and it’s capped in terms of the income. [Looney, of the Brookings Institution, estimated that the benefits from Warren’s plans are skewed — he estimated that borrowers with advanced degrees will claim 37% of the annual benefits, while representing only 27% of borrowers overall.]
It doesn’t go to a doctor making $1 million a year who also has $1 million in student loan debt.
KK : Senator, a number of your opponents have proposed in various ways either new entitlements or other programs that would give cash directly to low-income families.
KK : You seem to have avoided that approach for the most part. Can you just explain why? [Warren said in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein that many other economic policies should be accomplished before the government starts sending out checks to every American, as Yang’s Freedom Dividend proposes.]
EW: Well, you know, it obviously depends on the program, but I worry about — for example, increasing the dollar payment on Section 8 vouchers, it doesn’t seem to increase the supply of housing. Instead, it seems to make a segment of landlords richer. So I’d rather take that money and put it directly into increasing housing supply.
I have a plan to build about 3.2 million new housing units across this country to make money available for changing zoning and working together across municipal boundaries on joint projects that increase density and trying to use the federal government as a partner to move forward in bringing down the cost overall for housing. [Warren has released one of the most robust housing plans in the 2020 field, including the creation of a Tenant Protection Bureau modeled after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The sky-high rates of homelessness across the country was a major focus of Times reporting last year.]
The problem as I see it in the housing market, just picking that one, is we have a supply problem. The two big providers of housing from half a century ago just aren’t there. So the developer that built the two-bedroom, one-bath house, garage converted to hold my three brothers for their bedroom, that developer is building McMansions today. And I’m not mad at him. That’s where the profits are. And the federal government, as you know, now under current federal law, can’t expand federal housing. It can only do replacement when it’s taking it off the market. And if it takes it off the market and it doesn’t replace it, then it shrinks even more. Housing deteriorates like anything else.
So we have a shrinking supply and a growing population, and that means tens of millions of people are paying more to get less. So how can you turn that around? And the answer is to make a bigger investment in housing supply directly. And that includes housing for middle-class families, for working-class families, for the working poor, for the poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who’ve been incarcerated. Expanding housing supply directly, but also using federal dollars to help encourage cities and small towns and rural areas to adopt housing practices, that will lower costs even further. I just think that’s a more effective way to get real structural change.
KK : We have time for, I think, one or two more questions.
KK : Lauren, I wanted to make sure we got to you.
Lauren Kelley : Sure. I wanted to ask about reproductive rights.
LK : But I wanted to ask about an aspect of it that I think gets relatively little attention.
LK : There’s a growing problem of harassment and trespassing at abortion clinics.
LK : And a growing concern during the Trump era about violence. And I’m just wondering how you would address that, if that is in fact something that’s not going to go away once the Trump era ends, which I think is a safe assumption.
EW: You know on part of this, I think part of the answer is current law enforcement. You correctly describe it, in harassing people, in trespassing. And we need to make sure at federal, state, and local levels that people who are seeking health care of any kind have access to that health care and are not denied that opportunity. I think our laws are there. I think the weakness is our failure to enforce. That’s how I see now. If there are gaps in that, I’m certainly open to understanding them better, but that’s how I see it.
KK : And then I think Brent is going to close us out.
BS : Is it my imagination or are we hearing almost nothing about voter disenfranchisement in this campaign, when in fact we saw disenfranchisement actually tipped races in Florida and Georgia? And post-Obama, all kinds of disenfranchisement methods came online.
BS : But I don’t really hear the candidates talking about that. Why is that?
EW: Actually, I’ve done 175 stump speeches and I’ve talked about it in every one of them. You all haven’t covered it. I talk about three things that I think we need to do —— [In June, Warren released a plan focused on voter disenfranchisement and election security. The plan proposes, among other measures, improved voting equipment across the country and bans on voter purges.]
BS : Mm-hmm.
EW: — in this country. And the first one is attack corruption. And the second is to make some structural change in the economy. And the third is to protect our democracy. And it may — that the —
BS: What do you say about disenfranchisement? Forgive me for not knowing.
EW: No, It’s fine. So I actually start with the big vision. You know, if you gave me a chance, I’d do a constitutional amendment to protect the right of every American citizen to vote and to make sure that vote gets counted so you put real federal muscle behind it. I also talk about that for a specific reason, because a lot of Americans are shocked to know that that’s not already in the Constitution and that there is no federal muscle behind that.
I talk about rolling back every racist voter suppression law in America. We could do that at the federal level. I talk about outlawing political gerrymandering. We could do that at the federal level.
I talk about Citizens United, although that one again is either going to take constitutional amendment or some change in the personnel at the Supreme Court to reslice that issue. But I think it is important to keep that one on the table. And I talk about it because when I close, I talk about why those three things are related to each other. [End Citizens United, a group with more than 4 million members and half a million donors around the country, has voiced support for Warren’s proposed anti-corruption plans. The group has noted that both President Obama and President Trump won election in part by portraying themselves as tougher on opponents.]
Why attacking corruption and getting some structural change in our economy that actually is about not just the wealth gap top to bottom, but this fact that more and more and more of our value is being sucked up to the top, and more and more people are sliding back behind it. And not having power at the polls. How those three things are tied to each other.
Because for me, they all are about a central question and that’s: Who’s going to get opportunity in this country going forward? Will opportunity be reserved just for those born into privilege? Or will opportunity be something that we say as a country, we’re willing to make some hard choices to invest, so that all of our kids get those opportunities?
But it’s hard. It’s a lot easier not to take on the drug industry. It’s a lot easier not to take on the insurance industry. It’s a lot easier not to take on the oil industry. But every single issue we care about, every single issue — think about it on climate. All across this country people are saying climate, climate, climate. If you’re not willing to take on the corruption, we’re going to get laws passed that are going to have great names: Save the World; Everything Is Green; Now Safe for Unicorns.
But it’s not going to be real change because so long as the lobbyists are writing it, so long as they’re the ones who are in the ears of the folks in the House and the Senate, we’re just going to keep making little, tiny changes, and I just don’t think we can keep doing that.
BS : Last question. What are you likely to fail at as president?
MC : And nobody does well at this question.
EW: Yeah, I can imagine. Nobody ever wants to answer this probably. To try this, you’ve got to have an optimism bias. And I do. I know that. It’s an optimism bias that keeps me working 14 hours a day. It’s an optimism bias that pulls you in more and more people to try to talk about it.
But I take your question seriously. The place I might be most likely to fail is to get only part. Now, part’s better than none, right? But only part. And that’s a deeply worrisome thought.
I know that as you sit here it looks like, wow, this woman wants to do a lot and it’s hard. And the truth is, it is. I spent my whole life studying working families. Why they go broke, what’s happening in America, why America’s middle class is being hollowed out. Whole books written about this. [Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote in September that despite long positioning herself as a champion for the working class, Warren has had a record of struggling to win in working-class towns and blue-collar parts of Massachusetts.] And I watch every year two things as it gets worse and worse and worse. Not fire worse. That was 2008 and — everybody is —
BS : Mm-hmm.
EW: But a degree worse, two degrees worse. I watch that, and I watch as one more player in the game gets even more deeply embedded in Washington and Washington decision making. One more player hires more lobbyists, spends more money on campaign contributions, puts more money into bought-and-paid-for experts and think tanks so that nothing will change. It’s like you talk about hardening between right and left. That’s not the hardening. The part that’s happening is it’s hardening between the top and the bottom.
When I was a girl, you had a better than 50/50 chance of doing better than your parents. Today, that seems to be slipping under a 1-in-10 chance. Opportunity is shifting away from not just the poor kids. It’s shifting away from everybody who’s not born into the top. And sure, a few people roll the dice and make it big and we should celebrate that, but it’s like this fundamental question of who we’re going to be as a country. And yeah, I do fight for a lot of things. I fight for a big vision, but if we don’t start there, if we start by compromising, if we start by saying, “Hey, everybody line up. We’re going to knock 2 cents off your student loan debt,” who’s showing up for that? [The tension between incremental and transformative change has been a feature of the 2020 campaign. Obama, for instance, weighed in to say that the typical American “doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system,” an implicit critique of Warren’s and Sanders’ campaigns.]
NF : How do you deal with the fact that while people might want big change, they’re also afraid of it?
NF : In the last month or so, your — I know you don’t poll, but others do, and your poll numbers have gone down, and it seems to coincide with your major rollout of your health plan and the attacks you’ve gotten, basically painting you as extremist, going too far, both from Wall Street, from other candidates and elsewhere. And I’m wondering if that’s because people are afraid of what you’re proposing as much as others might like it?
EW: I don’t know anybody who’s afraid of the 2-cent wealth tax who isn’t already a billionaire.
NF : Why would you think, why is that ——
EW: No, but I think this is important.
NF : OK .
EW: OK? And I have seen the billionaire go on TV and cry about it.
NF : But it’s also about the “Medicare for all” plan.
EW: But that is the specific, right? This is the place where Democrats have fired on Democrats about how we’re going to do health care. And I’ll make two pitches on that. One is I think the best way we’re going to do health care — this is just what I believe — is you do what you can to bring down costs. You got a little success on the table. It’s a lot of success. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars of success. You’ve got that on the table. You start to offer people what’s possible.
You do what you can with 50 votes to offer people what’s possible. And then when lots of people get experience with it and they say, “I like this, this works for me,” then we vote on it and everybody gets better off and gets to try it. I think that’s what’s going to happen on “Medicare for all.” In fact, I think that is the way that we can solve our health care problems.
But I get it. There are right now, Democrats against Democrats on this. But understand this, we’ll get into a general election. [“Medicare for all” has created deep divisions on the left, particularly over questions like: How much would it really cost? Is Warren’s plan for raising the money for it progressive enough? Is it politically prudent to debate the issue now?] Oh, I know what the insurance industry will want to do. I know what Donald Trump will want to do. But the truth is we’re going to have the party who tried to take away health care from 35 million Americans, said it was OK to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions and is continuing to follow that right now, both in their lawsuits and in their agency practices, and millions of people have lost their health care.
We’re going to have that party who lost a bunch of seats on that in 2018 versus a party that we argue with each other about the best way to try to make sure that people get health care coverage, but at least we’re trying to move in that direction. And this is a salient, personal, human fact. Your health care, your housing, getting your kids educated, getting your kids taken care of in child care. Every single one of those, I like where we are. I like where I am in this fight because I think it’s the right fight to have and I think we must be in this fight. We cannot take a pass on this.
And I know it’s tough between here and there. I was in a very tough primary back in 2012 and I wasn’t in any primary at all in 2018, so those are my two electoral experiences. [In 2012, Massachusetts Democrats, worried about a tough fight against Republican Sen. Scott Brown, coalesced around Warren, knocking her only primary challenger, an immigration attorney, Marisa DeFranco, off the ballot. “Winning in November is more important to Democrats than standing behind one woman who wanted to challenge another one for the right to run for U.S. Senate,” Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote at the time. Whether Warren could beat Brown, the incumbent, was more of a tossup, though by late summer 2012 most polls had her ahead.]
And so when somebody — when I was first thinking about running for president, somebody said to me, “Primaries are hard. You’ve never been in one and they’re hard, because the people you think are going to be your friends turn out not to be your friends.” And —
BS : Among other things. [LAUGHTER]
EW: Among other things, right? And it’s why though I’ve tried so hard for 11 months and four days now to talk about the vision of what we can actually do and to try to make it real. Not vision in a — I’m not really a big, you know, talk about this in soaring terms. But in real terms, a 2-cent wealth tax. [Critics of the wealth tax point out that only four European countries now have one, down from 12 in 1990. In France, the wealth tax triggered an exodus of the ultrarich and didn’t raise as much revenue as anticipated.]
Think of what that means. Do — you know that the top — just one quick — one number. I’ve resisted numbers while I’m in here. The 99% America pays 7.2% of your total income in taxes. Not total income. Total wealth. The top 1/10th of 1 percent, the part I want to hit with a 2-cent wealth tax, 3.2% — 3.2%. They have wealth managers who are managing these huge funds that are growing at what rate? Six percent a year, 8% a year, 10% a year?
KK : Eight percent on average.
EW: Exactly. A 2-cent wealth tax just means if you don’t lift a finger, your fortune only grows at 4%, 6%, 8%. And yet how many people in this country who are so sophisticated and knowledgeable — right — say you could never get a wealth tax because the billionaires and millionaires won’t let it happen? Well, what the hell? This is a democracy.
In a democracy, how is it that they have so much political influence that 1/10th of 1% can say, I rather your kid have to deal with $50,000 in student loan debt, and I’d rather you never get a chance to get a child into day care, which means you either piece stuff together in crazy ways or quit your job. And I’d rather your public schools still have tiles falling out of the ceiling and textbooks that are 11 years old than that the top 1/10th of 1% has to pitch in 2 cents.
These are the fights we need to have. These are the fights we should be bringing forward. We don’t bring those fights forward. We — oh, well, we could — around the edge a little bit. Then we’re just going to be the ones who stood by while America became fundamentally a country that lost even a hope that all the kids would have opportunity. That we just extinguish that and say, “Nope. Better be born into it, because that’s the only way to make it in America.” That’s not the America I want to see.
I am in this fight because my daddy ended up as a janitor. I got my big chance at a commuter college that cost $50 a semester, because a bunch of taxpayers had invested in that college. That opportunity is not there today. That same college costs $15,000 now. Kids have to load up on debt to go there today. That’s not expanding opportunity in this country. We’ve got a choice to make as a nation and the good news about 2020, the door has opened just a crack, that all the things that have been broken for so long, Donald Trump has made so much worse and gotten so many people off the sidelines, we actually have a chance. Not just to nibble, but to make big change.
KK : OK, Kristen’s going to kill me, but thank you so much for coming.
EW: Thank you for having me.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .