Michelle Goldberg: The case for Elizabeth Warren

On Tuesday night, after the latest Democratic debate, Ann Coulter tweeted, “Sen. Warren has convinced me that Bernie isn’t that worrisome. He’ll never get anything done. SHE’S the freak who will show up with 17 idiotic plans every day and keep everyone up until it gets done.” Vicious reactionary that she is, Coulter cut to the heart of Elizabeth Warren’s promise.

Warren has an almost supernatural ability to identify problems before anyone else, and to work relentlessly to solve them. Of all the Democratic candidates, she would make the most effective president. (Full disclosure: My husband, a graphic designer and creative director, works as a consultant for her.)

In 2007, Warren, then a Harvard law professor, wrote an article in the journal Democracy calling for the creation of what she called a Financial Product Safety Commission. “It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house,” she wrote. “But it is possible to finance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.” This was before a cascade of mortgage failures set off the financial crisis, which she foresaw.

Warren realized that complexity was being weaponized against consumers, pointing out that a typical credit card contract had grown from one page in the 1980s to more than 30 pages two decades later. Ordinary people didn’t have the bandwidth to understand the terms they were agreeing to, allowing lenders to fleece them.

Four years later her brainchild, now called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was a reality. It’s no small thing for someone who had little direct government experience to single-handedly spearhead the creation of a new agency. The CFPB has since provided $12.4 billion in relief to 31 million consumers.

I was one of them. As I’ve written before, I turned to the CFPB after discovering that my bank had enrolled me, without my knowledge, in a dubious program that purported to protect users’ credit. The bank had been fined $700 million in connection with it, but that didn’t get me my money back. So I went to the CFPB website, where I filled out a simple form. A few weeks later, my bank notified me that I was being refunded more than $11,000.

That experience is part of why my husband signed up to consult with Warren. (To design her logo, he went to the Statue of Liberty to find the precise color of green.)

What amazed me about the CFPB was its seamlessness. As Will Wilkinson has written, Warren’s agenda, with its blizzard of plans and calls for “big structural change,” has been painted as “contentiously ideological and bureaucratically suffocating.” This perception is upside down. Warren’s genius is using the regulatory process to make it simple for ordinary people to stand up to financial behemoths. She knows how excessive bureaucracy can be a tool of domination, and how to defend people from it.

Even if a Democrat wins the presidency in November, Democrats won’t be able to pass significant legislation unless they both take the Senate and eliminate the filibuster. That will make Warren’s mastery of the levers of executive power particularly important. As a senator, she was known for zeroing in on seemingly obscure appointments, understanding how, say, having the wrong person as an undersecretary for domestic finance could translate into real-world suffering. She has plans to use executive action to address problems like student loan debt and prescription drug prices.

Warren also has the most inspirational personal story of any of the contenders. The daughter of a maintenance man, she dropped out of college to get married, then returned to school to become a special ed teacher. When she lost her job after getting pregnant, she went to law school and soared to the top of her field. Many candidates would present such an extraordinary rise as evidence of unique personal grit, but Warren sees it as a parable about how good government policy can enable social mobility.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, she doesn’t carry the electoral albatross of socialism; she wants to purify capitalism of stifling corruption so it works as it should. Not for nothing is her dog, Bailey, named after the virtuous small-town banker played by Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Under Trump, U.S. government has become a squalid orgy of self-dealing. There is not a person on earth better suited to clean it up than Warren. If this were a Jimmy Stewart movie, she’d come from behind to win the nomination. Right now that possibility looks remote, but as long as she’s still in the race and most of America hasn’t voted, it’s not too late for the nightmare of the Trump era to give way to a Hollywood ending.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.