Donald Trump doesn’t like Elizabeth Warren, so in standard Trump fashion he’s honed an attack. “Goofy Elizabeth Warren has been one of the least effective senators in the entire US Senate. She has done nothing!” Trump tweeted on May 11. Like so many Trump attacks, this one is wrong and may even be his wrongest.
Though it was largely overlooked, last week brought news that illustrates how and why Warren actually has been one of the most effective members of the Senate. Trump’s missing it is no shock — he’s hardly a student of legislative procedure. On the other hand, Warren’s effectiveness often can’t be measured by standard markers of success, such as the passage of a new law. Last week was a case in point.
On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a speech in Elkhart, Ind., in which he declared, “It is time we finally made Social Security more generous and increase the benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement they have earned.” This was a major reversal. A few years ago, Obama wanted to cut Social Security as part of a “grand bargain” with Republicans to reduce the deficit. Some Democrats objected. Most were willing to go along. But the idea of expanding Social Security wasn’t even part of mainstream discourse.
Soon after Warren arrived in the Senate, in January 2013, she told some liberal activists of her interest in little-noticed expansion bills from Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Mark Begich of Alaska. Liberal groups organized a push to popularize the idea beyond just these two senators. “We’d poured so much energy into fighting cuts,” says Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “But when the debate is cutting versus leaving it alone, the best we’ll ever get is nothing.”
That November, Warren gave a speech in the Senate touting Social Security expansion. She was the seventh senator to endorse the idea. But because of her celebrity, and her flair for presenting liberal policy as plain common sense, she drew a furious response that earlier efforts hadn’t occasioned. The centrist Democratic group Third Way attacked her proposal as “reckless.” This assault on Warren by “corporate” Democrats galvanized the party’s left wing. Suddenly, Democrats were debating expansion. It had moved into the mainstream.
Last March, Warren introduced an amendment expanding Social Security to a Senate budget resolution. It failed, since Republicans have a Senate majority. But it forced Democrats to vote on expansion, and 42 voted “yes.”
Among those voting “yes” was Bernie Sanders, who launched his presidential campaign a week later. Expansion became one of the issues dividing the liberal Vermont senator from the centrist Hillary Clinton, who didn’t support it. As Sanders’ campaign caught fire, pressure on Clinton intensified. A few days before his blowout win in New Hampshire, he called on Clinton to “loudly and clearly” renounce Social Security cuts. Finally, she did.
By April, Clinton had co-opted the idea. “We should expand Social Security, not cut or privatize it,” she announced on the night she won the Pennsylvania primary. It was now certain that the next Democratic nominee would favor expansion. Obama’s speech last week ratified this as the formal position of the Democratic Party.
Contra Trump, getting a president, and a party, to reverse position on such a big issue is clear evidence of effectiveness. “When Warren joined the fight, she elevated the fight,” says Green. “There were trajectory-changing moments thanks to her.”
Imagine if cable networks covered policy shifts to improve living standards for millions of Americans the way they cover Trump: CNN would be wall-to-wall Warren and Sanders; Fox News would discover a threat greater than Hillary. Trump himself might get on board — he already opposes Social Security cuts.
This is not, of course, how cable news covers politics. And that’s probably why Trump doesn’t grasp the extent of Warren’s influence. Both can command media attention anytime they like. But only one has changed what her party is fighting for.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.