2020 Vision Thursday: Warren and Biden once faced off in the 'bankruptcy wars,' a possible preview of tonight’s debate

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Wilfredo Lee/AP; Getty Images; Shutterstock)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one smart, fast takeaway every weekday and a deeper roundup every weekend. Reminder: There are 144 days until the Iowa caucuses and 418 days until the 2020 election.

Tonight, much will be made of the fact that Joe Biden, the longtime Democratic frontrunner, and Elizabeth Warren, his closest challenger in the polls, are meeting for the first time on the primary debate stage.

But a lot of people forget: This isn’t the first time they’ve debated.

For a preview of what might occur in Houston — Will Biden punch down at Warren? Will Warren try to topple Biden? What lines of attack will they use? — it’s worth reviewing how they faced each other back in 2005.

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, Warren, then a law professor at Harvard, shuttled back and forth between Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C., as a combatant in what she later called the “bankruptcy wars.” At stake was legislation that sought to address a dramatic rise in bankruptcy filings by making it harder for individuals to discharge their debts through bankruptcy, a goal that credit card companies had championed for years.

In her research, Warren found that the explosion of bankruptcy filings — more than a million families a year by the mid-90s — wasn’t being driven by reckless consumers seeking to escape their credit card balances. Instead it was the result of a fraying social safety net and a precipitous decline in the economic security of the American middle class.

So Warren opposed the bill. Her chief Democratic antagonist was Sen. Joe Biden, who represented Delaware, where the financial industry exercised enormous influence. Starting during Bill Clinton’s presidency and continuing well into the George W. Bush years, Biden fought as hard for the bankruptcy crackdown as Warren fought against it.

They finally met face-to-face on Feb. 10, 2005. Warren was the expert witness; Biden was the interrogator. In her books and op-eds, Warren had already criticized Biden for the bill’s disproportionate impact on women. But there, in the Hart Senate Office Building, their mutual animosity spilled out into the open.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Biden snapped after Warren cited the example of a woman who had borrowed $2,200 at high interest rates and after paying back $2,100 actually owed $2,600 at the time of her bankruptcy. “Your problem with credit card companies is usury rates from your position. It is not about the bankruptcy bill.”

“But, senator,” Warren replied, “if you are not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred of protection from these families.”

Biden grinned. “I got it,” he said sarcastically. “OK. You are very good, professor.”

Biden eventually prevailed. His bill passed later that year. But the fundamental difference between him and Warren on vivid display in 2005 is the same disagreement that divides them today. Biden believed then, as he believes now, that the best way a politician can help the middle class is by being “pragmatic,” as he told Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward while contrasting his approach with Warren’s in a 2015 interview — by brokering “common sense” compromises that advance the ball a few yards at a time. Warren’s view, on the other hand, is that incrementalists like Biden have done little to protect working Americans from sweeping shifts in the American economy — and the only way to really fight back is with “big, structural” reforms.

Whatever specific policy disagreements they might have tonight, the subtext will probably be some variation of that clash: Biden accusing Warren of thinking too big, and Warren protesting that Biden is thinking too small.

“The more expensive a plan is doesn’t make it more progressive,” a Biden adviser told CNN Tuesday. “Running for president is about making people’s lives better, and that only happens if the change proposed becomes reality.”

“We can't choose a candidate we don't believe in because we are scared,” Warren said last weekend in New Hampshire. “And we can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in.”

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