It’s early, but this much is true: Elizabeth Warren is running the most impressive presidential campaign in ages, certainly the most impressive campaign within my lifetime.
I don’t mean that the Massachusetts senator is a better speaker than anyone who has ever run, nor a more strident revolutionary, nor as charismatic a shaper of her public image. It’s not even that she has better ideas than her opponents, though on a range of issues she certainly does.
I’m impressed instead by something more simple and elemental: Warren actually has ideas. She has grand, detailed and daring ideas, and through these ideas she is single-handedly elevating the already endless slog of the 2020 presidential campaign into something weightier and more interesting than what it might otherwise have been: a frivolous contest about who hates Donald Trump most.
Warren’s approach is ambitious and unconventional. She is betting on depth in a shallow, tweet-driven world. By offering so much honest detail so early, she risks turning off key constituencies, alienating donors and muddying the gauzy visionary branding that is the fuel for so much early horse-race coverage. It’s worth noting that it took Warren months of campaigning and reams of policy proposals to earn her a spot on the cover of Time Magazine. Meanwhile, because they match the culture’s Aaron Sorkinian picture of what a smart progressive looks like, Beto and Buttigieg — whose policy depth can be measured in tossed-off paragraphs — are awarded fawning coverage just for showing up male.
Yet, deliciously, Warren’s substantive approach is yielding results. Her plans are so voluminous that they’ve become their own meme. She’s been rising like a rocket in the polls, and is finally earning the kind of media coverage that was initially bestowed on many less-deserving men in the race. Warren’s policy ideas are now even beginning to create their own political weather. Following her early, bold call to break up big technology companies, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are dividing up responsibilities on policing tech giants, and lawmakers in the House are planning a sweeping inquiry into tech dominance. Warren’s Democratic opponents are now rushing to respond with their own deep policy ideas; Joe Biden’s staff seems to be pulling all-nighters, cutting and pasting from whatever looks good, to match Warren’s policy shop.
You might think I’m getting too giddy here. You might argue that policy ideas, especially at this stage of the game, don’t really matter — either because the public doesn’t care about substance, or because it’s unlikely that any president can get what she wants through a partisan, rigid Congress, so all these plans are a mere academic exercise. Or you may simply not like what you’ve heard of Warren’s ideas.
Still, do me a favor. Whatever your politics, pull out your phone, pour yourself a cup of tea, and set aside an hour to at least read Warren’s plans. You’ll see that on just about every grave threat facing Americans today, she offers a plausible theory of the problem and a creative and comprehensive vision for how to address it.
This week, she unveiled a $2 trillion plan that combines industrial policy, foreign policy and federal procurement to tackle the existential threat of climate change. She also has a plan for housing affordability, for child care affordability, and for student debt and the crushing costs of college. She knows what she wants to do to stem opioid deaths and to address maternal mortality. She has an entire wing of policy devoted to corporate malfeasance — she wants to jail lawbreaking executives, to undo the corporate influence that shapes military procurement, and to end the scandal of highly profitable corporations paying no federal taxes. And she has a plan to pay for much on this list, which might otherwise seem like a grab-bag of expensive lefty dreams: She’ll tax ultra-millionaires and billionaires — the wealthiest 75,000 American households — yielding $2.75 trillion over 10 years, enough to finance a wholesale reformation of the American dream.
But then, in the discussion that followed, I realized what a service Warren had done, even if I disagreed with her precise approach. For months, commentators had been debating the generalities of policing tech. Now a politician had put forward a detailed plan for how to do so, sparking an intense policy discussion that was breaking new analytical ground. For a moment, it almost felt like I was living in a country where adults discuss important issues seriously. Wouldn’t that be a nice country to live in?
This race could have been about so much less. These days, all politics seem to narrow upon the orange pate of a single narcissistic man, and some Democrats have been keen to keep pounding that drum. To paraphrase a famous quip, there are only three things Joe Biden mentions in a sentence: A noun, a verb, and Donald Trump.
The only way to liberate ourselves from Trumpism is through politics that rise above Trumpian silliness. For that, for now, we have Elizabeth Warren to thank.
Office Hours With Farhad Manjoo
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