Not long ago, political pundits were writing off Elizabeth Warren’s political chances, but recent polling makes her an increasingly plausible contender, and her comeback has been getting her a sudden wave of favorable media coverage.
Will she actually be the Democratic nominee? If so, will she win? I have absolutely no idea. Nor does anyone else.
But the political strategy powering her comeback is interesting. And I think many observers are missing a key reason her strategy seems to be working — namely, that her agenda is radical in content and implications, but well grounded in evidence and serious scholarship.
Normally, would-be presidential nominees campaign on some combination of personal narrative and soaring rhetoric promoting broad themes: “I’m a war hero/symbol of the American dream/longtime challenger of the Establishment, and as president I’ll bring us together/drain the swamp/fight the power.”
Warren, by contrast, has been rolling out substantive, detailed policy proposals — many, many substantive, detailed policy proposals. Traditional punditry says that this should be a turnoff, that voters’ eyes will just glaze over at the proliferation of white papers.
But Warren has managed to turn relentless wonkery into a defining aspect of her political persona. Supporters show up at her rallies wearing T-shirts that proclaim “Warren has a plan for that!” And she is, by all accounts, managing to make earnest policy discussion a way to connect with her audiences.
In a way, the closest parallel to the Warren phenomenon — although it’s one I hate to draw — was the temporary rise of Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House (remember him?). Like Warren, Ryan built himself up by cultivating an image as a smart policy wonk.
But even aside from the fact that Ryan’s basic agenda was to take from the poor and give to the rich, he was a phony, whose proposals didn’t add up and didn’t address real problems. Warren, by contrast, is the real deal. You don’t have to support the specifics of her plans to realize that they’re the product of hard thinking, drawing on the work of respected economic researchers.
In that case, however, why haven’t other presidential contenders been rolling out comparable plans? The answer, I’d suggest, is that Warren — herself a significant policy scholar — understood from the beginning something that other candidates are only beginning to grasp: The difference between being serious and being Serious.
What I mean by being Serious is buying into inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom — the kind of conventional wisdom that in 2011, with unemployment still catastrophically high and interest rates at historic lows, created an elite consensus that we should stop worrying about jobs and focus on … entitlement reform. What I mean by being serious is paying attention to actual evidence on the effects of economic and social programs.
What Warren gets is that serious analysis is a lot more favorable to a progressive agenda than Serious conventional wisdom, which is obsessed with keeping taxes low and restraining spending. Leading experts on the economics of taxation favor substantial increases in tax rates on high incomes and wealth. Top economists studying social spending argue that there are huge benefits to higher spending on early child care.
As a result, Warren has been able to lay out plans that are very progressive but also well grounded in evidence and analysis.
Do her rivals share her understanding that progressivism and solid intellectual foundations can go hand in hand? In the past, at least, Joe Biden was worryingly Serious; he was deeply involved in the Obama administration’s fortunately unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a budget Grand Bargain that would have slashed Social Security and Medicare, reflecting the Beltway’s obsession with entitlement cuts. It’s not yet clear whether he has moved on.
Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has never bought into the Beltway consensus, and he is clearly committed to a very ambitious agenda. But his policy specifics remain oddly vague. Most notably, we still have very little idea how he would pay for Medicare for All.
My guess is that this is in part because Sanders sees himself as being in a war with the Establishment very broadly defined. As a result, his policy team, such as it is, consists of people who devote a lot of energy to attacking mainstream policy research, leaving them unable and/or unwilling to incorporate its findings into specific policy proposals.
Now, none of this means that Warren will be the nominee. Many Democratic voters clearly prefer Biden’s affable conventionality, and many others share Sanders’ tear-the-whole-thing-down instincts. All we really know is that there turns out to be a significant constituency most pundits probably didn’t even realize was there: voters who want a significant policy move to the left, but also want a candidate who really seems to have thought things through.
We don’t yet know whether this constituency is big enough to be decisive in the Democratic primaries. But if it is, Warren has a plan for that.