The Democratic primary season could be a chance to hash out big, forward-looking ideas.
A few years ago, when I was self-employed and had recently had my second child, my husband went combing through my credit card statements, looking for tax deductions that I’d missed. I’m financially disorganized at the best of times, and with a baby and a toddler, I was barely even trying to keep track of my business expenses. So it’s not surprising that I hadn’t noticed the hundreds of dollars of weird recurring bank charges that my husband discovered.
It turned out I’d been signed up for a dubious program that purported to protect users’ credit in certain emergency situations. My bank had been accused of fraudulent practices in connection with it and fined $700 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government agency that was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild. I tried, maddeningly, to seek redress from the bank — cycling through phone trees, screaming at automated operators. No one could tell me how I’d been enrolled in the program, or for how long.
Eventually, I turned to the CFPB itself, filling out a simple form on its website. A few weeks later, I was notified that the bank had been deducting money from my account for years, and I was being refunded more than $11,000. Having financed my own maternity leave, it was money that I badly needed.
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Republicans, who under President Donald Trump have been gutting the CFPB, have long decried the agency as an overweening bureaucracy. To me, it was an astonishingly user-friendly tool that cut through opaque corporate bureaucracy on my behalf. My experience with it shaped my perception of Warren as a brilliant policy innovator.
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Since then, my husband, who works at a digital strategy firm, has done work for Warren; he’s fully behind her presidential candidacy. I’m enthusiastic about it as well, but I also find myself excited by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that he’s considering a presidential run centered on the battle against climate change. Perhaps this is naive, but his entry could encourage a substantive argument about progressive priorities, one that transcends facile theater criticism, ideological purity tests or horse-race handicapping.
Inslee is far from a household name, but like Warren he has a record of policy successes. He’s a former congressman who led the Democratic Governors Association last year, when Democrats won seven new governorships. Under his leadership, Washington state has thrived: As he pointed out to me this week, it has the fastest job growth in the country. It has raised the minimum wage, invested in education and transportation and passed one of the country’s most generous paid family leave bills and most comprehensive voting rights legislation. The state, said Inslee, is “Exhibit A demonstrating why progressive economic policies grow your economy.”
If he runs for president, it will be with a single-minded focus on averting climate calamity, in part through an enormous investment in green jobs and infrastructure. “We have to have a mobilization of our nation’s energies and intellectual capability and entrepreneurial zeal equivalent to our other great challenges that we have met, including World War II and the Apollo Project,” he said. He added a line he’s repeated elsewhere: “This is the first generation who has felt the damage from climate change, and we are the last generation to be able to do something about it.”
Warren, of course, will also be good on climate, and she has endorsed the idea of a Green New Deal put forward by Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But her central focus is on economic inequality, corruption and mammoth corporate power.
Inslee dreams of uniting the country — including at least some of corporate America — against an existential external threat. “This is a moment where we can all be heroes, and all of us have a role to play in this heroic effort,” he said.
Warren is ready to lead a fight — a word she uses often — against the bloated, monopolistic ruling class inside our society. “America’s middle class is under attack,” she said in the video announcing the launch of her presidential exploratory committee. “How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie.”
Both of these visions are sweeping and progressive, but they seek to channel different energies toward different, if overlapping, goals. One is full of technocratic optimism. The other is populist and pugilistic. You can’t compare them using the frameworks — insider vs. outsider, head vs. heart — that usually dominate campaign reporting. Evaluating them will require Democrats to think hard about their highest aspirations, to decide what is most important to them, and most menacing.
Of course, there will be other candidates, other platforms, other conceptions of what the country is and could be. As the race goes on, strategic and process questions will come into play: Pundits will ponder whether candidates, particularly women candidates, are sufficiently likable and ask how they might appeal to swing voters while turning out the base. That part already feels exhausting, and it hasn’t even begun.
But the primary season could also, maybe, be a chance to hash out big, forward-looking ideas. Later on, Democrats will have to debate the path to 270 Electoral College votes. For now, there’s space to debate the path to a livable American future.