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Candidate Elizabeth Warren is a radical wonk

Candidate Elizabeth Warren is a radical wonk

June 14th, 2019 by Karl W. Smith/Bloomberg View in Opinion Columns

Elizabeth Warren is climbing in the polls, propelled in part by a flurry of policy proposals, each detailed in blog post by the candidate. Issued at regular intervals, covering everything from wealth taxes to child care to agriculture, her proposals are part of a smart strategy that has helped distinguish Warren in a crowded Democratic field.

They are more than that, though. They embody a new and potentially transformational approach to politics—one that represents not just an alternative to President Donald Trump, but a fundamental break with Barack Obama.

Warren describes her vision as "big, structural change," but if anything she is understating the case. In the past several presidential campaigns, Americans have been told that they face a choice of historic importance. Republicans said it was between socialism and capitalism; Democrats said it was between a diverse, cosmopolitan society and a closed ethno-nationalist one.

These frames emerged from a genuine anxiety about social and economic change. Yet neither defined an actual path forward. Warren, in contrast, is offering a vision of a government that is at once more responsive and more intrusive.

Consider Warren's plan to cancel student loan debt and make college free. It would spend $640 billion to eliminate the outstanding debt of nearly 34 million Americans and reduce the debt of 9 million more. It would then allocate $600 billion over 10 years not only to make college tuition free but to fund room and board for students from low-income and middle-class families.

In this and other proposals, Warren is laying out her vision for America. It sounds exactly like what a presidential candidate is supposed to do, and in many ways it is. The problem, however, is this: As American politics are increasingly polarized, and as that polarization is increasingly focused on the president, the inherent limits of the office are being overlooked.

Presidents always claim a mandate from the voters for their policy ideas. But turning them into law means getting the approval of Congress, where they are subject to the idiosyncratic preferences and agendas of high-ranking senators and representatives.

This used to be a bipartisan process, but it hasn't been for a while. Recall that Obama, although he campaigned on health care, at first ceded the issue to Congress and resisted associating himself too closely with the Affordable Care Act, hoping that a legislative consensus would emerge. When partisan polarization made that impossible, he and his fellow Democrats eventually embraced the term "Obamacare," which was first used derisively by Republicans.

Trump, meanwhile, has bold ambitions but only a vague sense of how to achieve them. Nonetheless, there is no doubt he controls the party. Hyper-polarization means that even Republicans who have doubts about Trump's agenda are forced to at least superficially embrace it or face a backlash from party voters.

What does all this have to do with Warren? Well, she has Trump's penchant for bold ideas that go beyond party orthodoxy, and Obama's focus on detail. The combination could energize her supporters and opponents in ways that makes the politics of the recent past look positively tame.

Elizabeth Warren isn't to blame for the harsh polarization that afflicts national politics. Nevertheless, the sheer scope and detail of her proposals would bring that divisiveness and acrimony into more aspects of American life.

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