Elizabeth Warren is running the year's most substantive campaign. What does that say about everyone else?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The way a lot of my colleagues in the media have been talking about her, Elizabeth Warren is running for president in a way that’s different from anyone else who has ever run for president, or at least since the printing press came along.

First she sits down and imagines that she actually is president, and considers a problem the country might face, and comes up with some kind of proposed solution for it. It’s like, I don’t know … a policy.

Then she makes sure to write this policy down on whatever paper might be available, so there’s a record. And then she actually publishes her idea, so people can read about it.

Apparently no one’s ever explored this political terrain before. Warren’s pretty much the Vasco da Gama of presidential candidates.

You think I’m exaggerating? Well, I am, but go do a Google search for “Elizabeth Warren has a plan,” and see how many awestruck articles pop up (a lot of them written by the same people who berated Hillary Clinton for running on a “laundry list” of boring proposals).

Or check out this absolutely stunning column by the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo, which begins by telling us flatly that “Elizabeth Warren is running ... the most impressive campaign within my lifetime.”

Which is a totally defensible statement, I guess, if you’re 18. Those of us who are old enough to have covered a bunch of campaigns might remember a time, not very long ago at all, when carting around a book full of ambitious and reasonably detailed policies was considered a threshold requirement, especially for a Democrat.

You could go back to Bill Clinton’s Putting People First in 1992 (which itself was less visionary than the “New Covenant” speeches Clinton delivered before he ran, or than the plan that Paul Tsongas, his rival in the Democratic primaries, had run on).

Or you could go back four years earlier, to Gary Hart’s Strategic Investment Initiative and his trilogy of lectures on post-Cold War foreign policy, which make Warren’s Medium posts look like the side of a cereal box.

As recently as 2000, in the first Democratic primary campaign I covered, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were issuing competing, substantive plans every couple of weeks on issues like health care, gun control and Social Security. (Remember the “lockbox”?)

Hell, even John Edwards, running in 2004, published an entire hardback collection of dense essays on eradicating poverty (including contributions from then-Professor Elizabeth Warren). And believe me, Edwards was nobody’s idea of a once-in-a-generation intellect.

But you know, all of that came before the tide of social media and instant celebrity washed over our politics, taking with it any idea too complicated to be summarized in a tweet, along with the memory of any candidate who passed through our consciousness before the advent of the selfie stick.

Not only is Warren’s approach not especially new, but it’s not all that bold, either. As I wrote a few months ago, there’s really nothing courageous about telling the activists in your party everything they want to hear, with not even a nod at making any hard choices, or at setting difficult priorities, or at challenging a single tenet of liberal orthodoxy.

In fact, so busy are the new legion of commentators venerating Warren for her substantive campaign that they have little time to scrutinize the substance of any of it.

Warren has, in fact, offered some transformational ideas for her hypothetical presidency, like smashing apart tech companies, levying a surtax on the super-wealthy and creating a government-financed network of childcare centers.

All of her brainy ideas, however, come down to the same not-so-complex approach. In every case, Warren gravitates toward massive government investment and regulation.

Her faith in Washington, despite her repeatedly maligning the place, appears to be boundless; there is no problem in the society that she thinks can’t be fixed by setting aside a mountain of public money and creating a new agency to spend it.

That’s certainly an approach worth debating, but by no means is it self-evidently enlightened. We’ve had enough experience over the last half century or so to know that well-intended government intervention doesn’t always turn out the way you hoped. (Go visit a giant housing project, if you can find one still standing.)

And implementing even half of Warren’s agenda would almost certainly exacerbate a looming, long-term budget crisis that can’t possibly be fixed by squeezing millionaires alone.

But look: It’s not Warren’s fault that the media treats her well-crafted white papers as if they contained the solution to a unified field theory. She’s just doing what you’re supposed to do when you run for president, which is to offer some larger argument for what government ought to look like.

What makes Warren’s contribution to this point so notable, and what’s really staggering about this year’s nascent primary campaign, is how little any of the other candidates running seem to have thought about any of this at all.

I don’t know how to account for this, really, or what it says about the moment. There are talented Democrats in the field, and yet you get the feeling that pretty much all of them, with the exception of Warren, started thinking about their potential presidencies about 10 minutes before they announced they were running.

All the dinosaur Democrats I mentioned before — Hart, Clinton, Bradley — reflected on a governing plan for years before a campaign, the same way Warren has. But none of them had the advantage of running against candidates who seemed to think slogans and personalities were all that mattered.

While Warren was posting her utopian agenda on Medium, Beto O’Rourke was keeping a travelogue of his beer-drinking forays through small-town America. While Warren’s website lays out the socialist dream in dense paragraphs, Bernie Sanders posts a bunch of utopian bumper stickers that any intern could have cobbled together.

The guy who’s lately been mounting the most spirited rebuttal of Warren’s ideological argument, the former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, opened his campaign unable to answer the basic question of whether he was a capitalist or not.

Let me use an automotive metaphor here. Let’s say you went to buy a fancy sports car, and you stopped into a bunch of dealerships, but for whatever reason, none of the cars came with an engine. And then you went to, I don’t know, the Alfa Romeo dealer, and his car had a turbocharged four-cylinder that could get you up to 280 horses.

Of course you’d be blown away. But really, the only thing that makes the Alfa Romeo stand out so much in this scenario is that it has the thing every sports car is supposed to have in the first place.

Let’s leave aside the fact that anyone who can afford an Alfa Romeo will be publicly flogged in Warren’s America. The point here is that she’s the only candidate who seems to have bothered including something as basic as an engine in the chassis of her campaign.

The rest of the field is just sitting on the lot, looking all shiny and wondering why they’re not going anywhere.

Maybe all these Democrats have just decided that philosophies and agendas can’t possibly matter in a country that elected Donald Trump. Maybe they’re right.

What I know is that Elizabeth Warren isn’t running the most impressive campaign of my lifetime, or even of the last 20 years.

What she’s running is the most impressive race so far this year, and that’s really not saying much.


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