NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A lternate history is fascinating to many. The often seemingly arbitrary procession of events that leads up to the present offers endless possibilities for wondering about “if it had happened otherwise,” to borrow the title of one such collection of counterfactual eventualities. Some imagine darker outcomes, such as what might have followed Confederate victory in the Civil War or Axis victory in World War II. Others posit how bad events could have turned out better, such as if the Titanic had had more lifeboats.
The preferred alternate reality of Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein is one in which Elizabeth Warren is in charge. Promoting an interview he conducted with the Massachusetts senator and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, Klein called it “a strange, slightly melancholy experience: like glimpsing an alternate reality where political leadership is proportionate to the crisis we’re facing.”
Klein’s basis for Warren’s exemplary leadership is . . . her plans. “In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first presidential candidate to release a plan for combating coronavirus,” Klein writes. “In March, she released a second plan. Days later, with the scale of economic damage increasing, she released a third.” Forget that, if one actually looks at the first plan, which would theoretically supply the best case for Warren’s managerial prescience, its practical advice — stockpiling medical supplies — is far outweighed by calls to enact and/or increase spending for longstanding Democratic priorities, such as Medicare for All and climate change, conveniently yet unconvincingly transformed into coronavirus mitigators. In this, one hears as a distant echo the refrain that once animated Warren’s presidential campaign: “I’ve got a plan for that.” Warren thoroughly embraced the technocratic posture (to the point of producing campaign gear emphasizing it) that a few properly formatted white papers would usher America into a Nirvana of ideal political outcomes — provided, of course, that she was in charge, and imbued with the presidency’s apparently mystical powers of perfect legislating and vanquishing political opposition.
Alas, Warren’s plan for winning the Democratic nomination had an inconvenient flaw: It didn’t work, failing to win her any state, including the one she represents in the Senate. Though once riding high, Warren was laid low, in part, by a simple critique from then-rival Pete Buttigieg. Warren had insisted that it would be possible to have Medicare for All, a universal-health-care proposal popular among some Democrats, without middle-class tax increases. Senator Bernie Sanders, another primary rival, also supported Medicare for All but admitted that it would require such taxes. Warren’s version didn’t add up, and Buttigieg knew it. “Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” he said. National Review‘s own John McCormack explained what happened next:
In the days that followed, she released a plan to fund her single-payer health-care proposal. Many critics pointed out that, even with drastic tax hikes, the numbers still didn’t add up. This put her in a bind: She didn’t want to bleed any more of her relatively moderate supporters to Buttigieg, and she realized she couldn’t get to the left of the avowedly socialist Sanders. In mid-November, she retreated on Medicare for All, pledging that she wouldn’t push the matter during her first two years in office, the time when a president typically has the most political capital to spend. By the end of the month, half of her supporters nationwide had abandoned her.
And so Warren must settle for being interviewed by Klein, and Klein must settle for imagining that Warren is in charge.
But Warren is, in a sense, in charge. She may not be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, yet this position in itself could have offered her actual political power no sooner than January 21, 2021, the day of the next presidential inauguration, making one wonder when, exactly, in Klein’s hypothetical, Warren would have become president to defeat the present threat of the coronavirus. Klein may also be surprised to discover that there are other sources of political power in the United States besides the office of the presidency — and that Warren is no mere helpless bystander, capable only of commenting on things and not acting. Nor will it do simply to take to the pages of the New York Times to announce that she alone has the plan to fight the pandemic. She remains a member of the U.S. Senate, wielding power in what the Constitution designed to be the most powerful branch of government, albeit a deliberative one that doesn’t simply bow to declarations of singular expertise. Klein need not imagine an alternate universe in which Warren has power; she has some right now.
She had it during the recent congressional debate over relief to compensate for the economic effects of COVID-19. During this period, she frustrated negotiations with attempts to insert all manner of conditions and provisions in the aid that pertained not to the crisis at hand but to items long on her agenda: expanding Social Security, canceling student-loan debt, and mandating that businesses receiving such aid be prohibited from stock buybacks and eventually establish a $15-per-hour minimum wage, among other things.
Warren surely believes these proposals are valid. She is welcome to advocate them in the course of ordinary politics. But it is interesting to see her complain, in conversation with Klein, that President Trump’s coronavirus response has been inadequate because with him “it’s all politics all the time” and that “the reason we didn’t have testing early on was plain old politics. Donald Trump didn’t want to see those numbers.” Trump’s response to the coronavirus has indeed been seriously flawed. But what was Warren’s attempt to direct the coronavirus relief bill toward her political priorities but “politics”? Does Klein consider this “political leadership . . . proportionate to the crisis we’re facing”?
The recent actual conduct of Elizabeth Warren in public life does not inspire much confidence in her ability to rise to the occasion of an emergency. As a presidential candidate, she issued plans, yes. But they were often wish lists: She gave little thought to their practicality and sometimes resorted to obfuscation in their defense. As a senator, she has shown an inability to disregard personal political gain and to respond appropriately to an emergency, instead comforting herself with the fiction that what she has always wanted just happens to be the right response, and insulating herself from criticism with familiar but empty appeals to supposedly unbiased expertise. Maybe there’s a more responsible Elizabeth Warren in some alternate reality. But not in this one.