Two months ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential hopes appeared to be fading. The Massachusetts Democrat’s poll numbers were stuck in the mid-single digits, placing her fourth or fifth among Democratic candidates. After swearing off high-dollar fundraisers, she had brought in less money in the first quarter than South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a relative unknown who was still building a national profile. Media coverage of Warren’s campaign focused less on her bold ideas than her perceived lack of “electability.” Summing up the conventional wisdom, one CNN headline proclaimed, “Why is Elizabeth Warren struggling? Democrats aren’t looking for policy.”
Yet, to borrow a phrase, Warren persisted. And with the first debate quickly approaching, she has jumped in the polls and emerged as the clear leader in the Democratic “ideas primary.”
Last week, Warren unveiled a sweeping new plan for what she calls “economic patriotism.” Her proposal calls for $2 trillion investment in clean energy, which she says would create more than a million jobs and advance the goals of the Green New Deal. In a boost to workers, the plan would require federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage and offer 12 weeks of paid family leave. It would also convert the Commerce Department into a new Department of Economic Development, focused on job creation. By linking the causes of environmental and economic justice in one package, Warren is reimagining the American Dream for these times.
This deeply thoughtful and ambitious approach to policy has fueled Warren’s rise in the polls and spawned her unofficial (and highly memeable) campaign slogan, “I have a plan for that.” Just consider the range of issues on which Warren has not only offered a detailed policy but also influenced the terms of the debate. She has a plan to establish a universal child-care program that would relieve the burden on families and, importantly, raise caregivers’ pay. She has a plan to cancel the student debt of millions of Americans, staking out an even more aggressive position on the issue than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Warren even has a plan to pay for her other plans with a wealth tax on the richest 0.1 percent of Americans.
On the stump, Warren has shown an ability to effectively connect these proposals to her own experiences, from the threat of losing her house as a child to her struggle to find affordable child care as a young mother. Meanwhile, she has rolled out several plans in shrewdly chosen locations. Warren introduced her $100 billion plan to address the opioid crisis ahead of a visit to West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths. And she announced her plan to break up big tech companies ahead of a visit to Long Island City, N.Y., where Amazon intended to build its new campus before a backlash from local activists caused the company to reverse course.
What truly distinguishes Warren, however, is that her ideas add up to a bold and coherent vision for the future. In contrast with former vice president Joe Biden, who has said that President Trump is a historical “aberration,” Warren grasps how systemic corruption, which took root over the course of many years, created the conditions for Trump’s election. (For example, she has introduced anti-corruption legislation in the Senate to “padlock the revolving door between big business and government.”) And she’s offering a powerful, populist vision for ending American plutocracy.
That vision is clearly resonating with voters. Today, the candidate with supposed “electability issues” is drawing large, energetic crowds. While she remains behind Biden and Sanders, she is gaining in the polls and earning respect from people Democrats lost, either to Trump or to apathy, in 2016. A recent focus group of Trump voters in Iowa showed strong support for Warren’s policies, while a BlackPAC poll conducted in April found her in third place among black voters, with especially high favorables among those following the race closely. Far from being a divisive presence, as some predicted, Warren is showing how a bold, progressive agenda can be a unifying force.
Warren is certainly not the only Democrat in the field running on innovative, important ideas. Sanders, in particular, has built on his transformative 2016 campaign, with bolder proposals for public education and Medicare-for-all. One also hopes that Warren will show the same audacity and vision in foreign policy as the campaign continues. But no matter what happens, it’s now obvious that pundits who argued that Warren had missed her moment were wrong. The presidential race is better because she is in it.