Elizabeth Warren's unwanted plans

Warren promised Democrats the world. Maybe that was the problem.

Elizabeth Warren.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren had a plan for everything.

She leaned hard into her chosen role as the wonkiest candidate of the 2020 Democratic primaries, even offering a "Warren has a plan for that" shirt in her campaign store. Her website's policy section, instead of bearing the usual "issues" or "agenda" moniker, was titled "plans." And there are 80 plans on there, by my count, organized into 10 masterplans with grand, ambitious names like "Build financial security for everyone" and "End Washington corruption and fix our democracy."

Warren promised Democratic voters the world — and maybe that was the problem. Maybe they didn't want her policy maximalism in an election when the bare minimum of ousting President Trump is the overwhelming concern.

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This isn't an argument about the popularity or soundness of Warren's ideas, nor is it as simple a preference for electability over issue agreement (though polling has shown about two in three Democrats prioritize electability over ideology this cycle).

I'm suggesting a dynamic more like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the pyramid model created by psychologist Abraham Maslow to explain how humans will prioritize filling our needs to survive and then flourish. At the base of the pyramid are universal physiological needs without which we die in short order: water, food, shelter, clothing, and sleep. Unless these needs are reliably satisfied, we typically won't move on to satisfying the next level in the hierarchy, which is safety, and so on up the pyramid through relationships, self-esteem, and the like. Generally, the higher-order needs only get significant attention if the lower ones are already in good shape.

Were we to construct a political pyramid of needs for Democratic voters in 2020, beating Trump is the base layer. And Warren talked about beating Trump, yes, but her plans were the lifeblood of her campaign. She promised to do 24 separate things on the first day of her presidency alone, more than any other leading Democratic candidate. On that single day, Warren said, she'd cancel student loan debt, increase the minimum wage for federal contractors, push to stop classifying freelancers, Uber drivers, and similar workers as contractors instead of employees, investigate racial disparities in student debt, investigate reports of racial discrimination in farming, investigate reports of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, racially diversify federal retirement fund investments, secure unspecified health-care policy changes, including protection for pre-existing conditions, ban fracking and drilling off-shore and on public land, stop all mining on public land, make unspecified "big, structural" economic changes, make unspecified "big, structural" voting changes, extend New START, end the travel ban, increase wages for women of color and foster their career opportunities, publish all Trump impeachment documents, restore Obama-era housing discrimination rules, rejoin the Paris Agreement, remove every Trump appointee except those whose absences would harm national security, investigate Trump administration corruption, fill all major staff positions, increase diversity in the executive branch with multiple demographic recruitment quotas, reverse Trump's policy on transgender troops, and lower prescription drug prices.


Even if you think literally all of that is right and necessary, it's obvious not all of the items are on the same level of needs. (Neither is it doable in one day. Smart candidates can jump the shark, too.) And given the choice between an issues-and-issues-and-issues-focused campaign or the stolid electability claim that undergirds former Vice President Joe Biden's entire run — or the ever-louder drumbeat of "Bernie beats Trump" coming from the Sanders camp — it seems clear which need Democratic primary voters chose to fill first.

This theory doesn't single-handedly explain Warren's fall, of course. Voters act on instinct and habit as much as — often, more than — political strategy and policy positions. Being the wonkiest candidate has never been a sure ticket to victory. Style matters, especially in this race. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed Warren did worst of the top five candidates with moderate and conservative Democrats (still, together, more than half the party) as well as those who are religiously active, unsurprising results given her dismissive approach to voters who disagree with her on culture war issues. And there's the ever-present question of sexism and electability: Democrats overwhelmingly say they personally want a woman to be president, but they aren't sure the country is ready for it. Sanders' alleged remark that a woman will find it more difficult to run against Trump is almost certainly true — and voters may be strategizing accordingly.

Yet whatever other factors were in play, Democratic primary voters' rejection of the plans candidate is telling. Thinking through Biden's Super Tuesday wins among black voters in the South, author and activist (and Warren supporter) Lisa Sharon Harper posited a similar theory of prioritization. "Super Tuesday clarified the one question facing our nation," she argued: "'What time is it?' Is it time for big change? Or is it time to stabilize the nation and rebuild in the direction of change?" Her answer is that for voters "terrified by the possibility of four more years of Trump," Warren's ambitious pile of plans felt like a dream to be set aside until the basics were handled.

If Harper is right and a Biden presidency returns us to the status quo, plans fans may take heart. After four years of Biden, our next election may well be a different time — a "time for big change," for moving up the needs pyramid, for giving a plans candidate a longer look.

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