What would Warren do?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will not be the next president of the United States, and that's a damn shame. Her brand of leadership is exactly what these disastrous, pandemic-afflicted times require.
But while she won't be ascending to the Oval Office, it's not too late for her to lead. Former Vice President Joe Biden would be wise to do whatever it takes to sign her up for his campaign and potential administration, and give her the job of helping guide the country's recovery from the coronavirus emergency. Because it's clear she is already preparing to help build a post-pandemic future.
Warren demonstrated as much Monday in a podcast interview with Vox's Ezra Klein, discussing how she would have handled the COVID-19 outbreak. Naturally, Warren issued a plan on how to deal with the pandemic way back in January, while she was still hustling on the campaign trail. While talking with Klein, she also outlined a vision for how to guide the country's recovery, both in economic and public health terms.
Some of what Warren offered matches what state governors have been begging the federal government to do — build up a stockpile of medical equipment and generate the capacity for widespread coronavirus testing to help Americans get back to work while focusing on battling the pandemic's hot spots. "The White House is just simply wrong on the notion that somehow the states can manage this on their own," Warren said. "We need a national response."
But the most interesting parts of Warren's coronavirus plans are forward-looking. The White House doesn't seem to have a plan for how to guide the country's recovery — President Trump is focused on lifting social distancing guidelines as soon as possible, suggesting the economy will restart itself and come "roaring back," even while economists seem to think otherwise.
So Warren proposes the government have a more direct hand in jump-starting the stalled economy, and address the larger problems that have been revealed by the economic shutdown. She told Klein she wants to eliminate student debt — which hinders economic growth by discouraging entrepreneurship and home ownership — while making housing more affordable and available, and rebuilding the country's infrastructure to prepare for the challenge of climate change.
"This is a chance to upgrade our energy grid, a chance to harden our infrastructure over time against coming climate change, to make a real investment in public transportation," she said. "And those have double economic advantages: They put a lot of people to work, but they also reassure markets and investors that we're going to build our way out of this depression."
It's true those proposals look a lot like what Warren was proposing before the pandemic. The situation, however, has shifted drastically.
For one thing, it is more clear now than it's been before that the country is in need of revolutionary change. The most essential people in this crisis — aside from doctors and nurses — have been warehouse workers, grocery store employees, and other low-paid workers, many of whom lack health insurance. They're risking their lives to keep the country running. Abandoning them to their fate when the pandemic is over would be a breach of faith. What's more, millions of suddenly unemployed Americans are discovering the fragility of both their economic circumstances and their country's safety net. They will demand better.
It is also apparent that the resources to meet those demands are available. Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were repeatedly pestered with "how will you pay for that?" questions throughout the campaign, but when the country suddenly needed an economic lifeline, Republicans and Democrats together delivered a $2 trillion stimulus bill in record time, and more is likely on the way.
And while voters gave Warren the cold shoulder, the pandemic has highlighted how her penchant for preparation and planning would be preferable to Trump's mix of magical thinking and hubris. Warren's plans often draw on scholarship and history. The president, meanwhile, keeps falsely insisting that "nobody could have predicted" the coronavirus emergency, and refuses to call on previous presidents for advice. Which approach do you think would be more helpful right now?
"The idea that somehow we're all going to be better off with a government that doesn't invest in science and in long-term planning has been shown not only to be wrong, but to be dangerous," Warren told Klein. "I think that what the election in 2020 is going to be about, in part, is people who want a government that is competent and that is on their side in planning for an uncertain future."
There will be no do-overs of the presidential primary process, even if that process has ended up a mess. If Warren is to contribute to helping America recover from the pandemic, it won't be from the Oval Office. If Biden becomes the Democratic Party's nominee, he would be smart to get Warren on his team as soon as possible. It makes sense on the merits, but it also offers political advantages: Partnering with Warren might bolster Biden's credibility with progressive Democrats who remain skeptical.
It is, of course, radically unfair to deny Warren — or any woman — the top job, then ask her to do the hard and essential work required by that job. We've heard that story too many times. But her country needs her desperately. And she appears ready to keep fighting for her ideas. Warren won't be president, but that doesn't have to be the end of the story. She still has plans, after all.
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