In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign expanded the boundaries of political possibility in the United States. Four years later, Sanders is a frontrunner—but it’s Elizabeth Warren who is setting the pace, not just for the Democratic primary, but for what the party itself should be about going forward.
Warren’s unveiling on Monday of a plan to make college tuition free and cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for households that make below $100,000, and a decreasing amount for those who make up to $250,000, is the clearest and most far-ranging proposal from a Democratic candidate thus far to tackle America’s $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. Warren’s plan, which would be funded through her proposal to levy a two percent tax on people who have over $50 million, purports to wipe out at least some student debt for 95 percent of people that have it, and completely wipe out the debt for more than three quarters of people holding that debt.
For all of Warren’s insistence that she’s a capitalist who loves markets, this is a perfect example of how wealth redistribution can make for a fairer, more economically just society.
Already, the plan is getting attacked from the right. The Washington Examiner argued that it’s “pandering from the an increasingly desperate politician,” and that it would be “tremendously unfair” to people struggling with student loan debt, who’ve already been paying the high costs of that debt for years. (As one of those people who has been paying those costs for years and is set to keep paying them until I’m well into my 50s, I think it would actually be extremely fair.)
You could obviously make the same argument for any expansion of the safety net—that it’s somehow inherently unfair to earlier generations to increase the quality of life for people who come after. Social Security? Unfair to old people whose retirement plans consisted of dying in a ditch somewhere off the highway.
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But disingenuous arguments from the right (and the center) aside, Warren—who has lagged in early polls behind much less capable opponents, like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg—is actively pursuing a platform that promises not just to transform American society, but American political structures as well. She’s been, by far, the most eager Democrat to buck traditions and norms, such as calling for the elimination of the Senate filibuster and the Electoral College, as well as expressing an openness to court-packing. Warren also became the first major candidate to call for impeaching Donald Trump last week.
She also, of course, has her own problems. Warren has historically not focused much on foreign policy at all and has sounded (at best) like your average Democrat when she does talk about it, although she has been a leading defender of Ilhan Omar. Her infamous DNA test wasn’t just poor optics, it was deeply offensive to many indigenous people. And Warren isn’t as married to the idea of Medicare for All as, well, anyone on the left should be.
But in other ways, she’s forcing her opponents to the left by pursuing this marriage of radical (by American standards) political reform with progressive policy. Look no further than this: Joe Biden, Wall Street’s best friend in Congress for 36 years, went to a picket line in Massachusetts last week to decry “bankers, Wall Street, and CEOs.”
It’s a role similar to the one Sanders played in 2016 and has continued to play in the years since, but now he’s the closest thing to a frontrunner that the field currently has. Warren is actively trying—and succeeding—in outflanking Sanders on the left, and it’s not just on issues like the filibuster; Sanders’ college plan, for example, is to eliminate tuition and fees for students whose family household income is up to $125,000, and his campaign site promises to “substantially lower student debt” and “significantly lower interest rates on student loans.” Warren’s plan, as things stand now, goes substantially further.
There are real differences between Warren and Sanders, of course, and what they’re focusing on in the campaign is an indication of what their priorities would be if they were in office; for Warren, it’s corruption and the banking system, and for Sanders, it’s healthcare and climate change. But if the two continue to pull each other—and the rest of the field—towards a more progressive position, that’s only good news for the left.