One of the much-anticipated features of this week’s Democratic presidential-candidate debate in Houston is the first direct encounter between two of the field’s Big Three: Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. And via CNN, Team Biden is letting it be known that its champion is going to go after the fiery yet wonky Massachusetts progressive on one of her favorite talking points:
Joe Biden is expected to use this week’s debate to argue Democrats should select a nominee who is able to offer “more than plans,” an adviser to the former vice-president says, previewing a potential line of attack against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign mantra is “I’ve got a plan for that …”
The Biden adviser said the campaign refuses to “accept that the bold, far-reaching change” proposed by Biden is “anything but progressive.”
“The more expensive a plan is doesn’t make it more progressive. Running for president is about making people’s lives better, and that only happens if the change proposed becomes reality,” the adviser said.
You know, I’m not sure Biden ought to go there. For all the scope and ambition associated with her “plans,” Warren has spent a good deal of time thinking about how to make those plans “reality.” In a long interview with Ezra Klein earlier this year, she talked extensively about how to use filibuster reform, an anti-corruption bill, a wealth tax, and executive actions to set the table for her broader legislative agenda with this insight being central:
I think this is one of the reasons to run on plans, because if I get elected on those plans, it gives me the capacity to turn around and say to my colleagues, “Hey, that’s what I ran on, that’s what the majority of the American people voted for, that’s what they got out and fought for. So as the Democratic Party, that’s what we got to do.”
Team Biden seems to equate “realism” with policy moderation. But unfortunately, his refusal (so far) to come to grips with the institutional constraints of the Senate, which he loves so much, given the obstructionist power of Mitch McConnell’s Republicans, whom he naïvely believes he can win over, makes him an exceptionally unrealistic candidate. As my colleague Jonathan Chait observed earlier this year when Biden defended the filibuster (after often speaking fondly of its most adept manipulators prior to McConnell, the southern segregationists), the former veep suffers from a debilitating disease he calls “Senatitis”:
Senatitis is an irrational reverence for the folkways and culture of the upper legislative chamber. Those afflicted believe that the Senate gathers together 100 of the finest statesmen in American life, or at least transforms ordinary politicians into such giants through its mystical traditions. To the extent they see any problems with the operations of their beloved chamber, it can only be ascribed to the corrupting effects of non-senatorial politics, and the solution is always to make American politics more senatorial. If you hear somebody unironically use the phrase “world’s greatest deliberative body,” you have located an acute sufferer …
[N]one of the Democratic senators running for president can match Biden’s adoration. The Senate’s traditions form his model for how politics ought to be conducted. “The system’s worked pretty damn well,” Biden recently told a reporter. “It’s called the Constitution. It says you have to get a consensus to get anything done.” In his presidential announcement speech, Biden frontally challenged the notion that the system had changed and made large-scale bipartisanship obsolete. “Some of these people are saying, ‘Biden just doesn’t get it. You can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore.’ Well, folks, I’m going to say something outrageous. I know how to make government work — not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus.”
Maybe the Senate will work as in days of yore in another 50 years or so, if and when climate change has reduced the country’s policy options to moderate versus radical Chicken Little–ism. But for now, Senatitis plays directly into the hands of the reactionaries who are using every anti-democratic lever our system has created to thwart the popular will and stop anything threatening to those enjoying or pursuing privilege. This makes the oh-so-reasonable Biden a candidate full of wild fancy and pixie dust, a unicorn-seeker just like his fellow late-septuagenarian Bernie Sanders, who has also been lukewarm at best about filibuster reform and thinks he can conjure up a “political revolution” to magically enact his agenda.
You have to figure that, if elected, either of these men (and other candidates who don’t have plans to enact their plans) would sober up and begin to confront the actual challenge a Democratic president will face. Until then, though, Joe Biden doesn’t need to be sniping at Elizabeth Warren for a lack of “realism.”