One of the refreshing aspects of the 2020 Democratic presidential-nominating process so far has been a willingness (for the most part, give or take a certain former vice-president) of candidates to reflect on the experiences of President Obama and recognize that Republican obstruction is not just going to disappear. So those with ambitious progressive policy agendas are feeling some pressure to explain non-magical ways in which they can become reality.
Nobody has a more ambitious agenda than Senator Elizabeth Warren, who discussed her “2-cent tax” plan during the November 20 Democratic debates. Several months ago, I tuned in with considerable interest to a discussion she had with Ezra Klein over, as he put it, “her plan to enact her plans.” She already has some credibility on the subject, as the first 2020 candidate to come out for the elimination of the obstructionist’s chief tool, the Senate filibuster. And while she places what I personally consider too much faith in grassroots mobilization to overcome deeply entrenched institutional barriers to radical reforms, and an excessive investment in the power of pugilistic rhetoric (“fighting” for this and that), Warren did, when pressed by Klein, come up with a plausible set of priorities for getting a future administration rolling toward legislative success.
Warren quickly identified anti-corruption legislation as the principal table-setting device for a new administration. Why? Basically to serve notice on members of Congress and their staffs that in looking at legislation that offends wealthy and powerful interests, they can no longer imagine themselves joining the ranks of lobbyists in the near future:
It’s to push back against the lobbying industry. It’s to say to all those congresspeople and their chiefs of staff, “Hey, this is your job, and you’re not going to have an opportunity to lobby afterward so don’t be looking over the horizon at your next job and adjusting your behavior accordingly.”
I want everybody in the game right now for the people, not for the folks with money, not for the billionaires, not for the giant corporations, and I think going straight up the middle on the corruption plan is the first one. Knock them back, and while they’re all scrambling, then start passing the rest of it.
Her starting point for “passing the rest of it” is well-considered, as well: enacting a wealth tax to generate revenues for the spending plans that would come later.
Two cents on the one-tenth of one percent, the greatest fortunes in this country, $50 million and above, and for two cents we can provide universal child care, universal pre-K, raise the wages of all our child-care workers and pre-K workers, universal technical school, two-year college, four-year college, and cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of the people who’ve got it. We cancel student loan debt for 43 million Americans across this country.
The vision of what government can do and whose side government is on changes just like that.
This approach cuts against decades of temptation to serve up the dessert first by promoting popular spending proposals, with the revenue side of the equation back-loaded and understated. It also makes it much easier, as Warren suggests, to sell wealth-tax revenues as earmarked for specific popular initiatives. The broccoli and the chocolate cake arrive on the same plate — and in this particular case, both are reasonably tasty, as extensive polling has shown.
Whether or not it all plays out exactly like this, Warren is at least exhibiting a clear sense of how to get from idea to reality, with the demise of the filibuster alongside an anti-corruption measure and a wealth tax that will be difficult for any Democrats and perhaps a few crucial Republicans to oppose. Like other candidates, and like Barack Obama (and for that matter Donald Trump), she is also willing to use unilateral executive powers aggressively; her very first action, she tells Klein, will be “a moratorium in place so that there will be no new drilling, no new mining on federal lands, no offshore drilling” as an initial step toward addressing climate change. But beyond that, she doesn’t intend to flail about in frustration as Congress thwarts her plans. Indeed, she has a plan for that.