Elizabeth Warren and the Slow Boring of Hard Boards

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Several people have recommended to me a Politico piece about Elizabeth Warren’s fight to win loan forgiveness for students who had been defrauded by Corinthian Colleges after it went bankrupt. As the story opens, Warren is on Air Force One trying to enlist President Obama’s help:

Earlier, Warren and others had helped convince the Education Department to agree to cancel the loans for some of those for-profit college students, opening the door to forgiveness for hundreds of thousands of people. Now, Warren was waging a new battle against Obama’s Treasury Department, which was planning to hit students with steep tax bills on their forgiven loans.
….Warren’s goal, according to people familiar with the conversation, was not just to convince Obama that it was possible to do something that his own administration was telling him was impossible. It was to persuade him to spend some of his political capital — which was in short supply as he battled against a Republican Congress — on a group of struggling low-income students who had been defrauded by a now-defunct for-profit college chain.
Implicit in that conversation was a threat: If he didn’t act, Obama could have a public image problem on his hands in the form of a loud, popular senator who had already been raising hell about his Education Department. Not long after the Air Force One flight, the Treasury Department told Warren it had found a way to stop the students from being hit with tax bills after all.
….One former Education Department official called it an “inside/outside strategy”: Warren would hammer the administration publicly at the same time she worked behind the scenes with those government officials, acting, many felt, as an ally.

The whole piece is worth reading on its own merits, but I’m dubious that it tells us much about Warren’s “theory of change,” a buzz phrase that’s very big these days among activists. The story provides a pretty good look at Warren’s distinctive combination of tenaciousness, policy chops, and grassroots support, but it’s not clear to me how well her style would translate into being a good president. After all, this is fundamentally an account of a very small policy change that no one was really opposing and that required only the support of a president of her own party. But the challenge facing a president is to implement sweeping policy changes in the face of an entrenched opposition.
Policy chops aren’t all that helpful here beyond a certain minimum, and in any case Warren’s detailed policy expertise is in a fairly narrow area. In the vast majority of cases she’ll have to rely on her staff, just like any other president. Grassroots support is certainly helpful to a president, but Warren would soon learn that progressives have a habit of dumping you if you deviate even a little bit from the pure cause. That leaves tenaciousness, which I have no argument about. That’s helpful no matter what—though a president has to pick and choose her spots instead of simply rolling out plan after plan for everything.
How much does all this matter? In fairness to Warren, I’ve never been very taken with obsessing over a candidate’s “theory of change” to begin with. It all seems a little naive and overintellectual. You want a real theory of change? Here it is: build up enough public support for your cause that you can win the presidency along with a 300+ majority in the House and a comfortable filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That’s pretty much it. Tedious outrage about “incipient fascism” aside, the United States is still a democracy. If you want change, you have to convince a big chunk of the population to support it. The rest is details.
Others may see this differently, but for all the sound and fury out of Fox News on one side and the #Resistance on the other, I continue to have no sense at all that Americans are truly ready for a grassroots revolution of any kind. Events could change that, but most of us are simply too comfortable to take up pitchforks these days. For the time being, the best theory of change is the good old slow boring of hard boards.

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