Elizabeth Warren Isn't Interested in Small Improvements

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In seeking transformational changes, the Senate candidate may squander the chance to marginally better America

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In a New York Times Magazine profile of Elizabeth Warren, the progressive hero and Senate hopeful is quoted as follows: "I don't want to go to Washington to be a co-sponsor of some bland, little bill nobody cares about. I don't want to go to Washington to get my name on something that makes small change at the margin." She isn't alone. Everyone who gets elected to the Senate or the presidency seems to share her attitude. Why settle for being a faithful steward of the public trust when there's a chance you could be a transformative agent of change?

Here's one reason. Our system is designed for small, marginal improvements. Our institutions tend to thwart more ambitious attempts, and our politics is all about denying major victories to ideological adversaries, regardless of the merits. The moment something is touted as vital or transformational it is less likely to pass. We need leaders who care more about reform than taking credit for it.

Consider the track record of grand legislative efforts. 

Bill Clinton's failure to pass health-care reform ensured that the issue wouldn't be touched for more than a decade, whereupon President Obama's success necessitated lots of huge industry giveaways; it also stoked a backlash that may bring about its undoing. Was it worth it? Some say yes. In any case, health care is the only success story the "sweeping change" camp can claim, and it required a brief legislative window after a historic Republican electoral defeat.

What about the failures?

No one thinks that No Child Left Behind fixed our education system. "Comprehensive immigration reform" has failed too many times to count. Social Security hasn't been fixed. Simplifying the tax code in one huge reform hasn't happened either. Wouldn't we be better off if our legislators had focused their effort on making marginal improvements in those policy areas, rather than working toward transformative reforms that never happened?

I've been against "comprehensive reform" ever since witnessing the pathologies of the immigration debate. Michael Lind wrote along the same lines in 2009, and articulated some general objections to all-in-one reform efforts.

  • "Comprehensive reform tries to address too many problems at the same time, instead of addressing particular problems by particular pieces of legislation."
  • "Comprehensive reform tries to assemble a single majority for a multipurpose bill, instead of assembling different majorities for different bills." 
  • "Comprehensive reform by its very nature shuts out the public. That's because winning the support of the final holdouts in the House or Senate at five minutes to midnight is more important than building broad popular support by public debate and advocacy."
  • "Comprehensive reform kills the appetite for subsequent reform. Whether it succeeds or fails, comprehensive legislation usually leaves lawmakers so traumatized and embittered that they do not want to address a particular policy area again for years."

That sums it up.

Politicians who are interested in results ought to eschew large scale reform efforts in favor of piece-by-piece change.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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