Of all the silly statements made by Democratic presidential candidates in last week’s debates, this one by Elizabeth Warren struck me as the most fundamentally misguided:
I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.
The statement is ridiculous at two levels. For one thing, none of Warren’s opponents on the stage is running for president just to talk about what can’t be done. Each talks about things they believe can be done.
Moreover, the best reason to run for president is one’s belief that he or she can guide America more effectively than the other candidates. Effective guidance depends on good judgment. Part of good judgment is the ability to figure out what America can do and what it can’t, and to govern accordingly.
Warren surely understands this. I’m confident that, for example, she would have no objection to a candidate talking about how America can’t impose democracy on the world and shouldn’t fight wars to accomplish this.
Prudence is what Warren really railed against during the debate. Yet, prudence is an important attribute of sane governance. Subtract prudence and one might end up with a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin.
David Von Drehle, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes a splendid takedown of Warren’s applause line. He argues:
An American president ought to care deeply about the effects of her ideas — whether she can actually do the things she promises and whether her idealistic “should-dos” are also pragmatic “could-dos.” Former congressman John Delaney (Md.) was hardly out of place at a forum of would-be presidents when he expressed practical concern that hospitals can’t survive if all their services are reimbursed at Medicare rates, as Warren proposes to do.
In fact, it would be malpractice for a would-be president not to consider this matter. To blow it off as a concern unworthy of a presidential candidate is demagogic.
Von Drehle ties his quarrel with Warren to American pragmatism — a philosophy associated with C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, among others. He also ties it to the American progressive tradition.
Von Drehle isn’t wrong. But one need not be an old-school American progressive or an American pragmatist in the manner of John Dewey and company to reject Warren’s bizarre view of public service. That view also flies in the face of conservative traditions, both American and British. Indeed, it flies in the face of common sense.
Von Drehle concludes his critique this way:
What I don’t understand is why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States simply to ignore questions about real-world realities and promise fights without explaining how to win them. Reality is not going to bend to a new shape come 2021 just because a President Sanders shouts at it or a President Warren fights with it.
On the other hand, if their ideas are sound and their promises are true, there’s no better way to demonstrate that than through diligent testing and vigorous challenges. Contrary to what we heard again and again in the debates, that’s not a “Republican talking point.” It’s an American conviction.
Unfortunately, like other important American convictions, it is under assault by left-wing Democrats.