A quick scroll through the official Elizabeth Warren merch store reveals a teeming marketplace of campaign wares: branded T-shirts, lawn signs, bumper stickers, and an assortment of buttons. Ardent Warren fans can proclaim their affection in hundreds of combinations, and more than a few niches. There’s a coffee cup which reads, “I like my coffee like I like my unions: strong,” and a onesie that advises to “Dream big. Fight hard. Nap often.” But one of the most frequently recurring taglines across the campaign merchandise is, as one might expect, “Warren has a plan for that.”
The phrase, while not an official campaign slogan, has become the most common and recognizable calling card for Warren supporters. Like any good meme, it began online, filtered onto the campaign’s Twitter account, into the candidate’s stump speeches, and onto handmade signs, reinforcing her formidable brand as the candidate who has a plan for everything.
At present, Warren’s website contains more than 50 relatively detailed policy plans—chances are, she does have a plan for that, whatever “that” may be. But as far as campaign taglines go, “She Has a Plan For That” is a disappointing entry that pinches at the nerve of reservation that some on the left have regarding Warren’s rise in popularity. It’s a technocratic rallying cry, one that romanticizes the idea of having ideas rather than celebrating any central ethos within the ideas themselves. What’s worse, it implicitly lulls its reader or listener into a false sense of security, assuring them that they needn’t be too critical or discerning, since someone has already done the work for them. And there is considerable work left to be done to bring any one of Warren’s litany of ideas to fruition.
For a campaign slogan to be effective, it must tick a number of boxes. First, it has to offer a broad-strokes pitch about the candidate’s ideology or political approach. Next, it should respond to or preempt the alternative messages being offered to voters. Finally, it must situate the candidate as a part of a larger coalition or movement. “Make America Great Again,” the ubiquitous slogan of President Trump, succeeds in hitting all three of these points—with particular attention to ideological signaling. In four words, Trump stokes nostalgia and resentment in equal measure by combining a biting truth (that America is not, in fact, great) with a fantasy (that it ever was). In half that number, President Obama catalyzed optimism in the electorate with his 2008 dual slogans, “Hope” and “Change.”
Far from providing a general vision of the future or clear pitch, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 slogan, “I’m With Her,” shifted the burden of selling the candidate from Clinton to the voters themselves. “I’m With Her” offered little more than the fact of a woman candidate and the vague sense of inevitability to her election (a musical number from Stephen Colbert’s “Democratic National Convention Late Show” special included the lyric “you must rejoice / there is no choice / she is your destiny”).
“She Has a Plan For That” harkens back to the early months of the 2020 primary, during which Warren rather spectacularly outpaced her competitors in the area of policy development. In February, while many of her competitors were still waiting to announce or in the early stages of organizing a campaign staff, Warren released a plan for universal child care. A month later, still before Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or Beto O’Rourke had officially entered the race, she announced a plan to invest $2 billion in affordable housing. By April, the campaign was in full plan-churning mode—breaking up big tech, universal free public college, student loan debt cancellation, debt relief for Puerto Rico, ending the opioid crisis—at a breakneck pace no other campaign could hope to match.
Those who have flocked to Warren’s side in the early part of the primary clearly delight in her reputation as a thoughtful and meticulous policy wonk. But there’s a rhetorical sleight of hand at play in lauding her as the candidate “with a plan”—the phrase surreptitiously implies that thoroughness in and of itself is the antidote to the rot at the center of American politics.
There’s a familiar center-left narrative which begets this line of thought: When Obama was president, the story goes, things were more or less fine, minus frequent squabbling about polarization and gridlock in Washington. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, the world has become a garish, nightmare-inducing cavalcade of terrible news, due primarily to the president’s general incompetence and tendency to make policy decisions based on volatile whims and reactionary impulses. The obvious solution, one then concludes, is to elect the most studious, detail-oriented candidate, whose care and thoroughness can reverse the damage done by Trump’s presidency.
This analysis mistakes Trump’s ascendance for a terrible fluke in an otherwise functional system, rather than the natural result of the most staggering economic inequality since the Great Depression coupled with increasingly blatant racist and xenophobic rhetoric from the right. While many liberals may long for politics to go “back to normal,” the fact remains that “normal”—while less constantly and ostentatiously lurid than the Trump era—was also horrific.
“She Has a Plan For That” romanticizes the idea of having ideas as a core characteristic, rather than focusing on the ideological common denominator of the ideas themselves. Fortunately for Warren, her other unofficial slogan, “Big Structural Change,” represents her political program and the mission she’s undertaking much more honestly and effectively; she offers an improvement on the policy directives of Obama (because “Change” alone clearly wasn’t enough) while being reticent to embrace the full-throated “political revolution” of Senator Bernie Sanders.
“Warren’s policy proposals have become her brand,” reads the profile of Warren in the May issue of Time. “Her campaign, staffers say, is built on the conviction that voters want substance, not theatrics, and will throw in for the candidate who puts forth serious ideas to create change.” The implied comparison—that Warren is the “substantive” candidate of the party’s left flank, as opposed to Sanders—shrivels under scrutiny: Specific policy goals such as Medicare for All, free public college, and the Green New Deal are what draw supporters to Sanders in the first place. It’s worth asking whether any level of detail in policy development to the left of what Warren is offering would be sufficient to be considered “substantive” by the center-left Democratic establishment.
In the past few months, Warren’s opponents have by and large caught up to her on policy development; still, “She Has A Plan For That” has a home at the center of her campaign branding. But for all of the discussion of substance and wonkishness that the coming months will surely bring, undecided voters on the left would do well to remember that simply having a plan isn’t necessarily the answer. And simply having a slogan that nostalgically recalls that fervid period of policy development will not be sufficient either. For Warren to get any of her plans enacted, she will have to marshal the citizenry into a force of civic engagement, rallying them to work that needs doing, not plans already filed.