Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a lot of plans—to regulate Wall Street, to expand affordable child care, to eliminate student debt; the list goes on. But when it comes to health care, she took a different tack. Rather than develop her own proposal, she supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer plan. “I’m with Bernie on Medicare,” Warren said at the first Democratic debate. Yet, while both presidential candidates embrace Medicare for All, it is only Warren who faced intense pressure—both from the media and her fellow primary contenders—to detail how she would pay for it, and finally released a detailed financing proposal.
You might disagree with the contents but this was a serious piece of work, developed with the assistance of top economists and policy experts. Meanwhile, Sanders, the architect and longtime defender of Medicare for All has, to date, released a mere menu of financing options. And yet it is Warren who has faced the most criticism on this issue, first for not explaining how she would pay for Bernie’s idea, and then for her explanation.
This is a classic gender dynamic, whereby we demand that our female politicians (and, really, women in general) not just be prepared, but hyper-prepared, down to the decimal point.
There are legitimate reasons that Warren, more than any other candidate regardless of gender, encounters pointed questions about her policy proposals. When your campaign refrain is “I have a plan for that,” you expect heightened scrutiny—especially when you are surging to the top of the field. And Bernie has admitted that his version of Medicare for All would require increasing taxes on the middle class, while Warren insisted she would somehow pay for a $20 trillion plan without doing so.
But in a historically, comically crowded primary, Sanders has been running in the top tier from the beginning without explaining how he’d pay for his health-care plan. When CNBC’s John Harwood asked him about financing Medicare for All, Sanders initially replied “We’re trying to pay for the damn thing.” He later went on: "You're asking me to come up with an exact detailed plan of how every American—how much you're going to pay more in taxes, how much I'm going to pay. I don't think I have to do that right now."
It is hard to imagine a scenario where Warren could have been comfortable saying, “I don’t think I have to do that right now.”
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with demanding specificity from a person who hopes to run the country. But it’s unsettling that Sanders doesn’t feel the same pressure to tell us exactly how he would pay for his signature plan—the plan that moved the Overton window on health policy and effectively forced many of his 2020 Democratic rivals to jump on board. It’s an idea he’s been promoting for decades. It’s an idea that, when implemented in his home state of Vermont, fell spectacularly apart because of the financing details.
Democrats generally think policy matters more in a campaign than it does and often demand detailed proposals that cause political harm in the short-run and will never be enacted in the long run. But the higher standard to which Warren has been held illustrates the material difference in the work female politicians must produce in order to be seen as viable political candidates. Had Warren offered a vague list of payment options, or agreed with Sanders that a middle-class tax hike was necessary to fund Medicare for All, she would have borne more criticism.
We can’t prove a counterfactual, but taken alongside the more overt sexism of, say, doubting her obviously plausible story of pregnancy discrimination, our treatment of Warren feeds into a negative narrative—a narrative that perhaps dissuades voters in battleground states.
The only way to shift people’s perceptions of women seeking public office is to level how we scrutinize all candidates. As of now, we don’t have a plan for that.