What is Elizabeth Warren playing at?

The Democratic presidential candidate seemingly backed off her commitment to unconditional Medicare-for-all last week when she released a new plan which would break the effort into two parts. Among a slew of executive actions, Warren would lower the Medicare eligibility age to 50, and enroll anyone under 18 years old or under 200 percent of the poverty line. Then: "No later than my third year in office, I will fight to pass legislation that would complete the transition to full Medicare-for-all."

Now, that would be a gigantic improvement on the status quo. But from the standpoint of either politics or legislative tactics, it is still a baffling decision. It raises serious questions about both Warren's commitment to Medicare-for-all and her political acumen.

The bumper-sticker version of representative democracy is supposed to work like this: A political candidate proposes ideas, tries to convince voters that the ideas are good, and if she wins, she passes those ideas into law, or as close as she can get through negotiation. Then the population can kick the tires on the new policies, and either ratify them by re-electing her, or disapprove by throwing her out of office. Alternatively, if some problem comes to light, the citizenry can demand action, and the existing leadership can pass some remedy. Then the leadership can be re-elected or thrown out, depending if the solution is good enough.

Of course things are always much more complicated than this, but this basic schema has a lot to recommend it. Ordinary people are often not very well-versed either in the details of policy arcana or legislative machinery — especially not in America, where both are unusually complicated and weird. As a candidate, simple, clear messaging about what one will try to do is far better than trying to compromise with oneself in an effort to convince voters what Joe Manchin can be persuaded to accept, which can't be known in advance anyway. The sensible path is to win the election, take what one can get through negotiation, and then start the whole process again.

The argument from the Warren camp is that her two-part route to Medicare-for-all is more politically realistic. The Senate map for Democrats in 2022 is quite favorable, and so long as they can hold the House, President Warren should be in decent position afterwards. But this sacrifices clear ideas and argument for complicated and speculative at best predictions about the political state of play in 2023. Instead of arguing that Medicare-for-all is good, something Warren supposedly believes, her defenders are arguing about what can be passed through two different Congresses, neither of which have even been elected yet.

Moreover, holding the House is by no means guaranteed — it has almost always been the case that a president's party loses many seats in its first midterm. If there is a recession then the Senate might not be so easy to take. Finally, by 2023 the next presidential election will be getting started, and congressional Democrats are liable to be exhausted.

Now, one should certainly try to get whatever one can get from any Congress, but it is simply foolhardy to lop off a huge chunk of one's demands before negotiations have even started. Always take the biggest possible policy bite — you never know, maybe the next president could get a public option up to 300 percent of the poverty line with Medicare-for-all as the opening bid, or even better! "I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started," as Warren herself said at the last debate.

Let's consider the history of major civil rights legislation, by way of comparison. By 1964 the civil rights movement had reached the peak of its influence, and the nation was riveted by the spectacle of white supremacist terrorism — beatings, assassinations, murders, and bombings. This placed tremendous pressure on political leadership, particularly President Johnson, who had previously been a squish on civil rights, but came to believe it could not be avoided.

Johnson was an unparalleled legislative tactician and put his skills to work behind the scenes managing the weeks-long effort to break a filibuster by Southern Democrats. He knew perfectly which swing vote senators to flatter, or which to cajole, implore, bully, and threaten simultaneously. And after 60 grueling working days in the Senate, the filibuster was broken and the Civil Rights Act passed.

Nobody ever tried to publicly flog some complicated half-measure calibrated to appeal to, say, Everett Dirksen (a moderate Republican senator from Illinois). Instead there was a broad popular groundswell for a civil rights bill, and Johnson used his political talent to translate that into workable legislation. Knowing how to design a good policy that can get through the legislature is the whole point of having professional politicians in the first place.

All this raises some skepticism about Warren's commitment to maximum aggressiveness on health care. The first part of her plan now bears a distinct similarity to that of Pete Buttigieg, who is reportedly attracting many of Warren's educated professional voters in Iowa with his apple-polisher shtick. Warren's abrupt retreat carries a distinct whiff of trying to triangulate between the Buttigieg and Sanders camps.

Instead of worrying about the McKinsey Mayor, Warren ought to worry more about alienating Sanders supports and dedicated health-care activists, who have sunk enormous political capital into Medicare-for-all as a rallying point, and have been repeatedly betrayed by the Democratic establishment. It may be necessary to accept half a loaf in the negotiation stage, but only then, and only because moderates wouldn't accept anything better. Retreat and hesitation before a single primary election has been held signals a lack of commitment. Warren should have stuck to her guns.