by Alex Knepper
Elizabeth Warren wants to win. She wants the nomination; she doesn’t want ‘a progressive’ to get the nomination; she’s in it to win it, and she intends to put everything on the table before conceding. Given the new standards for the age of presidential contenders, this might not be her last national campaign — but this is probably her best shot at the White House; Donald Trump is at least as vulnerable as George W. Bush was in 2004, and does not have the benefit of lingering goodwill following a national tragedy. She is not the kind of politician who can ordinarily win a national election; against Trump, she has a solid shot.
Warren cannot continue as-is. Continuing as-is would doom her to perpetuity in the mid-to-high teens in the polls, which is a fast ticket to becoming the Howard Dean of this race. She had her shot at the nomination in mid-autumn, and — it really pains me to say it — she didn’t hold up all that well under the pressure. Instead of framing the fight over Medicare for All as a question of fundamental values, she — as a friend of mine put it — took the ‘nerd bait’ and tried to one-up Bernie on the issue by providing a plan to pay for it. But the plan was unbelievable except to the most committed of her followers, and she suffered for it. Once again, the Elizabeth Warren who couldn’t foresee that it was a bad idea to hawk race science to ‘prove’ her Native heritage popped up at the surface.
A curious aspect of the Buttigieg mini-surge that followed Warren’s decline was that he managed to draw away so many fair-weather Warren supporters. Pundits and more than a few ideologues like to group Warren and Sanders together, but their respective bases of supporters have been surprisingly heterogeneous. Bernie’s coalition is made up almost exclusively of people under the age of 50, while Warren’s support is more evenly distributed demographically. Sanders is especially popular with registered independents; Warren, with registered Democrats. Warren’s base ended up being half-driven by her progressivism and half-driven by her ‘wonkish’ brand — the fact that she’s the woman with a plan for everything. When it didn’t look like she had a real plan to get Medicare for All into law, a lot of those people jumped ship to the new shiny object, Buttigieg.
She tried to attack Buttigieg, which might have hurt both of them but at any rate didn’t help her; she was also undermined by the fact that she took big-dollar donations while running for Senate in Massachusetts. I think there’s a perfectly good explanation for that. As evidenced by the extremely expensive yet delegate-light campaigns of Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, and Jeb Bush, the role of money in national politics in 2020 among the most overrated factors in campaigns. Money is only reliable for winning a candidate one thing: name ID. Since people pay little attention to state races relative to national ones, most candidates running for Senate have little choice but to build name ID by spending a lot of money on advertising. There’s no way to raise money from ordinary supporters until you’ve accumulated enough of them. And you can’t do that until you advertise, which costs money. When you run for president, people should already know who you are; you shouldn’t be introducing yourself to us for the first time when you run a national campaign — so there’s little excuse at the national level to accept big-dollar contributions. Bernie has an enormous advantage on this count, because Vermont is the least-populated state in the union and door-to-door campaigning is still possible there at the state level; certainly it was when he first ran for Vermont’s at-large House seat. Not so for Massachusetts politicians; the state is home to many millions of people and has quadruple the electoral votes of Vermont.
But that explanation doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. And attacking Buttigieg simply for raising money from wealthy people and business interests misses the greater critique of his candidacy; it seems that the man has never done anything in his life not geared toward his overriding ambition of becoming president one day.
Which brings us to today. Warren is still in the hunt for a win in the first two nominating contests, but she has a Bernie Sanders problem. He is attracting the headlines that ought to be hers, and he is besting her for many endorsements from the left that she courted as heavily as he did. She needs to make up ground after having lost significant support in November.
Warren is pissed at Bernie. He is the one who made Medicare for All the progressive gold standard; he ‘wrote the damn bill’ after all — why should she be the one to see her campaign destroyed because of his empty promises regarding what can really be delivered in Congress? She never wanted to run on healthcare, anyway; she wanted to run on an anti-corruption, anti-income-inequality message. She really does agree with the substance of Medicare for All as policy, but she’s not opposed to incremental change as a political strategy; she’s not opposed to the idea that a public option has to come first. It’s still a big deal that she supports Medicare for All as the end-goal, which is not true of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and others; Booker and Harris also equivocated. Warren has not done that. But why shouldn’t Bernie be the one to bear the brunt of the backlash to that policy?
Warren has not been particularly adroit at handling the stink-bomb her campaign rolled Bernie’s way. After a relatively mild Bernie campaign memo to supporters recommended tagging Warren as the candidate of the educated and affluent — an accusation not without merit! — Warren took the rather ruthless approach of casually dropping the accusation that Bernie told her that a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump and then pretending she didn’t want to talk about it at all. (Who but Warren would have known what Bernie said in their private meeting in the first place?) In reality, it was primarily an excuse to get her name back in the news, highlight the potentially historic nature of her candidacy — which would also serve as a sort of revenge for 2016 — and to appeal to those voters who went for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016. Maybe she’s even eyeing Hillary’s endorsement (if that happens and Warren loses the nomination, then she’s doubly the Dean of 2020, since Gore, another popular-vote-winner, endorsed him to no avail).
Some of the pundits and popular press seemed to think Warren got the best of this spat. I’m not so sure. She’s needlessly made enemies of many Bernie supporters who otherwise would have enthusiastically supported her had she won the nomination. But maybe she’s wagered that she can’t win the nomination unless she does something to signal that she’s not like him and not like them; she has to make a play for another slice of the electorate disinclined toward Bernie, which, in part, means proving to them that she’s not like him.
At the debate, Warren made the questionable charge that only the women on stage had consistently won elections and that none of the men had in the last 30 years beaten an incumbent. Bernie quickly chimed in that he did, in fact, defeat a Republican incumbent 30 years ago, and Warren seemed surprised and tried to tell him it didn’t count since she said 30 years ago and that was the line. Obviously this revealed why she chose the number 30 in the first place. She could have snapped back that 30 years is two generations ago; that she’s the one with recent experience defeating a Republican — one who had already, like Trump, beaten a lackluster female candidate by surprise — at the state level. Instead she seemed unprepared and it made the attack look gimmicky.
I don’t think Bernie Sanders thinks a woman can’t win the presidency. I don’t know if Warren thought anyone would really believe that he thought that who didn’t already despise Bernie. But that’s the thing: it does seem like something someone would say about someone they are frosty toward — but the two of them are supposed to be friends. Granted, the Sanders camp was not exactly forthcoming about the anti-Warren talking points distributed to its supporters, and the lie was needless and strange — but the attacks against her were very mild compared to the bomb Warren threw at him in response.
I am sticking with Warren as my choice for the nomination because I think she would actually be the best president among the candidates running. The race is fluid enough that we can afford to go with our hearts. If Bernie starts winning as the voting begins, though, I will happily jump ship to support him — because I really do want a progressive to win the nomination; this isn’t about the individual candidate, for me. Backing Bernie is contrary to my instincts; I think his supporters on social media are viciously aggressive and extremely entitled, and that both Bernie and his supporters are bad team players and have poor interpersonal skills. They also tend to reduce politics to economics. Moreover, Warren is capable of going toe-to-toe with corporate CEOs on their own turf; she knows the language of finance inside-out. Bernie’s staff includes people who don’t know the difference between profit and revenue. It’s why Warren can chew up and spit out the CEO of Wells-Fargo on the Senate floor, while instances of Bernie doing the same are few. I think in Warren, Democrats have a synthesis of Sanders and Hillary Clinton: right on the values, but someone who also does her homework. She can unite the Democratic Party, and she continues to poll at or near the top in favorability ratings.
We should also remember that Sanders and Warren largely agree on policy and disagree rather strongly on the question of tactics. This is not a small question, but it should not be of decisive importance when the primary calendar starts to unfold and one or the other might start clearly besting the other regularly. A great number of Sanders supporters truly hate the Democratic Party and consider cooperation with it to be a sure sign of a lack of integrity. Sanders wants to initiate a Trump-like hostile takeover of the party and, through winning and proving the nay-sayers wrong, forcing the party apparatus to bend to his will. Warren thinks political progress ultimately happens through the Democratic Party and doesn’t want to alienate its members. She is a proud Democrat and he is a proud independent. Again, these are important differences; I agree with Warren and strongly disagree with Sanders on the question of tactics. But the question of goals is ultimately more important than tactics, and I will not cling to Warren if Sanders is clearly the more viable choice against Biden as the voting is underway. I fear Sanders supporters cannot say the same about Warren.
Coupled with her promise to forgive student loans on Day One of her administration through executive action, Warren is putting it all on the table to win; she wants to look back and say she exhausted every option she had. She’s definitely being audacious. I’m not convinced ‘going negative’ is useful for Democrats when the need to remove Trump strikes most primary voters as an emergency and ‘in-fighting’ tends to turn off voters, for better or for worse. But there are many potential coalitions leading to first place in Iowa and New Hampshire. The polls show Warren is not out of the game yet — now we will see whether her fate will be more like Howard Dean’s or more like John Kerry’s.