At the risk of appearing foolhardy several months hence, I want to say that in the last week, it has become very likely that Elizabeth Warren will win the Democratic nomination. A two-tier race, with Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders in the top tier, has become a race largely of Warren against herself.
Sanders — justifiably in my opinion, and I am of the same rough age — always faced questions about his age. These questions have been answered in the negative, sadly, by his recent heart attack. Voters will be right to doubt whether someone of Sanders’ age and medical history can handle one of the most stressful jobs on earth — especially, in Sanders’ case, because he would be coming into the job anew and face a hostile Washington and Wall Street. He needs to prepare for a graceful exit.
Biden, on paper, has always been the most electable Democrat, and if the presidential election had been held last month, he probably would have won. To undecided voters in swing states — and I always believe they number more than the political scientists claim — Biden comes off as “one of us.” It’s an inestimable advantage that Warren, for instance, doesn’t enjoy. He has also steered clear of extreme positions that would cost him in a general election. But Biden seems even slower on the uptake than in the past. I don’t believe these claims that he (or Trump for that matter) has dementia — enough with these amateur psychiatrists! — but he shows the disabilities of age.
A younger, quicker Biden might have nailed down the nomination this last week in response to Donald Trump’s predictably irresponsible attacks on him. He would have been all over the talk shows and on the stump. Instead, he has remained closeted, perhaps out of fear that if he does subject himself to questions, he will be stumble. To be sure, Hunter Biden may have been up to no good, but Biden could have used the attacks against his son to highlight his having to surmount a succession of family tragedies. One could feel this week the nomination slipping away from Biden.
That leaves Warren in a tier of her own unless she stumbles. Count me as an admirer. The left-wingers at Jacobin and Current Affairs like to contrast Sanders’s support for a “political revolution” with Warren as a would-be Washington insider, but Warren the outsider led the fight against the bankruptcy law and for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She was a harsh and effective critic of the Obama White House’s timid approach to Wall Street in 2009. There’s little difference between her programs and Sanders’.
Warren’s problem, if anything, is that she is too close politically to Sanders and has heeded too much the siren call of the metropolitan and college-town liberals. She needs to think about winning an electoral college majority in November 2020, and that means backing off programs that raise the specter of higher taxes for the working class or that would allow Trump to paint the Democrats as cultural elitists. That means moving away from Medicare for All, decriminalizing illegal immigration, and reparations. There is nothing wrong, for instance, with advocating Medicare for All as an ultimate goal and Medicare for Anyone as the immediate means to shore up the Affordable Care Act.
I often hear the argument that if Democrats move to “the center,” they will suffer the fate of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Clinton didn’t lose because she was insufficiently radical. She lost because she couldn’t overcome her email scandal and because she ran a campaign focused on culture, not economics — on the promise of a woman president (“I’m with HER”) and on her challenger’s character. That didn’t speak to the insecurities that many swing voters felt. Warren’s challenge will not be to out-radicalize Trump, but to assure voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other swing states that she understands their problems and will do something about them. If she can do that — and maintain the support of minorities and of middle-of-the-road suburban voters in states like Virginia and Colorado who rejected Trump and the Republicans in 2018 — she could be the next president.