A participant at a recent LGBT+ forum posed a question to Elizabeth Warren. “Let’s say you’re on the campaign trail,” the questioner asked, “and a supporter approaches you and says ‘Senator, I’m old fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.’ What is your response?”
There was nothing new in the question, Warren has certainly heard it a hundred times before. She was ready.
“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” Warren responds, pausing for the applause line she knew would come. “And I’m going to say… ‘then just marry one woman.’ I’m cool with that!”
She paused briefly as the audience applauded her retort. Then she went for the zinger: “Assuming you can find one.” The laughter and applause rolled across the room. The shaming of the hypothetical questioner was complete.
I would be happy to wake up the morning after Election Day and learn that Elizabeth Warren has been elected President, probably happier than if Joe Biden were to win. It has nothing to do with her myriad plans, or Biden’s miscues, but rather Warren’s original first principles: Wall Street has run amok. And by Wall Street I mean the entire world of finance that it has long represented. It is the role of finance in the American economy that has run amok. Making money from money used to be the quiet pursuit of the New York and New England aristocracy and small town bankers, who eschewed public displays of wealth and honored a sense of noblesse oblige.
Today, making money from money has become the chosen path of far too many of the best and the brightest. Forget making things, or teaching, or doctoring. When bankruptcy law is about protecting monied interests, and financial deregulation has led to a world — to steal Mitt Romney’s words — of financiers driving around in Ferraris while everybody else is basically having a hard time making ends meet, our future is in peril. That is the sentiment that brought Warren to public attention early on. It is the common sentiment that bound Occupy and the Tea Party together. I would like that sentiment to be reflected in the White House.
As Warren has honed her chops on the campaign trail, expanding her populist message, she has emerged as the leader of a growing mass movement. But she makes no pretenses about bringing Occupy and the Tea Party partisans together in common cause, or to heal a nation riven by political discord. She is a warrior-candidate who at every opportunity lays down battle lines that are clear and bright, with dripping contempt for those against whom she is prepared to go to war. While her partisans love her for it, I fear it undermines both her viability as a national candidate and her potential as a leader.
As support for Warren has grown, and as Joe Biden appears to have lost a step, there is a growing fear among Democrats — to say nothing of Independents and Republicans wishing on a star for a candidate that will end the Trump era — that she may well roll to the nomination only to lead the party to defeat in 2020. This fear was evident this week as Michael Bloomberg once again toyed with entering the race.
While progressives have sought to paint Bloomberg’s motivation as driven by billionaire fears of a President Warren, Nate Cohn’s article in the Times this week established the very real and valid basis for Democrat angst: Right now, Trump looms to be favored against Warren in most of the Electoral College battleground states, while trailing Joe Biden.
Warren may do better against Trump than polling suggests — Medicare-for-all, a wealth tax and anti-Wall Street sentiments all poll well as discrete issues among working class white voters in the upper Midwest that Trump is counting on — but Trump is having none of it. An inveterate reader of polls, Trump has been working feverishly to push Biden out of the race — the entire Ukraine scandal has been driven by his awareness that he is uniquely vulnerable to a Biden candidacy — and Trump appears itching to revive his Pocahontas applause lines.
From the standpoint of political strategy, Trump and Warren are strikingly similar. In contrast to Biden or Bloomberg, or Buttigieg for that matter, Warren appears eager to take on Trump at his game. “I have a plan for that” is nice, but the essence of her appeal is her populist, us-vs-them critique, channeling the anger of her followers. She is a master of social media snark, and is quick to lash out at those who do not agree with her. Her response to the questioner regarding same-sex marriage echoed Trump’s skill in playing to an adoring crowd.
Warren began her response to the question by stereotyping the questioner as a man, with a snark-filled tone sure to please her audience. Pew Research polling data, however — as one would presume Warren is aware — suggests that men support same-sex marriage to nearly the same extent as women. If she was going to stereotype the questioner based on that Pew Research data, she might instead have started her response with ‘I’m going to assume it’s a white evangelical who said that,’ but, like Trump, Warren was not going to let the facts get in the way of a good applause line. When she concluded with the demeaning take-down, “assuming you can find one,” she evoked raucous laughter and guffaws reminiscent of a Trump rally.
She might have taken a different tack. The Elizabeth Warren who sells herself in quieter moments as less the Harvard professor and more the Okie born into a military family, might have sought to broaden her appeal, seeking to bring her supporters to higher ground as Barack Obama might have. Instead of “assuming you can find one,” she could have elevated the discourse. “Look, I was born into a military family, and remain an Okie to my core, so I understand that perspective. But America is founded on the principal of individual liberty, and one of the things that comes with being an American is learning to respect those whose lives, beliefs and choices are different from your own.”
That is a path available to Warren, but thus far it is not the path she is choosing.
Progressive Democrats — and perhaps Warren herself — appear to have convinced themselves that 2020 is going to be a base election. In a base election — 2004 is a case in point — the center is small and the challenge for each party is to increase intensity and turnout among their core supporters. While that electoral environment might play to Warren’s strengths, there is significant evidence that 2020 will have more in common with 2008. That year, Independents loomed large and Barack Obama won a resounding victory with a message that reached out to a wide range of Independents and moderate Republicans. Gallup voter affiliation tracking data indicates that the share of the electorate that identifies as independent is even larger today than it was in 2008, and now dwarfs the share that identify as either Democrat or Republican.
Donald Trump appears to be heading down a similar path as Warren, as he continues to pander to his base and shows the same disdain toward moderate Republicans that Elizabeth Warren is showing toward moderate Democrats; while they both are daring Independents to vote for the other guy. In Trump’s case, however, there are no core principles involved. As long-time Republican commentator Matthew Continetti wrote last week, Trump just can’t help himself; other than golf, there is nothing he loves better than doing his stand-up routine in front of an arena of adoring fans, where he routinely bashes all but his loyalist supporters.
My fear has been that too many Democrats live in their own bubbles and believe that winning in 2020 is inevitable. They have convinced themselves that Trump’s presence on the ballot will spur historic turnout, and all but the most fervent Trump supporters will have no choice but to vote for the Democratic candidate. Nothing is inevitable, however, and right now the odds of beating Donald Trump, if the political events betting sites are to be taken seriously, is barely more than a toss-up.
As of this writing, PredictIt U.S. Elections markets gives Democrats a 55% chance of winning the White House in 2020. Better than 50–50, but not by much. As to who is most likely to sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office on the evening of January 20, 2020, Donald Trump is most likely, at 42%. Warren comes in a distant second, at 19%, while Joe Biden is third at 13%.
Progressives, still feeling the sting of Bernie’s loss to Hillary four years ago, might be emboldened by seeing Elizabeth Warren eclipse Biden in the polls and betting markets, but she, and they, would do well to heed the lessons of the 2018 mid-term elections, as affirmed by Nate Cohn’s numbers this week. Last year, progressive candidates rolled up victories in House primaries across the country, only to lose nearly every seat they contested in the November election. Candidates who moderated their tone, meanwhile, dominated Republicans in more than two dozen previously Republican districts, and flipped the House of Representatives.
If the pain of 2016 was bad, imagine the post-mortems, should Democrats lose in 2020, as people are forced to admit that all the warning signs were there, and people simply refused to pay attention. The Elizabeth Warren that took pleasure in ridiculing the questioner at the LGBT+ forum could well lead the Democratic Party to a very bitter defeat next year. A more embracing Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, less prone to demonization and equally accepting of those from Oklahoma and Massachusetts, could prove to be a transformational figure.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.