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This Is How Warren Loses

November 1, 2019
This Is How Warren Loses
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

Over the weekend I got an email from a very smart, plugged in friend about where Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is, and where it’s heading. I asked him if I could publish it and he agreed, on the condition that he be identified only as “Deep State Bob.” What follows is his:

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Let’s say you’re the little voice of reason inside Elizabeth Warren’s head. You ask her a couple of questions: What do you want your campaign to be about? And what you do you want the campaign to be about?

Paired together, the first question gives the candidate an opportunity to describe her perfect-world scenario. The second should—should—lead her to describe the real-world in which her campaign is taking place.

In a perfect world, the United States’ domestic politics would be relatively stable and voters would wish—above all—for creative alternatives to the current mixed-market economic arrangement, which they believe hurts them and their communities. In that world, Warren would want her campaign to be a referendum on crony capitalism and certain private markets—of which Trump, partly by his background and partly by his marriage of convenience to the GOP, has been an exponent. She’d push her Accountable Capitalism Act. She’d rail against the injustices of for-profit health insurance and medical care. She’d decry competition in public education.

In the real world of America in the Year of Our Lord 2019, the United States’ domestic political situation is relatively precarious. Is it as bad as it was in 1860? No. Not even close, thankfully. But are things as bad as they were during the 6-year stretch from 1968 to 1974? Well, that’s an open question. The absolute best you can say is that American political life is as unsettled as it has been in two generations.

This is a positive, not a normative, statement. The president of the United States is pulling out all the stops to maintain his power: openly inviting foreign governments to be oppo research groups, beating the drums of populist sentiment ever louder, asking his deputies to break the law for him so he can fulfill his campaign promises. Trump is the most aspirationally authoritarian figure ever to hold the presidency and the only reason things aren’t worse is that (a) he’s incompetent and (b) our government was designed with more antibodies to authoritarianism than your replacement-level democracy.

Meanwhile, the public is disgusted with the nation’s economic policies, but it can’t articulate why beyond saying that China and Wall Street have too much financial influence on the life of average Joe. It doesn’t know what it wants. All that it knows is that the system in which elected representatives make new laws to address the public disgust is moving too slowly for their liking.

In this world, Warren—and any of Trump’s opponents, for that matter—would make her campaign a referendum on Trump himself. He’s historically and consistently unpopular. It is no stretch to say that a soft majority of America, perhaps 55 percent or so, is fed up with his defective personality.

And the choice between which of those two worlds she wants to campaign in, Warren seems to have made up her mind. She’s going with the “perfect world” scenario:

What do you think will happen when Republicans get to frame the election as a choice between center-right/populist economics and progressive/socialist economics not because that’s the best ground for them to fight on but because it’s exactly the battle the Democrats asked for?

“Elizabeth Warren wants to take away your health insurance.”

“Elizabeth Warren wants to force your children into failing schools.”

“Elizabeth Warren wants to raise your taxes for government-run health care and government-run education.”

“Who do you trust to make the best medical and education decisions for your household: your doctors and your family, or Elizabeth Warren’s government?”

Can Warren defend this ground successfully? I don’t know. Maybe? But why would she want to?

The path to 53 percent of the popular vote runs through Trump, not the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In the real world we live in, the Democratic candidate for president would say that he or she should be president because Trump absolutely cannot be—that we can’t stand four more years of Trump because his vision for the nation is basically Judge Dredd’s. So let us now step back from the precipice, acknowledge that our national identity is confused and our national purpose is lacking, and reinvigorate the middle-class with infrastructure, or cracking down on China, or protections from predatory financial schemes. Whichever combo platter suits the nominee’s fancy.

Trump cannot win if the 2020 election is a referendum on who he is and the damage he’s done to the presidency and the country. He absolutely might win if the election is a referendum on remaking America’s economic order.

As it stands right now, Trump has a decent shot of winning.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.