vision 2020

Is Elizabeth Warren a Serious Contender After All?

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Margaret Hartmann, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether Elizabeth Warren’s recent momentum is a sign of things to come.

Ben: Though she still distantly trails front-runner Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren has made unmistakable progress in recent polls, edging into a consensus third place behind Biden and Bernie Sanders. She has a detailed policy proposal for seemingly every problem in America, including people’s love lives; speaks clearly and cogently about what she’d do as president; is likely to excel in the Democratic debates, which begin next month; and has assembled an impressive campaign infrastructure in crucial Iowa. Some of us here at Intelligencer have been skeptical that Warren could actually win the nomination. Have recent developments made you feel much different about her chances than you did before?

Ed: I never really wrote her off, but yeah, early developments in the invisible primary have been favorable for her.

Margaret: The Times article about her today actually made me slightly more skeptical.

Ben: MORE skeptical, eh?

Margaret: Well, not skeptical of her chances of winning the Democratic nomination — skeptical of the idea that nominating her is a good idea. There were just some notes that rang very HRC to me. “She has a policy position for everything!” I’ve heard that one before. I just wish we lived in a world where people care about such things

Ed: Yeah, I have similar bad memories about a book (“Our Plan for America”) I helped write when John Kerry and John Edwards had a plan for everything.

Margaret: My apologies to Warren. It is exciting that her superior ideas/smarts are winning people over. I’m just in a very “Dems are going to lose anyway, so what does it even matter” mood today. And as we’ve discussed previously, I think Warren losing will be disastrous for women in politics, whereas I’m not as worried about the consequences for old white guys if Biden or Sanders loses to Trump.

Ed: I hope you’re not saying that women should stop running for president until they’re sure one of them will win?

Margaret: No, I just continue to think she in particular is too similar to the last woman who lost.

Ed: Getting back to the “plan for everything” issue, it’s one thing to brag about what government can do for people in a general election. In a Democratic nominating contest in this particular day and age, it’s catnip for many activists and donors. She can still go vague in the general …

Ben: I also happen to think Warren is quite a bit more talented than Hillary Clinton was at explicating why she’s putting forth these proposals and what they would do for people. I have reservations about her candidacy, but I do think that’s a key difference.

Margaret: Yeah, I agree, but I just shuddered at this line from the Times article:  “Some online supporters have even taken to calling her ‘Likable Liz’ in an attempt to rebuff notions she is only a policy wonk.”

I feel like I spent all of the 2016 cycle — actually much of my adult life — trying to convince people that Hillary is “likable.”

Ed: I actually didn’t rush to read the piece, since it’s an argument I’ve already made myself, but I would point out that in three trial heats this month — including polls from Rasmussen and Fox News — she’s leading Trump.

Margaret: I hope I’m wrong!

Ben: There is not a lot of evidence that she’d be a particularly bad match for him — and yet I worry, perhaps irrationally. This might be where the self-inflicted wound from her handling of the Native American issue comes into play.

Ed: I’ve personally never bought the idea that being a woman — or even an older woman — was why HRC lost to Trump.

Margaret: I don’t think it is either. I think I underestimated how much people truly hated Hillary!

Ed: A billion-dollar conservative-movement investment in demonizing her over decades will do that.

Margaret: Maybe my sense that it’s a huge mistake for Dems to try to force their voters to be enthusiastic about the front-runner is more applicable to Biden. Politico suggested today that there’s a Biden enthusiasm gap, but I wasn’t entirely convinced

Ed: Pew had a new study out showing that Dem base voters weren’t exactly psyched about nominating any white male in 2020.

Margaret: Yeah, I’m not convinced that crowd size at this point — or maybe ever — really means much.

Ed: Nah. That’s like the “Romney will win in 2012 because of his yard signs” prophecies.

Ben: I do think there is quite a bit of soft Biden support out there, though. But Ed, you’ve written that his front-runner status doesn’t, or shouldn’t, really threaten Warren at this point the way it does other candidates. Why is that?

Ed: Warren should welcome a one-on-one fight with Biden. Until she gets to that point, he’s taking votes away from candidates who are a greater immediate threat to her. The Biden surge coincided with Warren’s own more modest surge into third place. And it’s really important for her to stay within shouting distance of Bernie while avoiding any real boom for, say, Harris or Buttigieg.

Ben: How much of an obstacle or asset do you think her anti-big-business, anti-big-donor stance is at this point?

Margaret: I think it’s helpful and is one point that clearly distinguishes her from Hillary Clinton and Biden. That’s apparently what he’s doing while he’s not holding big rallies.

Ed: Ideologically, it’s a huge asset, as Margaret suggests. In terms of donors, it means she needs to live off the fat of her transferred Senate money as long as possible and hope that her enhanced viability keeps the small-dollar donations rolling in. She is spending a lot of money on staff. Or to use the favored term of the chattering classes, she has a potentially unsustainable burn rate.

Ben: I had not heard that one.

Ed: You clearly don’t read Axios and Politico enough, Ben.

Ben: If anything, I read them too much.

Trump has largely held his fire on Warren lately, preferring to go after Biden and Buttigieg more often. To what extent are Democrats who are nervous about her nomination simply psyching themselves out in anticipation of his rolling out the Pocahontas slur and other broadsides once again?

Margaret: This is precisely my fear, so you can tell me to what extent I’m just psyching myself out, Ed. I feel like he’ll just run the Hillary playbook against her with more racist slurs.

Ed: Trump’s going to run the Hillary playbook against his opponent no matter who that happens to be.

Margaret: He’ll at least have to think up some new stuff for Biden or Mayor Pete (though to be clear, I don’t have high hopes of them beating him). I guess he’s actually going to run with Hillary + socialism. None of this is rocket science.

Ed: You really are pessimistic today, Margaret.

Margaret: Haha, sorry. Warren 2020! Yes we can! Love Trumps hate! She persisted!

Ben: Haha.

Ed: I think we should note that Warren’s less-than-adept handling of the Native American thing at the beginning of this cycle has something to do with fears about how she’ll handle it when Trump starts in on her. I was thinking of her very specifically when I wrote that Dems needed an “unbreakable” candidate, but the DNA-test incident gave me pause.

Is Elizabeth Warren a Serious Contender After All?