The moment it became apparent that she was finishing third in her home state’s presidential primary Tuesday night, the end became near for the campaign of Elizabeth Warren — a campaign that once looked like it might lift her right to the nomination and perhaps the White House, where her universally admired intellectual skills and powers of empathy could have been fully put to the test. But the moment passed, and after losing altitude just as voters began voting, Warren’s tardy efforts to position herself as a unity candidate failed as Democrats chased the shinier objects of other campaigns.
If only because she appeared to be on a clear path to the nomination just last fall, there will be multiple assessments of where exactly she went wrong. Some of her more movement-oriented progressive fans likely think she should not have run at all, and instead enlisted in Bernie’s army, ready to catch and carry forward the banner if he fell. Others think she got off on the wrong foot with her admittedly clumsy handling of the “Pocahontas” pseudo-scandal. Still others believe her positioning on the mega-issue of Medicare for All dissatisfied progressives and centrists alike, solidifying Sanders’s hold on the left while feeding the candidacies of rivals like Pete Buttigieg to her right. And nagging her from beginning to the end were electability concerns that were sometimes hard to distinguish from a simple surrender to the alleged sexism of swing voters, among those who were somehow certain without real evidence that’s why Clinton lost to Trump.
It is clear that Warren had trouble building the kind of broad support among racial, ethnic, and income groups that in their different ways Sanders and Joe Biden both had. Her support was generally concentrated among upscale college-educated white professionals, whom Matt Yglesias referred to as living in “a bubble,” perpetually favoring wonky “wine-track” candidates who couldn’t win.
But there was more to Warren than a cultural style: She seemed to her fans uniquely suited to a rare emergency moment in American politics as the hypercompetent and courageous analyst of our system’s dysfunction. David Roberts captured this central aspect of Warren’s campaign, and the limits of its appeal, quite well:
Warren’s appeal to a certain sort of politically engaged Democrat is that she combines bold progressive goals with extensive experience navigating U.S. institutions and detailed plans for bureaucratic reform. It’s the best of both worlds, ambitious and pragmatic.
But there may not be all that many Democratic primary voters who want those two things together. It may be that the Democrats who want ambition don’t want pragmatism and the ones who claim to want pragmatism don’t want ambition …
It turns out most of the primary voters who want Medicare-for-all want it immediately and view any concessions to political reality as ideological betrayal. And it turns out most of the Very Serious People in D.C. who claim to want pragmatism (for Warren to “show her work”) really just want austerity, to be told that we can’t have nice things, a message that U.S. elites have come to see as synonymous with realism.
Warren’s limited purchase with younger voters almost certainly did flow from the kind of mistrust of technocratic “expertise” that made Buttigieg the Wonder Boy such an object of disdain for them. Better to put one’s faith in Bernie who just blithely promises a “political revolution” that would magically square all circles.
Perhaps if Sanders or Joe Biden does become president, Warren’s talents could be put to great use in the Senate or in some high executive capacity, since neither of these men seems to have much of a clue about how to act if their initial plans for a successful presidency are thwarted, as they will be. It would be sad if Warren was remembered mostly for the promise she showed at the CFPB, or the brief glimpse many supporters saw of one of those transcendent political figures who make you proud to give them your vote — not as a form of protest or an electability calculation, but as a gesture of faith in the capacity of this troubled country to heal itself.
Warren’s candidacy was one with many what-ifs. We’ll never know if the debater — who, in just a few brief moments, destroyed the most lavishly financed presidential campaign in history — might have fared better against Donald Trump than others. Perhaps if Trump is reelected and democracy survives for four more years, Warren will get another chance; she is, after all, eight years younger than Bernie and seven years younger than Biden. But I’m guessing all the consultants in the world would never change her habit of trying to fix things that are broken. It’s sad for all of us if we find that kind of politics just too unexciting to rival promises or nostalgia.