Not too many campaign websites first ask visitors if they are unsure about the candidate in question. But if you click the “I’m not sure yet” button on the ElizabethWarren.com launch page, you can enter your email before answering the question “What’s holding you back?” one of three ways. Two replies are typical for 160-some days before the Iowa caucuses: “I’m not ready to make a decision” and “I have questions about Elizabeth’s policy positions.”
It’s the one between those, though, that most captures the zeitgeist of the still-young primary contest for the Democratic presidential nomination: “I’m not sure Elizabeth can win.”
A few thousand people who disagreed with that sentiment piled into the Shrine Expo Hall on the University of Southern California’s campus early Wednesday evening. A good hour before Warren’s town hall began with a raffle to determine who would get to ask her questions later that night, the faint odor of spilt, fermented beer wafted through the lower level, stage left — likely some resilient residue from an earlier event. The smell itself didn’t fit the early-evening, family vibe of the Massachusetts Senator’s supporters, and frankly, they hadn’t been there long enough for it to smell like a post-victory celebration locker room. But the spirit it conveyed was a perfect match: Most everyone there to see Elizabeth Warren was as giddy as if the title were in sight.
There was, however, that damned specter of “electability” also was wafting through the room. It was much less odorous but no less repugnant. This phantom is conjured in virtually all discussions about the Democratic primary contest, derived largely from archetypes of older white men whom Americans are more accustomed to seeing run for office and therefore electing. It smothers critical thinking about the presidential race so much that it appears that many are convinced that “electability” is indeed a living, breathing thing when it is in fact an apparition, a hasty creation of the party elites and pundit classes that serves as a convenient substitute for the vetting that desperately needs to occur before a nominee goes up against President Trump next fall. Even though more than 160 days remain between now and the first Iowa caucus, this unanswerable question lingers more prominently than do major quandaries about candidate qualifications.
To the extent polls matter at this point, Warren remains within mere percentage points of frontrunner Joe Biden, despite her constant stream of detailed policy plans seeming to go against the conventional wisdom that Democrats need to focus only on beating Trump to win the nomination. Yes, this can happen for her.
“California, who’s ready for some big, structural change in Washington?” Elizabeth Warren opens her rally as perhaps only she could. Though she is actually more populist than policy wonk, the former law professor has a reputation for detail that is virtually unmatched in the Democratic field, especially now that climate-crisis crusader Jay Inslee is on MSNBC dropping out of the race as Warren walks about the stage speaking.
Warren communicates as much with her body language as with her words. Making a few jokes that land early, she exhibits a disarming manner — “Let me tell you a little bit about myself,” she says, before going into her family history and her college career, her limbs getting looser as she breaks down her points. Her voice is invigorating all the way through, and even as she is breaking down a topic to its bones, it doesn’t feel like only rah-rah fodder for the NPR crowd. This is a fairly multiracial group who clearly gives a shit about whether they get a president who can do the job after winning the election, and she is respecting their intelligence.
Like any good teacher, Warren’s body language shifts when it is time to state her central thesis. Her arms and legs stiffen as she hones in.
“When you see a government that works great with those with money, for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers and is not working so great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” Warren said to big cheers. “The corruption of money that flows through Washington,” she added, ties into every topic that keeps Democrats up at night: gun safety, health care, immigration, criminal justice. “Whatever is the issue, if there is a decision to be made in Washington, I guarantee it’s been influenced by money.”
Then she comes with a good pitch, not just for this audience but for the campaign itself. “I have the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” Warren says. “Here’s the bad news. We need the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate.”
It’s a smarter sell than just “I can beat Trump,” if only because after a week featuring the especially erratic behavior of the president, it seems like anyone in the field should be able to. In fact, the early polling bears that out, and Trump’s approval ceiling continues to hold tight. And considering the financial shenanigans of the current occupant of the White House, involving taxpayer-funded vacations to his own properties and possible emoluments clause violations, there is plenty of cause for corruption to be at the forefront of voters’ minds when they go to the polls in the primary and in the general election.
But even more to Warren’s benefit, she is making an argument for her electability rather than contending that the argument for said electability has already been settled. That appears to be the position of the Biden camp, including that of his own spouse, Dr. Jill Biden, who recently urged voters to ignore the qualifications of other candidates in favor of her husband’s alleged, ethereal “electability” (which has been proven, of course, by all the times he has been president).
Warren is hardly the only top-tier candidate making an affirmative case for the presidency. But she can have the most success at it by combining her unparalleled ability (thus far) to produce and be conversant with policy plans to then use them as her best argument that she is the best candidate to take on Trump.
Truly, that last part is what we all should be busying ourselves with at the moment. I mean, have you been paying attention to the past week? The time to be vetting candidates is now more than ever. Forget this rubbish about “Democrats don’t criticize our own candidates.” The last thing that the left should be doing is rush to push just one person to the front of the line without putting that person through the fire to ensure that he or she is the strongest possible candidate.
The Democrats won’t win the general election on the off chance that thousands of voters will mistake one elderly white man for the other. As Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic in June, “Biden’s elevation to front-runner is a testament to how much President Donald Trump has shaken the faith of those who believe the White House could better reflect what America looked like,” adding “the lesson even Democrats have learned from Trump’s election is that certain voters are willing to tolerate anything if they believe in a candidate. Especially if that candidate is an older white man.”
This is the pathology against which Warren is working. Nevertheless, she persists. And to a significant extent, it is working. Not only is she not going away, but, in a campaign that completely eschews corporate money and trades glad-handing bigwigs for selfie lines that lap arenas, she is gaining. That’s why it was impossible to stand inside the Shrine Expo Hall Wednesday and not detect the return of a sense of possibility that once felt lost.
If it isn’t Warren, then we need someone who might actually inspire voters to show up, knock on doors, and then vote. We already have proof that having Trump on the ballot isn’t enough to not only prevent Americans from showing up to vote for him, but also isn’t enough to get other Americans to show up to vote against him.
Allow me to continue playing pessimist for a moment. As much as Warren is making progress, her stump speech still paints in very broad strokes. Without ever mentioning the need for the Senate to junk the filibuster to accomplish her lofty goals, she spoke to the Los Angeles crowd about her $.02 wealth tax on those making more than $50 million annually. She spoke of Constitutional Amendments to great applause without noting that we are still waiting for enough states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, just to guarantee uniform gender rights. With the Voting Rights Act neutered by the Roberts Court, Republican states will be very unlikely to help reverse their ongoing efforts to suppress minority votes.
What can she do? It may sound counter-intuitive to the “just beat Trump” folks, but they should hold on a second.
First, Warren should actually release even more plans — but she do what she did earlier this week: tailor them more narrowly. When the Massachusetts Senator earlier this week released her policy agenda for Indigenous Americans — co-authored with Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first two Indigenous women to be elected to Congress — that wasn’t just some Bill tacked onto an apology for that unfortunate DNA test reveal. The policy targeting those communities was just as overdue as the apology.
So now that Warren has big new gun safety plans and several sub-proposals under her “economic patriotism” umbrella, it would be good for her to micro-target — particularly to earn the level of African American support she’ll need to overtake Biden. A lead-exposure policy to compare to Julián Castro’s proposal, perhaps. A specific plan addressing right-wing extremism — not from the standpoint of guns, perhaps, but from de-radicalization. How do we deal with the crisis of masculinity that is feeding white supremacy like an intravenous drip?
And lastly, she should release a Plan to Defeat Donald Trump, which sounds broader than it would be. Winning a general election over a charlatan who gets help from the Russians and uses Republican voter suppression to cheat is no easy calculus to lay out on paper, and that isn’t what I’m talking about. There are known knowns with Trump, so to speak, and Warren should let voters know now that she has a plan to deal with Trump’s unerring ability to swerve the election coverage into meaningless drivel, the type of drivel that takes voter attention away from precisely the kind of substance she offers in her plans.
If she really does “have a plan for that,” meaning every policy idea under the sun, will it matter if Trump will have the evening cable shows talking about how he wants to annex Patagonia and Madagascar and trade them for Long Island? (Well, maybe not; Queens is on that and he’d be making himself an immigrant after the fact.)
The notion that electing Warren is impossible feels ludicrous, especially when you feel the energy at one of her rallies. But it is incumbent, pardon the term, upon her to prove that to voters. She noted during the Q&A how much the federal courts are tilting pro-corporate under Republican rule, exponentially so under Trump. Would other candidates have a similar commitment to reversing that trend? Do others have specific plans addressing how to stem the murders of trans women, particularly those of color? She has to not just put out good policy, but use it to differentiate herself from the dwindling slate of Democrats.
And she told a young man who asked her, worried about what to tell friends who say that Big Business won’t let Warren become president, “If we don’t get in the fight, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”