The only Democrat who appears fully equipped at this point to vanquish Donald Trump in a presidential election made it perfectly clear late last month that she fully intends to do so. (And she got out ahead of Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who all-but-announced his own bid in Iowa this past Saturday.)
For the last two years, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been steadily building toward this vital rescue mission, readying herself for the one election in all our lifetimes (let us hope) that will actually live up to the quadrennial “most important election in American history since 1860” hype. “Warren’s early moves position her as a clear front-runner,” Jonathan Chait wrote last month at New York, thanks to “a well-designed strategy to compete across the spectrum of the Democratic Party without risking her viability in a general election.”
But after Warren told a town-hall questioner that she was “taking a hard look” at converting that prep work into an official campaign as soon as the midterms are done and dusted next month, the response from her party was, by and large, “sure, fine, yawn, whatever.”
This was downright strange.
Maybe that happened because Warren dropped the news at the furious height of the Kavanaugh fight; maybe Warren’s big reveal was too casual, as opposed to Booker’s long-hyped speech in Iowa. And of course, it was hardly a shocker; you don’t plant your aides in key Democratic positions in early primary states, work hard to transform yourself from a sometimes-awkward public speaker into an electric presence on the stump — much less spend months rolling out FDR-worthy plans to democratize corporate America, clamp down on political corruption and reimagine affordable housing — because you plan to merely remain a senator.
Still, when you think back to the liberal clamor in 2015 for Warren to save the left from Hillary Clinton, it was odd how little joy the advent of Warren 2020 produced. But not to keen-eyed observers of the dysfunctional Dems like Dave Weigel of The Washington Post, who tweeted:
Every 2020 conversation among Democrats:
1. General agreement that any Dem but Hillary would have beaten Trump.
2. Panic about how [insert name of Democrat] is too liberal/old/genteel to beat Trump.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) September 30, 2018
Brother, tell it. In coastal liberal circles, Warren has become the subject of a paralyzing angst as she gathers momentum for her run. After New York published Rebecca Traister’s long and laudatory profile of Warren this summer, Bob Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, went on a liberal listserv and pearl-clutched in vintage Democratic fashion. After calling Warren “the best progressive politician at narrating the lived experience of working Americans, and defining it in a way that demands radically progressive politics and remedies, since Bobby Kennedy and FDR,” he quickly caught himself short. “The one question it didn’t answer (and can’t answer yet) is the question that my wife and other battered feminists of a certain age keep asking: will white men in the heartland appreciate how intensely she is on their side economically, or will they see the stereotyped ‘screechy, preachy, shrill schoolmarm’ that her critics keep painting.”
Ah yes: There’s that unmistakable sound of an over-50 liberal worrywart. These are the same folks who reveled in Barack Obama’s oratorical and organizing genius, yet knew that their blighted country was fated to reject any candidate of color, much less one with “Hussein” as his middle name. Now, post-Hillary, liberals fret that America is “still not ready” for a woman in the White House. At least, that’s the fear that’s expressed. But it goes deeper. Dems aren’t just worried that Warren would be fated to fall short because of America’s overt and internalized misogyny; they’re worried that she’s the wrong kind of woman to make history. Too “shrill,” as the aforementioned editor said. Too Harvard. Too uncompromising in her liberalism. Too angry. Too off-putting to big Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors. Too loud. Too sharp in her trolling of Trump and her criticisms of Obama’s corporatist compromises. Too, too, too.
Some of this fretting can be chalked up to the shattered nerves of older Democrats, who’ve lived through decades of steady — and then, in 2010 and 2016, dramatic — decline in the party’s power, no matter how many centrist concessions the DNC made along the way. It’s not surprising that these folks would feel more comfortable with a “hopey, changey” option like Booker, or a “business-friendly” choice like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); that’s what worked, after all, for Obama and Bill Clinton.
The reaction to anything that strays from the old winning formulas — anything “radical” like Warren’s verbal fisticuffs with Trump and her frontal assault on the greedheads of corporate America — is going to cause a mass attack of nerves. The young people might believe the country is ready for something entirely different in the age of Trump, the thinking goes, but they’re naive; they’ll find out the hard way how much America still hates any Democrat who doesn’t take pains to pander to white conservatives and big donors, and doesn’t keep it mild and “un-threatening” on the campaign trail.
While lazy pundits are always lumping Warren together with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the roster of 2020 contenders, their chief similarity is that they both represent a resounding left turn from the Clintons and Obama. You’d never catch Sanders rolling out a huge plan to “save capitalism” from itself, however, much less saying what Warren said this summer: “I believe in markets down to my toes.” She’s taking a “tough love” approach to corporate America — very tough.
Both Sanders and Warren have no compunction about venting their fury over America’s atrocities — leading to both being painted as “too angry.” Warren is paying no heed to those cautionary notes as she revs up her run, as she amply demonstrated when she joined a Stop Kavanaugh protest outside the Capitol last week: “I am angry,” she declared. “I own it. I am angry, on behalf of women who have been told to sit down and shut down, one time too many.”
As David Catanese reported recently in The Atlantic, “gender inevitably creeps into assessments of Warren’s vulnerabilities, with anxious operatives quietly pondering the risks of putting up another woman against Trump’s machismo.” A worried high-level Warren supporter told Catanese, “They’ll try to do what they did to Pelosi … make her radioactive.” Jay Nixon, former Democratic governor of Missouri, predicted that it’ll be “very difficult for a Massachusetts woman to be seen as anything else than a liberal woman here in the heartland.’”
I don’t have a clue whether Warren will still look like the strongest Democratic candidate in six months or a year — whether in the mythical “heartland” (that convenient code word for “white”), or anywhere else. The field is going to offer voters the choice of pretty much every flavor of liberalism, from the smooth (Booker) to the tough (Warren and probably Sanders), and we’re likely to see contenders not only much younger than Warren or Sanders or Joe Biden, but refreshingly new on the national scene. It’s shaping up to be just the kind of wide-open year when someone who’s a true “Washington outsider” could fire: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, or a member the liberal rock-star trio who are roiling Southern politics this year — Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida or Beto O’Rourke in Texas.
But Democrats need to check themselves when they start poor-mouthing Warren’s chances against Trump because she’s “too angry,” or too stridently feminist, or too intellectual, or too uncompromising. (All those too’s again!) Because when they do, they’re falling into a carefully laid right-wing trap.
Traister called this out a year ago, with a prescient piece headlined: “Elizabeth Warren is Getting Hillary-ed.” This seems ironic, of course, considering that Warren has been the leader of the left-wing, “let’s leave Clintonism behind” insurgency in the party for years. But she’s also a woman, so, as Traister put it, “the right is investing in a storyline about Warren that is practically indistinguishable from the one they peddled for years about Clinton. And even in these early days, some of that narrative is finding its way into mainstream coverage of Warren, and in lefty reactions to it.”
It’s true: While the right pounded “crooked Hillary” over Benghazi and her email server, to the point where they became “character issues” that gave queasy Republicans cover to vote for Trump, they’ve been riding Warren relentlessly since her first Senate campaign with “fake Indian,” “Pocahontas” and “Fauxahontas” memes. Warren grew up in Oklahoma with a mother who claimed to have some long-ago Native American lineage, and Harvard Law School, where she taught, once listed her as “Native American.” As the Boston Globe documented definitively in September, Warren never used any claims of such a heritage to help her get into schools, get jobs, or otherwise gain advantage. No matter: The right still pounds her relentlessly for using “affirmative action” to get ahead, and Trump loves nothing more than to amplify the theme — as he couldn’t stop doing in his rallies over the past week. (“So epic!!!” tweeted Donald Trump Jr.)
On top of that, Warren, the white right wants everyone to believe, is the chief instigator of the “angry, left-wing mob” that the Democratic Party has become. One goal of this long-running smear campaign is to convince Democrats that this is how she’s coming across to Middle America. Trump & Associates know there’s no evidence of that — and they also know that the reason they won in 2016 is that Middle America, itself, is angry. A candidate like Warren, with a gift for articulating not only left-wing fury but the economic frustrations of “regular folk,” is exactly the kind of Democrat Trump fears most.
Which is why she’s long been his favorite Democratic target. Trump started talking, Tweeting, and fulminating about her in 2015, and he’s never stopped. On the stump last week, he mock-begged Warren, “Please, please run!” His aides are always telling reporters like Catanese that they’d dearly love to run against someone as “radical” as Warren.
Liberals ought to recognize by now that Trump only gets obsessed with people who genuinely threaten him. The president and his media minions wouldn’t be spending so much time mocking and slandering Warren if they thought she’d be a pushover in 2020. You don’t need to kneecap a potential challenger you can’t wait to face.
Of course, Trump has reason to be scared of pretty much any opponent who emerges from the Democratic pack. But he’s making no secret of who actually spooks him the most. Which ought to make Democrats think twice about their own worries — and how the right wing is seeding and fanning them. Just because it worked on Clinton, a neoliberal throwback running in a year of populist backlash, doesn’t mean it will take down Warren. Not unless the squeamish Democrats let it.