Despite scant polling evidence, Joe Biden’s continued lead, and serious concerns over her viability with the broader electorate, Elizabeth Warren’s Democratic presidential campaign has taken on an air of inevitability.
Just this fall, the emcee of the financial television circuit, Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, has gone from wailing “She’s got to be stopped” to insisting, “I don’t think she’s nearly as anti-business” as commonly portrayed. Either way, Cramer continues, “I think there is such a thing called Congress.” The implication is even if the prairie populist by way of Massachusetts goes the distance, Wall Street’s network on Capitol Hill would make mincemeat of her agenda.
In my interviews with members of Congress, especially Republicans, Warren’s nomination is generally treated as a fait accompli. Perhaps it’s projection, Warren is who many partisan Republicans think the Democrats are: female, lawyerly and anti-capitalist. The contest of Warren vs. Donald Trump would provide, if nothing else, clarity.
The dynamic extends past Northeast Washington. Where people put their money where their mouth is—political gambling sites—Warren’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination are assessed at nearing 40 percent. On PredicitIt.com, one can buy a Warren share an absurd thirty-eight cents on the dollar.
The idea of Democrats nominating an aged, gaffe-prone white male popular with industry and in the Rust Belt seems absurd on the face: “That’s our nominee, right?” David Axelrod, mastermind of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, said earlier this month while crowning Warren as the “front-runner.”
There’s just one problem with this line of thinking: it’s not at all clear Warren is going to be the Democratic nominee for president. Her principal rival, Biden, the former vice president, still leads in some national polls. Biden is frequently compared to Jeb Bush, the establishment favorite, paper tiger on the Republican side in the last round.
There are two problems with this analogy. Biden isn’t nearly as “establishment” as the former Florida governor. Bush was the cash-flush son and brother of two presidents, while Biden is bleeding dough and has failed to procure the endorsement of the president he served. Conversely, unlike Bush, whose lead nationally evaporated by Labor Day, Biden has stubbornly stayed more or less at the top of the heap through all of 2019.
It’s Halloween and Democratic voters haven’t been spooked enough by the former vice president’s at-times catastrophic performance to dump him. Unlike Bush, Biden has an ace in the hole: the anchoring constituency of his party, African-American voters. If Bush had commanded the acclaim of evangelical Christians he might have held on despite his other weaknesses as a candidate. Biden is also relatively popular, while the Bush clan is rightly still blamed for the destruction of American prestige at home and abroad.
Biden frequently, even pathetically presents himself as an “Obama-Biden Democrat.” ButBiden’s candidacy remains most similar to a non-Bush 2016 candidate: Donald Trump, the front-runner the “smart set” claimed was doomed from the start. Like Trump, Biden is famous. And as Biden has hit campaign troubles, the former veep’s raison d’etre can take on an air of the self-evident: I’m leading the race because I’m leading the race.
Like Trump, who would proudly spend literally hours of his campaign rallies reading off primary poll results, Biden also seems content to run a campaign based on his own lead. After weeks of purported political battering, Biden told 60 Minutes Sunday: “I know I’m the frontrunner.”
With almost Trump-like flare, Biden noted: “Find me a national poll with a notable…a couple exceptions.” What was true of the last Democratic debate, earlier this month in Ohio, may be true of the 2020 election as a whole. As Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, said: “It was a good night for the old codgers on stage.”
Indeed, insistences from career progressives and conservatives that Warren is the true Democratic standard-bearer can take on a mawkish tone. Surely, in a time of ubiquitous partisanship, the victors will be most ideological. The Democrats are moving ever left, the Republicans, ever right. Surely, it is time for a true believer.
But the logic is too clever by half. Templates are incomplete assessments of the world, but play along: if Trump is Biden’s proper analogue, then Warren’s candidacy is perhaps most akin to Ted Cruz’s in 2016. Like Cruz, Warren is somewhat unpopular with her colleagues, which doubles as a badge of honor with many, more ideological activists.
But party activists perhaps understand the organization they serve less than they think they do. Isn’t it just as possible, indeed maybe even likely, that Warren, like Cruz, is waiting for a day that will never come? Trump’s “implosions” were never reflected at the ballot box. Maybe so, it will also be with Biden.
Templates aren’t perfect, however. While Cruz did well with evangelicals, Warren has failed to make inroads among African Americans. And unlike Cruz, the establishment has warmed to Warren’s rise—her campaign doubles as a Harvard satellite campus.
But perhaps Warren’s greatest weakness as a candidate, as it was for Cruz, is that she is not the real voice of her party’s discontented. A well placed source told me that in 2012 he advised Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, that the person who wins America’s big elections today is the most pessimistic of the two messengers.
Of the 2016 conservatives, Cruz was perhaps most polite to Trump, but in failing to ape the future president’s program, he never emerged as anything more than a poor imitation of the real estate mogul. Immigration and ennui over America’s international role were the orders of the day, and for a core contingent, no substitutes for Trumpian nationalism would do.
Warren experiences this vulnerability, an intensity gap, not with Biden, but with Bernie Sanders. Warren, perhaps sensing the establishment’s warmth to her, takes pains to emphasize that she is still a capitalist. Perhaps accordingly, socialist Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez, the most powerful millennial politician, has thrown in with Sanders, the candidate she volunteered for four years ago. For the under-forty set, which has been mired in a now-decade of low growth and the vice grip of rising housing, education and healthcare costs, Warrenism, like Cruzism, may come too little, too late.
Curt Mills is senior writer at The American Conservative.