Politics

Scared of Bernie? Not Feeling Pete? The Unity Candidate Has Been Right Here the Whole Time.

(It’s Elizabeth Warren. But she might not be around for long.)

Warren waves to a crowd with her left hand.
Elizabeth Warren on June 15 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

As the Democratic presidential contenders head into Friday’s New Hampshire debate, Iowa’s Democratic Party is still sorting its caucus delegate apportionment out, and may continue to sort for some time. In broad strokes, though, we know what happened: The “democratic socialist” (Bernie Sanders) and the small-city mayor with virtually zero nonwhite support (Pete Buttigieg) did well, while the experienced early favorite with far more party endorsements than any other candidate (Joe Biden) did not.

If these trends continue through New Hampshire and beyond, Dems will have one front-runner whose economic platform could turn off the well-to-do suburban voters they need to turn out to win swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin … and another whose unfamiliarity and history of tense relations with activists might turn off the black voters they need to turn out to win swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. This is an ironic state of affairs for a party whose voters have said in every single one of the 400,000 polls taken in the past year that their top priority in the primary is finding a candidate who can beat Donald Trump in November.

But perhaps there is a middle ground? A candidate who matches Sanders’ level of ambition and outraged concern for inequality with the interest in “practical solutions” and ability to “unify” that the party’s more status quo–friendly voters say they are drawn to?

And perhaps that candidate is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who finished third in Iowa and was mostly ignored in the inflamed post–Iowa news cycles and whose formerly top-tier campaign is maintaining a tenuous relevance that may vanish altogether if she doesn’t start finishing higher soon?

No? If a Warren unity candidacy sounds ridiculous, it might be because Warren, despite not being a “democratic socialist,” doesn’t participate in the typical mainstream Democratic-politician practice of using the words practical, solutions, and unity as a means of signaling her distance from the left. Many Democratic voters still believe in Clintonian compromise politics, are afraid of getting McGoverned by nominating a radical, and worry earnestly that too much liberalism will be too expensive and difficult to implement. These feelings can be manipulated, and you can get pretty far as a so-called pragmatism candidate in this environment without proving you have any ideas at all, much less ideas that would be practical to pass and implement. Warren’s decision not to sabotage her party’s long-term interests by disparaging the idealistic vision that is exciting to many of its young voters is admirable, but it has obscured the fact that she, unlike others who have claimed the mantle, actually is a practical-minded center-left candidate with a plausible case that she will get useful things done.

To wit, when Hillary Clinton asserted at a debate in February 2016 that she had a more practical plan to achieve universal health coverage than Sanders did, the Clinton campaign had not actually released a universal care plan at all. Biden likes to talk about making tangible progress toward universal coverage rather than making the expensive and risky switch to single payer, but undermines his case to be put in charge of achieving that progress when he demonstrates unfamiliarity with basic terms like deductible. Buttigieg’s health care plan as written features provider payment cuts, a market-upending public insurance option, and substantial auto-enrollment bills, all of which could be as disruptive as anything Sanders proposes. On the other hand, Buttigieg has packed his staff and donor lists with employees of major corporations and lobbying firms—and despite having made “real solutions” one of his catchphrases, he typically provides “few specifics” during campaign appearances, as the New York Times recently noted in a comparison of candidate stump speeches, about what those solutions would actually be. To vote for him with the expectation that he would create and pass a plan that actually benefits tens of millions of currently uninsured or underinsured Americans is to take a risk.

Warren’s pitches are more substantive than Clinton or Biden’s were, and she rejects the big business–friendly belief that most problems can be solved with technology and efficiency—the so-called technocratic and incrementalist tradition that Buttigieg’s background exemplifies, which is loathed (often for good reason) by the left. But her proposals are more reminiscent of FDR-LBJ Democrat ClassicTM legislation than Euro-style socialism. Sanders wants to break up the big banks; Warren prefers subjecting them to escalated regulation and savage congressional grillings. Sanders wants to forgive all college debt; Warren would means-test such a program so higher-income individuals still had to pay some back. He would seek a single payer transition immediately and eliminate private insurance; Warren has backed off from her initially hard-line position on the issue and now says private insurance shouldn’t be made illegal until after the introduction of a public option. Sanders acknowledges that full implementation of his program would require increasing middle-class taxes; Warren says that hers can be accomplished by returning to a 1950s-style regime of high rates on the rich. Sanders asks voters to imagine a new era of American government; the premise of Warren’s top campaign priority—eliminating the corrupting and market-skewing influence of money in politics—is that there is such a thing as a sustainable version of the existing one.

In a way it was bad luck for Warren that her early 2019 surge coincided with a flat period for Sanders’ polling. It gave her party’s moderates and conservatives the impression that she was the leftmost viable candidate, and she became cast as the race’s McGovern. She was attacked for supporting single payer, being too antagonistic to business, and being too angry to win over voters who just want to get Trump out so things can go back to normal. Major donors who weren’t already with Biden coalesced around Buttigieg, as did rank-and-file voters swayed by his all-things-to-all-people uplift rhetoric.

Then, as Bernie rose on the pure socialist energy of an AOC endorsement and heart attack recovery, she dropped back to the pack. The rejuvenated Sanders campaign overtook her on the left, without Warren being able to shake the centrists’ perception that she is a “my way or the highway” ideologue—even though her hedge on private insurance is the only example of anyone in the Democratic field during the 2020 cycle actually acknowledging the importance of “listening to voters” and making a compromise to political circumstances.

You could say Warren bears some responsibility for drawing the centrists’ hostility. Her rhetoric is confrontational toward Wall Street. She uses the word fight frequently. She hasn’t attacked Sanders or “drawn a contrast” with him by belittling his platform as “free stuff.”

Another way of looking at that, though, is that she is being realistic—that she is recommending “big, structural change” and identifying malefactors of great wealth because problems have causes and the common good can sometimes conflict with the interests of the privileged few. You could also say she’s behaved in a unifying way by trying to win the nomination without caricaturing candidates to her left or rolling her eyes at Buttigieg when he says he will deliver solutions that will unite liberals, Goldman Sachs, and red-state gun owners in a warm glow of patriotism.

But Warren herself hasn’t yet been able to make that case persuasively enough; in the debates since her polling started to suffer, she’s continued to lean on her basic talking points rather than selling herself to voters who already know what she’s about but need more convincing. Having successfully made herself an early front-runner, she tried to play disciplined defense against other candidates who were trying to get attention—but one passed her anyway. She needs to contrast herself to Sanders and Buttigieg, but without being all mean about it. And time’s running out.