Kathy Harter is a retired technical writer living in Honolulu and a massive Elizabeth Warren fan. She donated $25 to Warren’s Senate campaign in 2012 and tells me she would have given her money in 2016 if she ran for president. “I loved the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” she told me. But when it comes to the 2020 presidential race, Harter’s taking a different stance. The reason? Electability. Harter doesn’t think Warren has what it takes to beat President Trump.
When you talk to voters — or at least the sort of voters who are engaged this early in the political process — you hear over and over again variations on what Harter said. It doesn’t seem to matter that, as Warren’s Monday night town hall on CNN made clear, she possesses the gift of making complicated political and economic policy engaging and exciting. Nor does it matter that Americans agree with Warren’s policy positions — in fact, her proposed wealth tax is so popular, half of Republicans support it. All too many simply don’t think Warren can win. Again and again, I hear things like A woman can’t get elected president. Trump’s defined her as “Pocahontas.” She’s too liberal. She’s not liberal enough. Hillary Clinton talked about policy, too. The result: Warren usually (but not always) turns up as a distant third behind — or even further behind — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in polling. Her fundraising, at least going by the first day after her announcement, is also firmly second-tier.
It’s a puzzle, and one that perplexes many political analysts and pollsters. “It’s the elephant in the room,” says Matt McDermott, a director at Whitman Insight Strategies, who went on to suggest that one issue facing Warren is that her emphasis on economic inequality, once unique, is now mainstream in the Democratic Party. Politico also tried to solve the puzzle, wondering late last year, if Warren could beat back the “ghosts” of Hillary Clinton, or would get dismissed as “unlikable” without the voters even giving her a chance.
But the issue, I thought, watching Warren on Monday night, goes far beyond Clinton, and beyond Warren’s mishandling of her claimed Native American ancestry. It’s not even particularly mysterious. Warren needs Democratic voters both to move past 2016 and to forgive her for not running that year, not to mention her somewhat standoffish approach to both sides during the primaries.
It’s hard to recall now, but Warren was once the golden girl of American politics. In 2014, Daily Kos called Warren a “rock star" and compared her appeal to Barack Obama’s prior to his run for president. MoveOn.org attempted to convince her to enter the Democratic race by starting a “Run Warren Run” movement. But, then, Warren deferred to Clinton and Sanders announced instead. The world both moved on and didn’t move on at the same time. We’re all still trapped in what happened next — the sexist attacks on Clinton, the surprise emergence and victory of Trump, the man who branded Warren “Pocahontas” so effectively, a recent focus group of Wisconsin swing voters was very aware of the controversy over Warren’s Native American heritage but barely knew a thing about her work on consumer protection and economic justice.
Even as we yearn to escape 2016, we turn back to it again and again and again. For Democrats, it’s a political reference and set point. We see it in the nonstop Twitter fighting between Sanders and Clinton supporters. We see it every time someone says they are choosing a candidate to support, not based on a politician’s decisions or voters’ desires, but on this nebulous thing called “electability.” We see it in the subtext of every article featuring Trump supporters in Midwestern diners, which is the online equivalent of reading a favorite novel with an unhappy ending, hoping it turns out differently this time. We even see it in part of the support for Beto O’Rourke — “new” and “young” and seemingly untainted by all that unpleasantness.
Those adjectives aren’t true of Warren, who, as often happens to women, ends up assuming too much of the burden. With every detailed policy proposal, every fleshed-out agenda, one can almost hear Warren asking the voters for another chance. She’s appealing to voters to let her walk through the threshold she declined to even try to cross in 2016.
Could it happen? Well, here is the good news for Warren. Her current difficulties are far from a campaign death sentence. An early inability to gain traction need not be fatal. John Kerry revamped his campaign staff prior to the first Democratic primary in 2004, when it appeared former Vermont governor Howard Dean was gaining traction. John McCain experienced so much trouble with initial fundraising, he needed to lay off staff in 2007, before he won the GOP nomination in 2008. There’s almost a year before the first voter casts so much as a ballot in the Iowa caucuses. A lot will happen before then. That gives Warren, the Democratic Party and voters time to leave 2016 behind — once and for all. And that, no matter who ends up being the nominee, will be a very good thing for both the Democratic Party and the American people.