Is Warren succeeding simply by being different — i.e. policy-rich — than her opponents? Is she simply more likable than Clinton, not to mention a slew of 2020 contenders, including a whole bunch of white men?
One explanation for Warren’s success is that in a field this big, each candidate needs a “thing.” Warren is the one with a plan for everything. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the wunderkind with an adorable husband. Former vice president Joe Biden is Barack Obama’s former helpmate or the scrappy guy from Scranton.
As politics morphs into entertainment, politicians need a defining characteristic — a superpower, if you will, that allows them to soar above mere mortals. (The cast of “The Avengers” didn’t include Mr. Reasonable or Ms. Nice.) The candidates who have thrived of late — Warren, Biden and Buttigieg — have a distinct profile and a knack for driving home their persona. Warren, it seems, is always rolling out a new policy. Buttigieg is always “on” in an interview, uncannily lucid. Biden is always “middle-class Joe.”
The candidates who are struggling lack a singular focus and clear identity. Beto O’Rourke is sort of a hipster, sort of a moderate (but not too moderate) and sort of conciliatory toward Republicans (but not toward Trump). But “seeing” everyone and learning from everyone don’t really tell voters a lot about where he is going to take them. (A New Yorker article, the best to date capturing O’Rourke’s pluses and minuses, quoted a voter saying, “I’m personally not going to vote for someone just because he’s a nice guy." Another said, “We have such a great field of candidates. I need to know what he’s going to do.”)
Buttigieg doesn’t have a lot of specific policy details, but voters swoon over his Renaissance-man profile, his fluency in the language of faith (not to mention his knowledge of Norwegian, Spanish, French, Italian, Maltese, Arabic and Dari), his sparkling résumé (Rhodes scholar and Navy intelligence officer) and his preternatural calm — think Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Unlike every other elected office, the presidency is uniquely personal to the voter and uniquely about the personality of the candidate. To make that connection with voters, especially in a humongous field and with an eye toward beating a personality that eclipses everything around him, candidates need to provide voters something to latch onto — a vivid persona with unique characteristics. Being too much like anyone else or being all things to all people may be the kiss of political death in this political cycle.
That might explain the reset that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is undergoing. Her “thing” may be killer prosecutorial skills, the ability to dissect and disable Trump — all with a smile on her face. Whether that persona is enough to vault her ahead of the policy wonk, the prodigy politician and middle-class Joe remains to be seen.
In sum, policy proficiency is one, but certainly not the only, route to self-definition. For an electorate glued to screens, a vivid persona — which leads to mastery over new and old media — becomes equated with strength, leadership and winning. President Trump intuitively understands this. Democrats had better grasp this as well.